by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Geometry In Art

· ·

The National Galleries of Scotland know how to make the best of their col­lec­tions. Instead of mounting group shows that labour under some need­lessly complex and forced cur­at­or­i­al conceit, they take simple starting points, and run with them, revealing much on the way.

Cutting Edge: Geometry in Art 1910-1965 draws a line from the first flush of Cubism to the tail end of Con­struct­iv­ism, taking in Op Art and, too, works by artists that are not so easily aligned with a single movement.

Fittingly, the show opens with Picasso’s Deux Figures Neus, a 1909 drawing that teeters on the line between Cubism and the art that had gone before - the dis­t­or­tions of per­spect­ive and mul­ti­plied view­points are present, but the subject matter, a woman with a lute, a man offering a cup, are thor­oughly tra­di­tion­al. In a contrast that is almost shocking, it is followed by Tete, a collage made in 1913 that suggests the form of a face with rigourous economy - a neat evocation of the speed at which the Cubist re­volu­tion pro­gressed. Tete is, too, atypical of Picasso’s work, almost in the mode of later work by Kurt Sch­wit­ters - and, in one of several sur­pris­ing tangents, Sch­wit­ters is here amongst the Cubists with Mz.299, a scruffy little collage assembled from strips of found paper that just fits in here thanks to its radiating lines.

Next comes a room devoted to work made in Britain between 1910 and 1940. There are some poor works here, and some hon­our­able failures, but these are more than padding, revealing the sometimes shaky adoption of new modes in Britain. An untitled piece by Alistair Morton owes an obvious debt to Mondrian but exchanges economy for excess, its divided canvas heaped with linear and curved forms. Stanley Cursiter’s The Regatta is downright em­bar­rass­ing, a tentative stab at Futurism that fails com­p­letely, from its subject matter on. By way of contrast, the St. Ives set, and Ben Nicholson in par­t­ic­u­lar, are shown to have fully absorbed and co-opted the radical movements in Europe, forging ahead with a pe­c­u­li­arly British sen­s­ib­il­ity. Nicholson’s 1937 Painting stands out - Mondrian looms large again, but with a muted palette and a wil­l­ing­ness to display the work’s origins in still life, this is something new.

After this, the col­lec­tion of Op Art is a dis­ap­point­ment. Sure, Bridget Riley is at her vertigo-inducing best and a set of Wedgewood plates by Eduardo Paolozzi remind us that these movements were quick to influence design, but while these works fit the geo­met­ric­al remit, they fall flat, too tricksy to be taken entirely seriously.

Thank­fully, the rather dull Op art precedes the ex­hib­i­tions real highlight, the selection of rarely-seen work by post-War British artists on loan from the col­lec­tion of Ken Powell.

Where the Cubists sought to present the world anew, analysing and re­con­struct­ing it in response to the flat planes of paper and canvas, but never quite divorcing art from the world, these paintings, sculp­tures and reliefs take a very different tack.

John Ernest’s Maquette for a Tower is a tiny essay on negative space using twin in­ter­lock­ing wireframe towers that bear layered platforms in black, white and tran­s­par­ent plastic and perspex. Across the room, Con­struc­tion with Aluminium Plates is similarly ar­chi­tec­tur­al, again draws attention to what is not there, and ends up as a sort of three-di­men­sion­al analogue of Dutch neo­plas­t­i­cism, with colour removed and form to the fore. Anthony Hill’s Or­thagon­al Com­pos­i­tion returns us to two di­men­sions, with four black blocks placed seemingly at random, but balanced perfectly in terms of their area. The room is dominated, though, by a set of closely related pieces from Ernest, Hill, Victor Passmore and Gillian Wise; reliefs, or wall-mounted sculp­tures, in which oblongs and squares of familiar materials - copper, formica, perspex, wood - interlock and align.

On the one hand, these are outward-looking works, in their use of quotidian materials, both domestic and in­dus­tri­al, and in the delicate balancing of forms according to the golden ratio, which, besides its long-held place in art and ar­chi­tec­ture, governs the branching of trees, and the growth of crystals. On the other, they are self-contained, self-reflexive, ap­proach­ing the point of being closed systems, or even logical tau­to­lo­gies - this is art about itself, about the re­la­tion­ships between forms. It’s also slippery stuff at times. The use of perspex and plastic is not simply a gesture toward the world, the tran­s­par­ency of these materials is used as a framing device, bringing cast shadows or faint re­flec­tions from the world into the work.

This is thrilling stuff that is es­pe­ci­ally resonant in Scotland, where artists continue to follow the lead of those in Powell’s col­lec­tion - Toby Paterson, for example, or Craig Mul­hol­land - and a fitting end to a show that not only contains work by the greats of the 20th Century, but offers a new route into un­der­stand­ing their work.

This review was first published in The Herald on April 27th, 2007.