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

April 2007 Archives

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.

If your route to GOMA happens to take you along Buchanan Street, you’ll pass the Glasgow branch of a high street fashion chain. Its window display consists of some vaguely retro, outsized coloured lampshades, arranged alternately in orange and blue. Is the display a cheeky declaration of affiliation by the window dresser, a nationwide promotion foisted on the store by an unknowing head office, or entirely innocent? Whichever, the fact that a colour combination can prompt such a train of thought, and might, on a drunken Saturday night, move one passer-by to hum a tune and another to fleck the shop’s glassy frontage with spittle, is a fitting accidental introduction to Histrionics.

This is because Roddy Buchanan tackles his subject, the sectarian divide in Glasgow, with a lightness of touch and a sense of humour, always taking a personal approach that, while it makes his feelings on the absurdities of this fissure in the city’s make-up pretty clear, never offers pat solutions or condemnations.

The installation as a whole is the first sign that Buchanan isn’t afraid to approach his subject with wit. Histrionics takes the form of a huge wedge that doubles as a series of display walls and a screening room. On the one hand, it’s a nod to the elephant in the room in many a discussion on Scottish identity, on the other, its awkward placement forces visitors to walk - a loaded word in this context - as they look.

The first side of the wedge is covered in photographs of football players, of various ethnicities and nationalities, taken on the day of their signing to Celtic or Rangers. Like the anti-sectarian posters distributed to Merseyside schoolchildren in the 1980s bearing a photograph showing Everton and Liverpool players side-by-side, the point is an eloquent one, simply expressed; a reminder that the days when religious belief determined the club a player might play for are long gone.

On the right-hand wall, Buchanan goes further with a work title Glasgow’s Glasgow, and turns his examination of the sectarian divide on himself and his family. The wall is dominated by a portrait of Buchanan and his wife Jaqueline Donachie, grinning, and wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the legend ‘Mixed Marriage’. A set of graphs and charts surround the couple, showing just how mixed it is. Family trees of Buchanan and Donachie reveal the birthplaces of their antecedents, both a similar mix of Irish immigration and movement from towns surrounding Glasgow to the city. Bar charts plot the occupation of past family members, and again it is the similarities that leap out - on both sides, economic factors drew people to Glasgow. Last but not least, two percentages: 13% Protestant, 21% Catholic reveal the mixed past leading to a mixed present.

Buchanan is not looking forward to a happy-clappy rainbow future, though; he is keenly aware of, and celebrates, loyalty to tradition. Faithfulness And Loyalty is a layered homage to homemade football flags. One bears the legend ‘King Sobhuza Rangers Supporters Club’, the other ‘Mangal Pandey 1857 Celtic Supporters Club’. Buchanan is gathering moments in colonial history here - Sobhuza sought British protection from the Boer Republic, Pandey protested against the use of gun cartridges soaked in animal fat in the Indian Army - to subtly muse on loyalties to a cause, and tie Glasgow’s past traditions to its multicultural present. Another work, Thomas Muir Helpdesk, takes a similar tack - the ongoing project presents Buchanan’s research into the life of the 18th Century reformer, positioning him as a subject who can be claimed by both sides, or neither, a historical figure who transcends affiliation.

The beating heart of the installation is I Am Here, a split screen film showing Parkhead Republican Flute Band and The Black Skull Corps of Fife and Drum. The presentation is scrupulously even-handed, with the two bands taking turns to play on their separate screens. The ultimate effect is of a call-and-response collaboration. As in Glasgow’s Glasgow, the emphasis is on sameness, not difference - the military music, for all the resonance of the tunes played, is at root the same. There is also, of course, a darker edge to the pairing - the call-and-response might well be seen as a stand-off, not a collaboration, and statements from the two bands on the room’s walls make it more than clear which side they are on. Importantly, though, Buchanan does not judge, choosing instead to simply present and engage.

Histrionics is, then, a fascinating exhibit, one that, thanks to Buchanan’s often deeply personal, considered and always questioning response to the issue at hand, rarely strikes a wrong note - a remarkable acheivement, given the subject matter.

This review was first published in The Herald on April 9th, 2007.

La femme de nulle part is a show that, at its heart, is about the theatre and performance, a meditation on the space between reality and constructed narrative.

Curated by Glasgow-based artist Lucy Skaer, the exhibition brings together work by Anita Di Bianco, Sophie Macpherson and Rosalind Nashashibi. Di Bianco comes first, with Disaffection and Disaffectation, a film based on Jean Genet’s play The Maids, and starring - if that’s the right word - Skaer and fellow artist Hanneline Visnes.

In Genet’s telling of the story of the Papin sisters, who brutally murdered their employer and her daughter, identities are blurred in the near-sadomasochistic ritual rehearsals of murder carried out by the two sisters. Di Bianco blurs boundaries further, having her players address each other by their real names, regardless of which role they are playing, dispensing with a third actress to play the maids’ mistress, allowing the play-acting within the play to bleed into this version of it.

For all that it is based on a piece of theatre, Di Bianco’s film is inherently anti-theatrical. Unlike Christopher Miles’ 1974 film adaptation, with its static camerawork and lavish mise en scène, Disaffection and Disaffectation is shot almost entirely in close-up, the camera relentlessly hovering over shoulders and homing in on faces.

Skaer and Visnes are artists, of course, not actors, and their performances make for difficult viewing, with Pinter-length pauses as the pair struggle to recall lines, rather than for dramatic effect. This is, it seems safe to assume, a deliberate tactic. The claustrophobic filming, the dud performances, the confusion of already confused identities all combine to make Disaffection and Disaffectation not a staging or adaptation of Genet’s work, and not simply a crude bid to evoke in the viewer a pale emotional imitation of the maids’ claustrophobic mania, but an essay on the play’s themes expressed through a skewed rendering of it; commentary as performance, performance as commentary.

Di Bianco’s second piece, Studies for J., is a sketch or rehearsal for a proposed film about Joan of Arc, itself taking the form of a film. A woman paces around a room, reciting texts on the martyr. Those texts range from speeches made at the trial of Louis XVI to the first volume of Bob Dylan’s memoirs, lighting on e e cummings and Montesquieu along the way. At the centre of the piece, though, is Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s script for his 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, which reveals Di Bianco’s rather contrary approach to her filmic sources. Where Disaffection and Disaffectation exchanges the stillness of Miles’ direction for frenetic, intrusive close-up, Studies for J. responds to Dreyer’s work by excising the passion from his passion play, and reversing his focus on full-frame facial expression by having the camera loop languidly around the reader, dwelling on the set as much as the actor.

Between Di Bianco’s pair of engrossing, provocative film works sit Sophie Macpherson’s quiet, unassuming sculptures and works on paper. The relationship between Di Bianco’s moving images and Macpherson’s static explorations is, though, immediately clear. The space is dominated by an untitled gunmetal grey construction that rises from floor to ceiling, its right-angled sides bisected by a curved shelf. Behind it sits Black Herringbone Screen, echoing its basic form in miniature, with regularly spaced chevrons marking its interior surface. These two simple, restrained pieces point to Macpherson’s investigation of theatrical themes, twin stages enclosing the absence of actors.

Other works are more explicit, and step beyond the theatre toward other modes of performance. Apparatus consists of a card table without its top, its crossed legs painted canary yellow, and a black box laid on its side, as if a street conjouror has been chased from the scene. Interlocking Coins looks like an attempt to explain the magic behind that absent conjouror’s con trick, with hundreds of one penny coins studding the surface of linked wooden discs. A drawing, Figure In Ruff, shows an androgynous figure in contemporary clothing save for the titular ruff, entering a world of make-believe through a simple act of transformation.

In amongst Macpherson’s work hang two photographs by Rosalind Nashashibi, taken from a four-part series, Untiled (Abbey), which invert images from a study of 12th Century Cistercian architecture. It is tempting to gather Nashashibi’s photographs into the theatrical fold - perhaps the upside down ecclesiastical architecture is a comment on the performance inherent in religious ritual, perhaps the grinning faces formed by the upturned arches are meant to hint at the sock and buskin masks of tragedy and comedy - but, ultimately, they seem out of place, unconnected, an afterthought.

This broken link is a surprise. Aside from the awkward appearance of Nashashibi’s photographs, Skaer’s curation is taught, even witty. Whispers of dialogue from Di Bianco’s films are allowed to bleed into Macpherson’s empty set, a subtle means of highlighting the potential narratives held in the latter’s work, and the mounting of the work is bluntly confrontational, with visitors whisked straight from the Edinburgh streets into the immersive world of Disaffection and Disaffectation.

There is a sense, too, that Skaer has approached the show as she might approach a piece of her own work, adding a quiet treatise on collaboration to the show’s more obvious themes, from her appearance in Di Bianco’s film to the seemingly forced inclusion of Nashashibi, with whom Skaer has worked closely in the past.

There is something of a problem with La femme de nulle part, though. Macpherson’s work suggests the possibility of imagined narratives, but falls short of prompting such imaginings in the viewer, and Di Bianco’s films are satisfying, but in a cool, academic sense; they are about drama, but never dramatic. This is a show that fairly fizzes with ideas, then, but while those ideas linger in the memory, the work itself does not - to twist a term from the theatre, La femme de nulle part never quite breaks the fourth wall.

This review was first published in Art Monthly on April 1st, 2007.