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July 2007 Archives

It’s the quiet ones you have to watch. At Lowsalt, there are no big names, no bells and whistles, no overweening curatorial guidance, just a set of works that quietly assert themselves, and quietly assert the connections that bind them together.

That said, the first thing you see when you step through the door is a bloody great big black wing propped up in a corner, casting out a sickly red glow. The piece, by Douglas Morland, is, despite its size and the looming angle at which it sits, far from monumental. Instead, it is an absence with presence, its surface such a deep, matte black that at first glance it looks to have been cut into the wall behind it - a solid shadow that casts, impossibly, its own shadow made of light. The source of this unnerving thing is a drawing by a patient of psychoanalyst Marie Louise Von Franz, who depicted herself in a dream landscape, under the shadow of the ‘wing of Satan’. Morland matches this paranoid imagining made flesh with two drawings of branks, or scold’s bridles, the metal masks used to punish troublesome women of the 17th and 18th centuries by trapping their tongues in a spiked metal vice. One of the pair is mirrored along a central line, so that the spikes and chains of the brank become a Rorschach inkblot test with only one possible, horrible interpretation.

After that, Steven Anderson’s twinned works come as something of a relief.

On a knotted nylon mat of the sort designed to cost as little, and last as long, as possible, Anderson has placed snapped guitar strings, shattered drumsticks and broken plectrums, gleaned from a Glasgow rehearsal room. The items are arranged, too, not simply scattered, as if Anderson has taken on the role of an anthropological archaeologist of the present, digging through layers of contemporary detritus in a bid to understand and illuminate the cultural practices that surround him. On the wall above the mat, Anderson continues his studies from another angle, presenting a contact sheet full of impromptu portraits taken at an unnamed gig as they subjects walked through the doors of the venue. Somewhere between these two pieces a band is playing, but Anderson is more interested in the relics of rehearsal and the anticipation on the faces of an audience, putting collective experience on the stage, sidelining performance in favour of the bonds between creators, and between consumers.

Potential and past actions rise up again in the work of Javier Ferro. An untitled installation takes the form of a crudely cast concrete table, on top of which sits an unfinished letter in a shaky hand. It reads, ‘Dearest, I have to think about you everywhere I am. I am therefore writing to you from my boss’ office whom I’m representing at the moment’. On the floor, crumpled sheets are scattered about, suggesting that this inarticulate missive with its eccentric emphases has been slaved over and endlessly revised, only to fail. The piece is matched with two works on paper, one bearing crudely torn, cut and drawn circles - another quest for perfection doomed to failure from the start.

These are three very different artists, then, with different aims and methods. But the three are drawn together in this space by a shared sensibility, a focus on potential futures and fragmented memories - Morland’s borrowed dreams, Anderson’s shared experiences and Ferro’s dashed hopes are together greater than the sum of their parts. The works are also drawn together by this space. Lowsalt is housed in a rather dingy disused workshop, complete with a layered palimpsest of torn wallpapers, a scuffed floor and broken signage - it is a place that wears its working past on its sleeve, and, thanks to its new purpose as a gallery, points to a future of further collaboration.

The awkward but eloquent alliance of three artists, and the gallery itself, is furthered by the show’s unwieldy, hinting title - ‘Not a disentanglement from but a progressive knotting into’ - and a brief, suggestive text by Ruth Barker, which is presented on a par with the artists’ work. Barker doesn’t stoop so low as to explain the work before us, preferring to present a loose assemblage of ideas. She tells visitors that, in ancient Greek, the words for ‘truth’ and ‘not forgetting’ are synonyms, wonders whether the collective imagination might contain shared images of neutrinos as well as those of mythical beasts, and muses on passive and active modes of remembering.

Barker’s essay is a fitting coda to a show that finds its strength in ellipses and tangents, matching unconscious fears with expressions of hope and the ties that bind a society together to form an unspoken, unseen bond between the exhibiting artists.

This review was first published in The Herald on June 29th, 2007.

Jackie Anderson

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Jackie Anderson is an unusual painter of portraits.

Instead of forging a personal relationship with her sitter, she often paints from photographs of passers-by going about their business, unaware of or unconcerned by the artist’s gaze, crafting a curiously intimate relationship between subject and audience.

These are works full of movement, too, often having the look of photographic double exposures, with figures repeated and over-layed capturing the temporal space between fleeting moments. Physical space is to the fore, too - buildings, doorways and street furniture make their presence known, but only barely, reduced to vague shadows or simple silhouettes - a hint that Anderson’s chief interest is in investigating that apparent contradiction, the complete privacy of time spent alone in busy public places, surrounded by others. Similarly, a series of portraits of the artist’s friends shows subjects caught at the moment they rise to leave a room - an unthinking act, and an insignificant one, is turned into a split second heavy with potential by Anderson’s taught, focused examination of it.

The conceptual underpinnings of Anderson’s portraiture are matched by an unconventional practice. A gifted draughtswoman - seeing one of her subjects beside their painting is enough to take your breath away - Anderson’s technical skill is clearly the result of hard labour, not simple inspiration. She is, too, something of a traditionalist and craftswoman, stretching her own canvases and priming them with rabbit-skin glue, and has developed a laborious, almost obsessive technique that relies on the removal of oil paint with turpentine as much as its application, and the repeated application of pale, translucent washes. Perhaps surprisingly, this deliberate, difficult and time-consuming technique is self-taught: Anderson began her career as an artist in 1995 after graduating with a degree in sociology from the University of Aberdeen, only later completing an MFA at Duncan of Jordanstone Art College.

The end result is a rare blend of accessibility - these are representational, figurative paintings after all - and a complex, subtle set of conceptual concerns.

As a result, Anderson is drawing increasing attention from collectors - her gallerist Amber Roome considers an outing at the London Art Fair this year a considerable success - and recently won the RSA Alastair Salverson Scholarship, an award intended to enable emerging artists to travel abroad in service of their art, and includes the opportunity for a solo show at the Royal Scottish Academy. As a result, Anderson is currently based in Trinidad & Tobago, researching her family’s links to the West Indies, focussing on the island’s multicultural aspects and the population’s use of public space. Given that Anderson’s paintings tend toward the pale, wan and transparent it is hard to guess how temporary relocation to warmer climes will impact on her practice - a wholesale conversion to stereotypical carnival scenes and sun-kissed beaches seems rather unlikely - but, given her subtle, evocative treatment of Glaswegians in Glasgow, there’s little doubt that she will return with fresh, unexpected insights into Trinidadian culture and environments.

This review was first published in The Herald in July, 2007.

This twinned pair of exhibitions attempt to side-step the difficulty, if not impossibility, of surveying Picasso’s long and prolific career by restricting their focus to ceramics and works on paper.

Unfortunately, Picasso: Fired With Passion at the National Museum is not a success. The show centres the artist’s time at Vallauris in the South of France, when Picasso devoted himself to ceramics. It also attempts, through timelines, information panels, collected ephemera and a smattering of paintings, drawings and posters, to offer insight into Picasso’s wider practice, and his famously tumultuous private life. The result is an odd admixture of wooly generalities - Picasso was fond of the ladies, invented Cubism, was rather upset by the bombardment of Guernica - and a studied focus, that, misleadingly, takes it as a given that Picasso’s ceramic work is on a par with his wider practice. Sure, there are moments of wit, as in Mains au Poisson, a plate which shows two matte black hands crushing the life out of a shiny, slippery fish, and fine pieces, too - the vase from 1950 that opens the show is decorated with gloriously kinetic classical figures. But, given the choice between endless iterations of still lives on plates and the work that lines the walls, from simple linocut exhibition posters to a print like The Banderilles, which captures the tense elegance of a bullfight in full flow, there is no contest - the pots and plates are undeniably lesser works.

In this respect, Fired With Passion is best seen as an appetiser for Picasso On Paper, inspiring a desire to see more posters, prints and drawings.

And, thankfully, the Dean Gallery offering doesn’t disappoint, offering 120 works, from a pastel piece made when Picasso was still in his teens to an ink drawing made in 1971, two years before his death.

In contrast to the heavy-handed interventions at the National Museum, the Dean show offers loose groupings and informative, but never didactic notes, quietly hinting that Picasso, perhaps more than any other artist, resists conventional curation. His restless experimentation makes a nonsense of even simple chronological ordering. Group of Female Nudes, a classically-inspired pastel from 1921 might suggest that Picasso’s sudden volte face in 1914, when he sought to distance himself from Cubism, inspired a line of realistic work. But on the wall opposite are prints that confuse and combine styles, as if, for all that Picasso’s work is divided into periods - the Blue and the Rose, the various modes of Cubism, the neoclassical works and near-Surrealist - he saw these movements, once conceived, as modes to be layered, choices to be made.

In Faun Unveiling a Sleeping Woman, Picasso plays with the possibilities. The creature is drawn in a distinctly classical style, the object of its desire is sketched out in a few hasty lines. Given Picasso’s constant presentation of dualities - the artist and his model, the bull and the horse - it is hard to resist reading the work as a piece of concise autobiography and self-criticism, with Picasso the faun, his gaze drawn, as always, to a woman, but also to his work itself, at once out of time and out of place, but within a tradition.

A series of eleven lithographs, each titled The Bull, show a similar urge to slip free of the constraints of genre. The first print is painterly, representative, the third sees fluid washes replaced with finicky detail. Next comes a marking out of shapes, like a diagram of butcher’s cuts. The final image is a set of economical lines that emphasise the bull’s bulk, its huge body supporting the tiny horned circle of its head, and call to mind the powerful economy of the prehistoric cave paintings found near the artist’s birthplace at Málaga.

The rest of the exhibition offers shock upon shock, as Picasso flits between modes and essays new techniques. There is the bawdy cartooning of Dreams And Lies Of Franco, which both lampoons the General, depicted as a sort of priapic vegetable, and condemns him with silently screaming heads. By way of contrast, Minotauromachie offers an unreadable iconography of a mythic creature, candle-bearing girl and wounded horse. Picasso, never short on ego, stands up to the Old Masters, reworking Cranach the Younger and borrowing from Rembrandt. Naive, simple portraits - including Paloma and Claude, Vallauris, daubed in haste with a fingertip - are followed by intellectual exercises, like the hinting arrangement of shapes in the papiers collés developed with George Braque on the eve of the First War. Early, precise works like The Frugal Meal display the dismal themes of Blue Period paintings, but also hint at the repeated divisions of the most recent, in which impotent homunculi leer at voluptuous, fecund women.

This is a show to set the pulse racing, then, a comprehensive survey of work by an endlessly inventive artist whose twists and turns are little short of alarming. By the end of it, the disappointments of its sister show at the National Museum are forgotten, and faith in Picasso is restored.

This review was first published in The Herald on July 13th, 2007.

Walking into Tramway’s huge exhibition hall to view Alexandre Perigot’s installation, you could be forgiven for feeling a twinge of disappointment. The promised life-size reproduction of Elvis’ Memphis mansion is, at first glance, an unreadable tangle of scaffolding poles. It is only when you clamber through the structure, exiting between the columned portico of the main entrance, and turn around, that the maze of gunmetal grey poles resolves into the familiar outline of Graceland.

This back-to-front placement, and the delayed flash of recognition it provokes, is key to perigot’s installation, whose practice seems to rest on providing only slivers of information, the merest prompting hint, offering work that is completed in the moment of experience by the imagination of the viewer.

This is, of course, hardly a tactic unique to Perigot, but, with Elvis House, he taps into a very particular form of imagination; that shared, cross-cultural, media-mediated half-knowledge of celebrity lives and loves that occupies the kitschier corners of the collective unconscious.

And so, walking back through the missing door of Graceland, one finds oneself supplying the gaudy gilt edges and sumptuous shag pile, wondering which room might house the indoor waterfall, or where Elvis shot his telly, or, inevitably, where The King collapsed on the loo in a haze of prescription pills and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

But Elvis is not the only one haunting this physical sketch of Graceland. In fact, his presence seems rather more solid than the visitor’s, whose feet tread below floor level, who can pass through walls, but can’t manage the climb to the first floor, a set of restrictions and uncanny abilities that usually apply to ghosts negotiating the architecture of their own time.

This is one of many reversals. Where an exoskeleton of scaffolding usually grows and disappears around a building as it is built, perigot uses it to render an existing structure. Similarly, the scaffold’s suggestion of unfulfilled potential is a counterintuitive choice of material to build what is, essentially, a monument. On opening night, the structure played host to a performance by The Parsonage Choir, singing Elvis’ ‘If I Can Dream’, as well as music by composer and Derek Jarman collaborator Simon Fisher Turner - another reversal, making a stage out of the place Elvis escaped from the stage, but also a recognition that .

Even the choice of Graceland itself is double-edged. If the work is a mediation on celebrity, on the viewer’s ability to flesh out the bare scaffolding, it is in part hoist by its own petard - no other structure but Graceland would do. John Lennon might inspire a similar blinkered, quasi-religious devotion in his fans, but the interior of his Dakota Building apartment is unknown to all but the most zealous fans, and his country pile at Tittenhurst offers nothing but white walls and a whiff of hypocrisy. Even Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch - which can more than match Graceland for lurid, unpleasant tales, at least - is a nebulous place for most.

Perigot’s second piece, Sometimes You Win Sometimes You Lose, like Elvis House, reveals itself slowly. An arrangement of pipes snakes across the gallery floor, some rising up at awkward angles, some arranged in looping patterns flat against the ground. Every so often, prefaced by a whoosh of compressed air, balls clatter around the pipes in a series of coconut clip-clops, flamenco foot-stamps and pinball pings. And, again, the onus is on the viewer to complete the work. This time, we are told, perigot wants us to decipher the titular phrase from the sound of objects rattling through the pipes, which are arranged to approximate the artist’s handwriting. And, just as it is hard to resist fitting out and furnishing the empty Graceland opposite, the temptation to wander between and over the pipes in search of recognisable letters, or conjour up speech patterns in the rhythmic pulses they emit. That wandering is significant, too. For all that perigot invites his audience to enter a world of the imagination, his work is rooted in the real world movements of that audience, their negotiation of his structures, making for an odd tension between the cerebral appreciation of the work and the corporeal experience of it.

It is fitting, then, that these two works are gathered under the title Pipedream. It’s more than a half-decent pun on Perigot’s choice of materials: both Elvis House and Sometimes You Win Sometimes You Lose are offered up to be completed by the viewer’s imagination, with the implicit proviso that neither can ever be so completed. Here, as with any pipedream, the enjoyment is in the dreaming, and the knowlegde that dreams don’t come true, too.

This review was first published in The Herald in July, 2007.

A visit to the Changing Room always feels like a special treat.

This might be down its setting - the gallery is tucked away in a shopping arcade, rather than huddled together with other spaces in an artsy ghetto, or standing aloof on a grubby side-street awaiting impending gentrification - or the layout, which has visitors clamber up a dimly-lit stairwell before entering the bright, light-filled exhibition hall. More than these accidents of geography and design, though, it is the Changing Room’s consistent and unerring knack over the last decade for mounting thought-provoking group shows that prompts such a sense of anticipation.

And, with Tender Scene, they have done it again, presenting works by Fiona Jardine, Alex Pollard, Clare Stephenson and Gregor Wright that fizz with unexpected connections.

Pollard - who as well as exhibiting curated the show, billed as a ‘collaborative installation’ - dominates the proceedings. Building on Black Marks, his recent solo show at Edinburgh’s Talbot Rice gallery, Pollard continues to mine a rich seam of thematic concerns, centring on the seedy glamour the New Romantic movement, with nods to the Pierrot clown of the Commedia dell’Arte, and to jesters, clowns and fools in general. While Black Marks was a rather overwhelming installation, with a batch of three foot wide bronze medallions and a huge wall drawing looming over the huge number of paintings on show, the trio of new works here have a quieter, more meditative air about them, as if, freed from the pressures of a major solo outing, Pollard has relaxed into this still-new strand of his practice.

These works, like all Pollard’s recent output, are monochrome, with a deliberately limited palette ranging from deep black to dark grey. Comet shows a tangle of snapped lipsticks, wonky eyebrow pencils and heavily distorted lines and numbers, only just recognisable as bar codes, with an overlapping set of forms that might be the trail of the titular heavenly body, or the hairspray-stiff fringe of a New Romantic. Jester is a faceless entertainer making himself up with the gooey contents of a make-up bag, while Grey Argot is Pollard in self-referential mode, presenting an amorphous blob of a cartoon speech balloon made of more sticky lippy that might almost serve as a painted manifesto for his current work.

Fiona Jardine’s contribution, They Became What They Beheld, runs alongside Pollard’s fascination with masks and make-up. A pair of photographs show a figure seated on a plinth, his two-piece suit protected by a paper boiler suit. In both images, the face is obscured by a bulbous spherical helmet, bearing a triangle in one photograph, a star in the other, a sinister update to the sock and buskin masks of classical theatre.

Clare Stephenson is concerned with theatre, artifice and disguise too. Miss Verily-Existant and Miss Quite-Transcendant are, a note informs us, a pair of ‘existential drag queens’. They star in two drawings, both clad in ruched metallic robes based on repeated forms borrowed from medieval church sculptures, both with sinister porcelain doll faces and awkwardly animated limbs, both performing beside mysterious wooden structures of unguessable purpose.

And then there’s Gregor Wright, who knocks the whole show off-balance, like a past-tipsy gatecrasher stumbling uninvited into a private party. An untitled work shows what appears to be a thermos flask rendered in disconcertingly fleshy pink. Every Extend Extra sees a set of cubic forms piled up like refugees from a game of Tetris gone rotten, while Caffeine is a cartoon portrait of a grinning little chap, steam billowing from his head. In the centre of the room sits Metamorph, an awkward, lumpy construction jury-rigged together from off-cuts of Styrofoam and wood panels, a low-rent Transformer robot caught in the act of shifting from man to machine.

Wright is a peculiar proposition at the best of times. His unfinished aesthetic and deliberately slapdash methods are hugely attractive, not to mention good fun, and the studied incompleteness of his work offers a winking challenge to the viewer, who is invited to finish off what Wright has started. Here, surrounded as he is by a trio of artists who are, if not party members, then at least fellow travellers, bound together further by subtle alterations to the gallery space - the floor is striped like an Everton mint, and patches of wall are covered in dazzle ship-like camoflague patterns - he sticks out like a sore thumb.

And yet these blowsy works fit with the quieter, more considered pieces around them, acting as grist to the mill, or sand in the Vaseline. Without Wright, Tender Scene might have been a rather ordinary group outing, a decent-but-uninspiring look at a group of artistic allies. With him, the lines connecting Jardine, Pollard and Stephenson are drawn all the more clearly.

This review was first published in The Herald in July, 2007.

Walking and Marking begins at the beginning, with A Line Made By Walking, a piece made in 1967. The line in question is of trampled grass. This simple gesture might not have the capacity to shock that it must have had at the tail end of the 60s, but it remains hugely eloquent, and, in a sense, serves to encapsulate Long’s practice - in the imprint left by one short walk, he makes the natural world both his subject and his material, questions the nature of sculpture, pits absence against presence and, as the line stretches off towards the horizon, claims the act of walking, of movement in a landscape as his medium.

And, since 1967, Long hasn’t stopped walking, devising different means to record his movements.

The most striking works build on that first line by leaving marks, quiet monuments to a departed presence. A Circle In Ireland shows a ring of rocks arranged on jagged ground, Manang Circle situates another circle or stones, this time in Nepal, overlooking a settlement. A diptych, Stones On Stones, shows evidence of Long adding stones to the tops of cairns in Norway. Stone Line, meanwhile, brings the landscape into the gallery, with thick, irregular fingers of stone forced into unnatural linear regularity.

As well as rearranging and transporting natural elements, Long uses them to create. A series of River Avon Mud Drawings are made by dipping paper in mud from the river near his home, another deceptively simple act that offers breathtaking results - each drawing bears evidence of microscopic tidal patterns, that together suggest aerial views an impossibly dense, vast delta.

There are, too, more amorphous works, offering tangential evidence of Long’s walking, consisting of wall texts or annotated maps. And, once again, these short statements are richly layered. When Long tells us that he has been ‘marking time with muddy footprints’ he evokes movement, landscape, and his temporary, impermanent place in it. Tide Walk is described as ‘a walk of two and a half tides relative to the walker’, a factual statement that nonetheless turns conventional methods of marking out both time and space upside down.

When it comes to these activities - words like ‘action’ or ‘performance’ are, perhaps, too loaded - Long also raises a thorny question: is the work to be found with Long, as he walks, or in the photographs and text mounted in a gallery that document those works? In his essay ‘Notes on Works’, Long identifies his texts as ‘a description, or story, of a work in the landscape’ but these brief statements seem to be much more than a record. Like arch-conceptualist Lawrence Weiner, who boiled away the physical manifestations of his sculptures, presenting them instead as gnomic statements of intent, there is a sense that when Long tells us, sometimes in the present tense, about a journey he is not only recounting an event from his past, but also offering the possibility that we too might make such a journey, or even, more simply, that such journeys are possible.

It is this open-ended potentiality found in the text and photographs that marks out Long’s best work from the weaker, often more conventionally sculptural pieces on show. For an untitled work from 2004, Long has marked a section of a tree trunk with fingerprints of china clay, and there is a series of pieces in which similar marks are applied to Berber tent-pegs, or a found disc of scrap metal. The paintings made by casting diluted mud from the Firth of Forth onto the walls of the gallery show this divide, too. The great uncontrolled geysers of Throwing Muddy Water contrast with the hand-made sworls and defined shape of Firth Of Forth Mud Arc, and the latter seems lacking in comparison. Long is also sometimes guilty of offering too much information, as in Silbury Hill, which shows a spiral sculpture the same length as a walk down the hill in a straight line, but muddies the waters of this transformation of one structure into another by repeating a legend attached to Silbury.

In other words, when it comes to Long’s presence in his work, he either passes through it, as he passes through the landscape in its making, or stands stock still, asserting himself. And, the more evidence there is of the artist in the work, the less impact it has.

These lesser works don’t mar this retrospective survey of Long’s influential practice, though. In fact, their comparative weakness only strengthens the best pieces found beside them, adding up to a truly remarkable exhibition, one that has the capacity to change the way we understand the environment around us, and, too, the way we understand art itself.

This review was first published in The Herald on July 6th, 2007.

Sean Scully

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Sean Scully loves paint. The canvases on show here are liberally smeared with oils, so that every movement of Scully’s hand lingers on the surface, as if he has only just completed each work. This self-referencing physicality is matched by an understanding of colour. In Green Corner, Scully fills his trademark grid with muted hues, lifted by a shock of deep orange. His watercolours and prints are softer, without the strict delineation of the paintings: in Day, soft pinks blur into blacks, and Black Corner sees light marks hardly holding back the blocks of amber and green.

If all that sounds familiar, it should - Scully is widely held up as the natural heir to American painters of a certain stripe who plied their trade in the middle of the last century. Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning both loom large (both, like Scully, European painters who emigrated to the US, and found fame there) and his work is firmly entrenched in the aesthetic of those painters, and their fellow Abstract Expressionists.

And so, wherever Scully’s work is shown, there is an elephant in the room: what on earth is Scully doing making work like this now?

He is far from being a copyist, but he is a follower, painting himself into the very corner the artists he admires sought to escape. There is no engagement with earlier abstract painting here, no sense that Scully is pushing his medium forward, or engaging on any meaningful level with his forebears. And so his work comes perilously close to being kitsch, in the sense that critic Clement Greenberg railed against when championing the work of Rothko, de Kooning et al. It is not developed in response to the ever-changing world and the art in it, but is trapped in a tradition; a way of working that is antithetical to the aims of the artists Scully draws inspiration from.

These paintings and prints are not especially unpleasant to look at, then, but there is something deeply unsatisfying about them, and a sour taste is all that is left after the first flush of contact with Scully’s way with paint and colour fades. This, perhaps, is down to an overbearing, even smug, tendency in Scully’s work. ‘Look at us,’ these paintings and prints seem to say, ‘we are very important, very important indeed.’ They might well have been, long ago. But not now.