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

November 2007 Archives

You need your wits about you as you walk into Smith/Stewart’s latest sculptural installation - a faltering step might easily end in a nasty bump to the head.

Stephanie Smith and Edward Stewart - the pair have worked together since 1993 under the Smith/Stewart brand - are known for their exploration of the divisions between public and private space, and this time have literally divided the rooms of Inverleith House, installing interlocking black beams at head height.

On the ground floor, the first room is split by an off-kilter cross, echoed in the second. Upstairs, the dissection of space becomes more complex with interlocking lines slicing rooms into uneven quarters.

Described like this, Enter Love And Enter Death might sound like good old minimalist sculpture, but its form is, perhaps, less significant than the effect it has on its audience.

That effect is a powerful one, of heightened awareness - the beams are set at eye level, and have the look of metal girders (though they are made of painted wood), and so present a very real threat, forcing careful, tentative movements, and a good deal of cautious peering over and under the beams to plot a course through them. The result is a feeling close to claustrophobia, even though the spaces between the beams are wide, or a nervous, grown-up reversal of the abandon with which children attack a climbing frame.

This exaggerated sense of ones surroundings also applies to everything that Smith/Stewart have not installed. Inverleith House is perhaps Scotland’s most pleasing gallery, with its airy rooms, and the green light of the Botanic Gardens creeping through the windows, but at most shows, the art overwhelms the interior - with Smith/Stewart’s joists in place, every detail of the rooms is thrown into sharp focus, and views are admired with fresh eyes when it is hard to reach them. In the last room on the upper floor of the gallery, the ghosts of past installations remain - a wall-drawing by Robert Ryman, text left over from Douglas Gordon’s Superhumanatural exhibition - and Smith/Stewart’s beams grant them a fresh context, simultaneously obscuring and framing works that, to regular visitors at least, have long since faded into the background, forcing another fresh look. At the exit, Smith/Stewart even introduce a note of humour, with a final beam placed so close to the door that leaving the work is a struggle bordering on the slapstick.

Smith/Stewart are perhaps best known for their earlier work, pitched somewhere between performance and video, which was concerned with the body at an intimate level, often with a violent edge (the duo have described their work, menacingly, as being about ‘the things that people are capable of doing to one another’). The pair have filmed themselves desperately trying to breathe with plastic bags over their heads, for example, and made distinctly disquieting video works with cameras housed inside their mouths, looking out.

In the context of this past practice Enter Love And Enter Death, can be seen as a performance of sorts, as much as it is an installation or sculpture - the difference being, of course, that the artists are not the performers in this case, but choreographers, orchestrating the movements of their audience through the gallery spaces of Inverleith House, and, where once they documented events with video, Smith/Stewart here document in advance, so to speak, with their sculptural forms. Much is left to chance, of course - the duo could hardly predict the ducking and weaving of visitors with any precision - but, as one stalks the gallery alone, the sense that others must have peeped into this corner, dipped low to gain access to that area, or pulled up short to avoid a collision with a certain beam, is a strong one, with the ultimate result that an encounter with Enter Love And Enter Death begins to feel like something approaching a collaboration, with Smith and Stewart, first and foremost, and with fellow gallery-goers past and present, too.

Without that sense of physically interpreting the work as one moves through it, the piece would be distinctly aggressive, less a meditation on the controlled routes architects set into their buildings, or an intervention on the existing spaces of Inverleith House, more a near-violent corralling of an audience. But the idea that, albeit in some limited sense, every visitor is collaborating with the collaborating duo, lends the work a subtler tension, as if the usual mode of gallery behaviour - the presentation and consumption of art - has been transformed into a distinctly discomforting dance of control and willing submission.

This is powerful stuff, then, a work that provokes an intense physical response, one that borders on the unpleasant while also offering a genuine sense of communication between viewer and artists. That all this is achieved with the simple placement of some black beams makes Enter Love And Enter Death, which is at first sight might seem rather slight and repetitive, a remarkable piece of sculpture.

This review was first published in The Herald on November 30th, 2007.

It is hard to visit a gallery nowadays without being told that an artist is dealing in memory, history and place. They’re handy buzzwords - what, after all, isn’t to do with memory, history and place? - to prop up work that, lacking the supporting struts of a curator’s note, might well fall flat. One of the great pleasures of Matthew Buckingham’s first solo outing in Scotland, then, is that he is the real deal, mining the past to illuminate the present, making work backed by deep academic research, but that stands alone, dense with ideas, and doing what art does best, burrowing into the minds of its audience, sparking off new ideas and turning old ones on their heads.

The show opens with an installed video, The Spirit and the Letter. On the wall-sized screen, a woman enters a Georgian room in period dress, and speaks, her words drawn from Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, fleshed out with quotations from other texts by the early feminist. This ghost of Wollstonecraft paces as she talks, but not across the floor, instead walking on the ceiling.

It’s a simple enough metaphor - the campaigning author wished to turn the world in which she found herself upside down (or, better, to turn it the right way up). But Buckingham doubles it with a simple gesture, installing a chandelier on the gallery floor, which forces us into sharing Wollstonecraft’s upended position, first physically, then, as the extracts from A Vindication of the Rights of Women are read, we find ourselves sharing her thoughts, which, anachronisms of language aside, are depressingly prescient, a still-current commentary on gender politics. And Buckingham has tinkered with the tenses in his source texts, too, siting Wollstonecraft firmly in her past, haunting our present, but also lending her words a fresh urgency. The spoken passages are also deftly chosen. Wollstonecraft mention of the ‘silence of spacious apartments’ and her footfalls in them, ties the quotations to their new context, and when she says, ‘Every object carries me back to past times, and impresses the manners of the age forcibly on my mind, for they may be considered as historical documents.’ it is hard not to take her words as a borrowed manifesto for Buckingham’s practice.

Next, Buckingham switches his focus to the history of his medium, in False Future. A narration in French, with English subtitles, tells the story of a lost figure in the history of the moving image, Louis Le Prince, a pioneer of cinema who succeeded in capturing motion five years before the Lumiere brothers found fame in 1895. Had Le Prince not worked in secret, his efforts known only to his family, and had he not disappeared without trace in 1890 after boarding a train - the very subject of the Lumiere’s first film - the history of cinema might have stretched back further to include, Buckingham suggests, the Elephant Man’s funeral, or the massacre of the Lakota at Wounded Knee. And Le Prince’s fate prefigures cinematic tropes, too - the tale of a madcap scientist working secretly on a world-changing invention, only to vanish in a puff of smoke is the stuff of B feature plots. On screen, meanwhile, Buckingham recreates one of Le Prince’s few surviving films, a static shot of a bridge in Leeds, fusing past with present.

Best of all the works here, though, is Everything I Need. On one screen, the interior of a 1970s aeroplane is examined, almost lovingly, in a series of slow takes, most as still as photographs. On the second, a text unfolds, the words of another figure in the history of feminism, Charlotte Wolff. We learn of her first love, her life as a doctor in Weimer-era Berlin in the company of Walter Benjamin, her exile in Paris with the Surrealists, and then in Britain, all memories shot through with a quiet polemic on the status of women, and lesbian women in particular. Each reminiscence is linked to a place, whether it’s the bars of Berlin or the bus stop where Wolff realised that she must flee Nazi Germany, and so the ‘plane interior becomes a sort of non-place, or place-between-places, an intellectual interzone in which memories can unfold, free from the immediate emotional impact of familiar surroundings.

Like The Spirit and the Letter and False Future, Everything I Need is a concise portrait of an historical figure, one that informs and illustrates, but one that raises more questions than it answers. What are we to think of a male artist exploring the history of feminism, or a film-maker turning his lens on film? Is Buckingham, with his precise installations, a sculptor as much as he is a film-maker, or a new kind of portraitist, his subject place and time as much as people? There are no easy answers to be found in Play the Story, and that’s what makes it such a fine show, the kind that takes up residence in every visitors memory.

This review was first published in The Herald on November 23rd, 2007.

Exhibitions about architecture have a tendency to run dry - buildings don’t, after all, fit inside other buildings, leaving only the two-dimensional disappointment of photography, and plans that are illegible to the layman.

This one, a long-overdue survey of Andy MacMillan and Izi Metztein’s groundbreaking, influential work for Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, is different, breathing life into archival materials.

The show begins at the beginning of MacMillan and Metztein’s twinned careers, with an in-depth study of St Paul’s at Glenrothes. A sudden break with Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s century-old practice, the church, built by the two architects while both were still in their twenties, is a perfect introduction, containing as it does the themes - deep, square plans, the radical use of natural light - that were to run through the pair’s practice. A brace of eight drawings - including an abstract plan for floor tiling that points to MacMillan and Metztein’s influence on contemporary artists, not least Beck’s Futures winner Toby Paterson, who has designed the exhibition space with Collective Architecture - are matched with maquettes, both being glued together by a digital animation that slowly animates plans and cross-sections until they form a representation of the completed church. Add a letter detailing the difficulties in raising funds for the project, and visitors are left with a clear, easily-grasped impression of the church’s journey from blueprint to building.

Next comes a timeline, providing context with images of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia buildings running along the wall, and a display under glass that, through architectural drawings, journal article and photographs of buildings around Europe connects the Glasgow duo to their contemporaries and forebears. It’s a simple curatorial tactic, but grants an immediate grasp of the interplay between MacMillan and Metztein’s and the wider architectural world, making it possible to see at a glance how they absorbed influences - Le Corbusier, obviously, Mackintosh, less so - tempering the hard tenets of European Modernism, and taking advantage of the post-war political will to build, but operating at one remove thanks to the steady stream of commissions from the Roman Catholic church, which allowed them to sidestep the strictures of housing projects and granted the pair a freedom to experiment.

Then, a vitrine packed with ephemera takes us inside the architects’ studio, deftly revealing another key to the development of MacMillan and Metztein: the hot-house atelier system put in place by senior partner Jack Coia, an open way of working that allowed for the atmosphere of collaboration and co-operation that resulted in a sort of ongoing architectural conversation between Izzi, Andy and their colleagues.

What follows is the exhibit’s strongest point, a guide to MacMillan and Metztein’s work, divided into themed sections.

For most of us, unversed in architecture as a technical practice, buildings seem to simply be, things to be appreciated aesthetically and emotionally as they are used - we instinctively awed by a high ceiling, say, or happily unaware that, in easily finding our way from A to B, we are taking advantage of a carefully plotted circulation system.

This second section of the exhibit comes, then, as a series of revelations. Illustrating each theme in turn, the wall texts and drawings take what might at first seem like rather dull aspects of MacMillan and Metztein’s working method, and turn them into minor miracles. The portion devoted to Plan & Promenade shows how the approach to a building impacts on its interior, effortlessly emphasising the passage from secular to sacred worlds in the case of the churches, and highlights MacMillan and Metztein’s devotion to deep plans divided into tiers. Under the banner of Integrated Structure, a phrase like ‘load bearing wall’ takes on a magical air, as the secrets of open, light-filled interiors are revealed.

There are occasional lapses into arcane architecture-speak - I’m not entirely sure what is meant, for example, by the ‘full integration of spaces with requisite room variety’ that one building is said to display - but for the most part, this is a display that not only fosters a deeper understanding of the buildings at hand, but of architecture itself.

Downstairs, we move from the thematic to the specific, with detailed surveys of 21 MacMiillan/Metzsetin buildings. Without the steady introduction and education on the upper level, this might have suited dedicated architecture buffs more than the general public, but, with the vocabulary of the themed section to hand, each set of drawings and models is open to exploration.

Add a pair of films, both featuring MacMiillan and Metzsetin engaged in passionate conversation about their practice, influences and counter-influences, and Gillespie, Kidd & Coia: Architecture 1956-1987 becomes a truly great show, one that is dense enough to reward multiple visits, and likely to turn those with a passing interest in architecture into devotees of the art. It is, too, an exhibition tinged with sadness: while most of MacMiillan and Metzsetin’s creations continue to be used, lived in and loved, much of their legacy - not least St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross - has been, unforgivably, abandoned.

This review was first published in The Herald on November 16th, 2007.

This is the first major exhibition of Joan Eardley’s work in twenty years, and curator Fiona Peason makes plain in her catalogue essay that the show is intended to bolster the current critical and commercial reevaluation of the artist’s status. Pearson also wonders where Eardley, whose life was cut short by breast cancer in 1963, should be placed amongst her contemporaries - was she a one-woman branch of the Kitchen Sink School, kin to the Cobra artists in Europe, or aligned with America’s abstract expressionists? The answer, as this exhibition makes clear, is that Eardley was all of these things and more.

The first clues to Eardley’s ability to work confidently in disparate styles come with the selection of early work that opens the exhibit. We see the young artist finding her feet. A Pot of Potatoes is very obviously in debt to Van Gogh, while works made during a tour of Italy are suffused with the frescoes of Giotto and Fra Angelico she studied. And, more significantly, the Italian paintings show the first signs of Eardley’s fascination with street life - she ignores the grand architecture of Venice in favour of painting a trio of beggars, and it is the elderly woman praying in St. Mark’s, not the cathedral itself, that catches her eye.

Back in Glasgow, Eardley has found her own style (or, rather, one of them) and her subject: the children of the city’s streets. The best of these are truly remarkable, rich with striking detail - the concentration on the face of Andrew With a Comic, the protective hand of the older boy on the young girl’s wrist in Brother and Sister, the bored, tired eyes in Glasgow Children. Eardley’s eye for composition is gripping, too, whether she is capturing life in the angled tangle of bodies in Glasgow Back Street with Children Playing, or the strict division between leering boys and sulking girls in Children, Port Glasgow.

There is something curiously apolitical about these paintings of children, though. These scamps aren’t triumphing over adversity, because Eardley has, all too often, excised it. She adopts aesthetically pleasing aspects of street squalor - making wonderful use of scrappy chalk graffiti in particular - but there is a strong sense of preemptive romantic nostalgia about these street scenes, as if the brilliant sandstone reds that feature so often are the result of rose-tinted spectacles.

Of course, it can be argued that campaigning social documentary was not Eardley’s concern, and that she mastered her true theme - the relationships between her young subjects, and their relationship to her - completely. It still seems that there is something missing in these works, however, and so, while the paintings of children are Eardley’s best known and best loved works, they are not her best.

No, the strongest work here are the landscapes and seascapes painted at Catterline, an isolated fishing village just south of Stonehaven, and the portraits of Eardley’s friend and fellow artist Angus Neil.

The former are breathtaking. Eardley does not so much observe nature as translate it, edging close to pure abstraction while always maintaining a representational edge. The Sea is an angry swell of texture surging from the surface of the painting, the surface of Foam and Blue Sky is a flurry of finnicky marks and broad strokes that coalesce into something essential, undeniably of the sea. It is as if Eardley had the ability to maintain a direct connection with what she saw before her, holding an unbroken line from eye to mind to hand to brush. At times, Eardley’s treatment of nature stands up to comparisons with Turner, for all that her dribbles and drips call to mind Pollock.

The portraits of Young could not be more different in style and atmosphere, but they share the intense immediacy of the landscape works. In The Table, Young is seated, his head bowed, his sour mood matched by the drab palette of grim greys and browns, which is repeated in A Glasgow Lodging - truly empathetic portraits, with a strength far beyond that seen in the paintings of children. It is the mesmerising Sleeping Nude, though, that steals the show. Young is shown, emaciated, cold and pale, stretched out on a bed, the flash of a yellow rug in the bottom right corner a cruel counterpoint to the oppressive sense of something more than ennui, approaching dread.

And so Eardley proves herself a mistress of diverse styles, no longer flitting from mode to mode as she did in student days, but able to work in parallel as a consummate painter of nature, a fine portraitist, and a flawed documentarian. That realisation is a sad one - had Eardley’s life not been cut short by breast cancer, it seems certain that she would have continued to explore, soaking up new movements in art, and finding her place in them.

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