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

February 2008 Archives

For her first solo show in Scotland, the Norwegian, Glasgow-educated sculptor Camilla Low has brought together existing works with a series of new pieces to craft a distinctly calm and collected display, one that matches a studied examination of formal possibilities with a strong sense of place.

The new works are fashioned from concrete cubes, crafted on site from local materials, and a match for the industrial architecture of the Dundee Contemporary Arts’ exhibition spaces. These cubes are piled and stacked, with the occasional surface painted smooth, in hues chosen from a limited palette of mostly primary colours. Resting on the arrangements of blocks are similarly precise rectilinear wooden forms: squares and oblongs defined in space and, again, treated with a high-gloss, brightly-coloured coating that denies their rough, organic origins.

Low is working in a tradition here - the modular minimalism of Sol LeWitt springs to mind, and there are echoes of Malevich’s pared-down suprematism - but she is no copyist, conveying, instead, a deep understanding of the potential of simple forms to interact with each other and the space around them. In a rather neat curatorial trick, Low’s new works stand free on the gallery floor, while earlier works, many of which lean on walls for support or are suspended from the ceiling, gather around, as if looking fondly on their progeny. And those earlier pieces are less polished, less repetitive. Diva is a collection of unpainted wooden blocks, pulled up off the floor by a cord, which Sister sees a busy cluster of orange Perspex triangles pierced by a metal rod. Best of them all is White Steel, a bent and bashed sheet of metal that has been treated to a glamorous sheen.

If the retrospective element of the show provides variety, it is the formal exploration through repetition and rearrangement of the new elements that gives the show its strength. At first sight, so many similar works might appear dull, but walk among them and the restraint that characterises Low’s recent practice offers an almost meditative experience, a set of forms pushed to their limits.

Back in Glasgow, Craig Mulholland is showing no signs of restraint, but proving once again that he is the most prolific polymath working in the city today. His new show is spread across two venues - the Glasgow School of Art and Sorcha Dallas - filling both to the gunnels, and is further fleshed out with a short digital film. Mulholland’s concerns are similarly broad, resting on the idea information in its many forms, from data storage to surveillance, encryption to virtual realities and the social and political impact of information technologies.

The Art School’s Mackintosh Gallery has been infested with an army of decidedly sinister tripods. Some bear the weight of rough-hewn pewter globes, others carry gobbets of dense, rubbery material, their rounded surfaces bearing traces of tightly-wound string, others still serve as easels, displaying framed works, “paintings” made of etched metal and polycarbonate.

More of these metal paintings - nigh on 20 of them - adorn the walls, ranging from finicky, precise geometrics, to wild splatters. There is something in the arrangement of the tripods that suggests a transmission and reception of data, as if, when unobserved, they might twitch into life, their loads to be collected, examined and interpreted, like physical manifestations of the coded robots that crawl the web, reporting their findings back to search engines.

On the other side of the room, the silver and black of the tripods and etched works give way to white, with a group of 16 framed works made of pegboard. Arranged in a towering pyramid foundation, the first of them is dense, with layers of board piled up and torn away, and the last is barely there, with traces of board at its edges, and holes drilled directly into the gallery wall. If the grouping of the tripods and metal works hints at data in transit, the pegboard pieces suggest data loss, forming a eulogy to a failing hard drive, its stored information edging away bit by bit, byte by byte.

Across town at Sorcha Dallas, there are more metal works, this time edging away from the mathematical abstractions of their peers at the School of Art to hint at the representation of library shelves or half-broken satellites in orbit. In the centre of the first exhibition space, a found metal globe has been etched with lines of latitude and longitude, and an impossible geography of intersecting curves. Next door, there is an immersive five-screen video installation, Rising Resistance, in which images from the two exhibitions flow around the room.

In the past, when Mulholland has mounted sprawling shows like this - most notable Plastic Casino in 2004 - there was a sense that he was an artist in need of an editor: someone who would lock the doors of his studio and say, “Enough!” This time, though, the bewildering array of objects offered up for examination, and the almost impenetrable layering of imagery are lent coherence by, of all things, a 12-minute digitally animated rock opera, Peer To Peer. It is a stunning, albeit brief, piece of cinema.

Mulholland and his colibrettist, Laurence Figgis, tell the story of a Camera and its Operator, both exhausted by the weight of the information they must amass, sort and route around a system - what this information is, why it is being gathered and for whom is never made clear - expressed in language that hovers beautifully between code and poetry. On screen, a hard-disk platter is suspended in space, its surface attacked by a whirling galaxy of digital detritus, tripods scuttle about, up to God knows what, and the Camera, a floating metal globe with a blinking aperture, moves to and fro through a Borgesian library of data.

There is a distinct air of hysteria about all this, and the film oozes a sort of totalitarian camp: in lesser hands, the piece might err on the sillier side of sci-fi, but Mulholland who, for all the high seriousness of his projects, is not afraid to introduce a note of winking humour - makes it work. With his twin exhibitions and superb film work, Mulholland has, then fashioned a fully-formed world, an encoded vision that reformats a real world in which the gathering and retention of information is spiralling out of control, where the prospect of biometric identity cards and DNA databases looms, our every move is followed by surveillance cameras and undesirables are moved on by speakers emitting a high-pitched digital wine.

You will not find a better evocation of the dystopian present than this.

This review was first published in The Herald on 29th February, 2008.

At first sight, the work of Lotte Gertz appears rather slight. The pieces on show at Mary Mary all share a washed-out look, with light grey backgrounds and a muted palette, torn edges, apparently apathetic marks made with pencils, crayons or oils, and various bits and bobs tentatively stuck to their surfaces.

Stand before one for a while, though, and it becomes clear that Gertz isn’t in the business of hastily dashing off vague abstracts, but a precise, thoughtful maker of images that take time to resolve. When they do, that first impression fades fast. The title of Mr Sophistication (I Am Stage) gives a hint, but look before you read and it slowly becomes clear that the rectangle missing a side is indeed a stage, and the flurry of curved lines above are the curtains that frame it. Its neighbour offers a little more, with zig-zag marks in black wending their way across the paper to offer the barest suggestion of the pitched roofs of a row of houses, and, with that realisation, the six little marks on the right become a table, with a sewn-on button completing the picture of domesticity. And when Gertz edges over the line into outright representation, she remains subtle, with clock faces reduced to a circle and two lines, and interior space boiled down to a few angled lines.

This experience of looking, and looking again, sets up the viewer well: with a few connections made, more hove into view, and Gertz slowly but surely exposes her themes, and, perhaps more importantly, her method of making work.

The first clear signal of that method is Gertz’s refusal to restrict herself to a single medium. Every work on show combines collage, drawing, painting and printing, with a few tiptoeing toward the sculptural. Woodcut prints are sliced or torn then put to use as a surface on which to draw or paint, or, in little slivers, applied in turn to a woodcut surface. Other elements are rendered with everyday objects. Matches, half-unravelled threads, off-cuts of leather and elastic bands are glued over drawings, buttons are sewn onto paper.

These materials are not, though, simply everyday detritus. Many have a common source, clothing, and most are items that we all lose easily or discard with little thought. Buttons pop off shirts and roll away, loose threads are picked at and flicked off, spent matches are dropped to the floor, red Post Office elastic bands litter closes and streets. With these familiar objects, which must be lost for her to find them, Gertz is subtly evoking bodies moving through space and time, building a physical human presence out of the faintest possible traces. And, alongside these distinctly human materials, there are recurring motifs that reinforce the idea of a barely-present body in transit: boxes and containers are everywhere, and, more obviously, houses and theatres.

To call this shadowy presence a character would be a step too far - you can’t, after all, tell much about a person from a few bits of frayed nylon, the odd button and a hint of an unpacked box - but, as these materials are used again and again, Gertz creates the distinct impression that her works are inhabited, by someone.

That someone might well be Gertz herself. Every one of the collaged works on paper in this show bears very deliberate traces of the artist who made them. Some are subtle - those woodcut backgrounds are peppered with fingerprint smudges - others are in plain sight, and delivered with a nod and a wink, as in Blue Box: Match Play, Match Spent, in which the walls and roof of a house are built of crayons drawn with crayons.

If the missing figure is Gertz, her sources and references are almost absent too. The architectural forms only-just-represented in Blue Box or Standard Houses: History, Her Story have their roots in the houses of Gertz’s native Denmark. More specific still, those clock faces are lifted from a single scene in Casablanca. The evocative title of To The Roof! With A Couple Of Things That Looks Like Wings is a distorted quotation from a Brecht poem. Few, if any, viewers would catch these allusions, and it is clear that, just as Gertz makes a given piece using a process of revision, layering up elements from what might be called preparatory works, only to paint or draw over them, so she lights on a source, turning it over in her mind, discarding some elements and retaining others, until that first thought or image becomes something else entirely.

And it seems safe to say that these processes of thinking and making are not just similar, they are intertwined, with materials suggesting new thoughts, and references reconsidered as the possibilities of a drawn line, painted smudge or applied object offer new directions. Much of this internal dialogue is, of course, private, known only to Gertz herself, but just enough leaks out to the viewer. The result is a curious mirroring, as gallery-goers seek to tease out the imagery and meaning in these works - are, for example, the two hands of Hands and Graphite Wheel applauding the unseen performance implied in Mr. Sophistication (I Am Stage)? - or consider the intention behind the use of materials, they reflect Gertz’s mode of practice. And so these private, subjective works, when they are released into the public sphere of the gallery, become private and subjective once more, in the minds of those who see them. It’s an indirect, subtle and almost teasing form of communication between artist and viewer, this, but a powerful one. By never stating her case, and working in whispers and hints, Gertz passes on her ideas with a sort of generosity. By abstaining from bald statements she rewards those willing to put in the work required to uncover the ties that bind these pieces together. Gertz cares little, I suspect, whether her audience’s specific thoughts match her own, satisfied that the gentle experience of discovery her work prompts in the viewer corresponds with the dialogue between ideas and materials at the heart of her practice.

This review was first published in The Herald on February 22nd, 2008.

The first few images in this survey of Ansel Adams’ photography are nothing short of breath-taking, but, before long, boredom sets in.

This is down to the fact that - though this exhibit is keen to remind us that, while Adams is first and foremost a landscape photographer, his practice was broad, taking in portraiture and abstract imagery - there is precious little evidence here of artistic development, with prints from the 1930s sitting happily beside those from the 1970s, because they are, in essence, the same.

That is not to say that the 150 prints gathered here are dull, far from it. The show opens with a brace of waterfalls, great violent cascades of white water set against implacable rock, then turns to a more intimate view, with spring water flowing over stones, turned cloudy and gelatinous by the long exposure time, in a way that is almost painterly (though Adams himself, who co-founded Group f/6.4 to champion ‘pure’ photography in opposition to the pictorialist style prevalent in the first decades of the last century, would have baulked a this suggestion). Then come the work for which Adams is best known, his views of mountain ranges and great lakes, rocky outcrops and desert sands, captured in perfect detail, composed with an almost obsessive care. They are glorious, sure, but after a little while, one finds oneself looking not at the landscapes Adams has captured, but at the photographs themselves. It is the impossibly crisp rendering of the distant peaks in Mono Lake, California that grabs the eye, not the beauty of mountains, and the sheer rock face shown in Monolith, the Face of Half Dome is notable not for its majesty, but for the tonal contrast between the grey stone and the black sky behind it.

In other words, if Adams was a genius, as the show’s subtitle would have us believe, his genius was technical, not artistic. And with this in mind, the exhibition’s fails is its complete lack of technical information. Ordinarily, this would not be an omission worth criticising - images are the important thing, after all, not how they were made - but with Adams, mastery of photographic technique overwhelms the subject almost every time. Take Mudhills, Arizona, for example, a late photograph that hovers on the edge of abstraction. It is lit at the centre by a shaft of light. Was this blind luck, did Adams spend hours at this spot waiting for a break in the clouds, or is that striking highlight the result of some innovative darkroom technique? We are left none the wiser.

Then there is the subject matter. Perhaps, as a confirmed city-dweller who tends to think that a wind farm improves a wild vista no end, I cannot truly understand these works. But after twenty, thirty, forty pristine images of ‘unspoilt’ nature, it is hard not to wish for some sign, however small, of human activity. And when Adams provides, it comes as a blessed relief - standing before Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, in which a squat, flat-roofed church and adjacent graveyard provide welcome right-angles, it is impossible to remain unmoved at these signs of lives lived in a landscape. Of course, taking a landscape photographer to task for photographing landscapes might be missing the point rather, but there is something in Adams unrelenting, nigh on monomaniacal regard for natural formations that grates, with this repetitious, touched-up and ultimately tedious parade of images ending up just short of being sickly soft pornography for the outdoor set.

When Adams turns away from the landscapes he loved, though, he falters, unable to leave them behind. A close-up of a picket fence is, seen through Adams’ lens, a monumental mountain range, the lines of industrial machinery become a rocky outcrop, and even an abstract like Stained Wallpaper Near Alturas, California bears a title that emphasises the place the photograph was taken, and can only be read as an attempt to evoke eddies on the surface of a pool or knots in wood. The few portraits gathered here are for the most part eminently forgettable, with one exception - John Martin In His Studio shows the subject slightly unsteady on his feet, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip, a decisive moment among the too-careful compositions.

In the end, this show will doubtless be a treat for keen devotees of Adams - it is by far the most comprehensive exhibition of his work shown on these shores to date - but for those new to his work, or familiar only with his often-reproduced Western landscapes, it is sure to disappoint, offering a huge volume of works where a select few would do, revealing Adams to be, if not a one trick pony, then a photographer whose relentless pursuit of the perfect landscape photograph ultimately obscures his desire to share a love for the beauty of the natural world.

This review was first published in The Herald on February 15th, 2008.

Who is Mark Chavez-Dawson? Visitors to this, his first solo outing in Scotland, will have trouble working out where this artist begins and his cast of alter-egos end, and could be forgiven for wondering if ‘Mark Chavez-Dawson’ is yet another, admittedly thinly-veiled, alter-ego of one Mark Dawson, artist.

Chavez-Dawson is the guiding hand behind two characters - the Gallery Guard and Robin-Nature Bold - and the creator of a third, Deacon Brodie-Morgannwy, a character performed by Glasgow-based artist Jean-Pierre Lapeyre (a name which may or may not be a pseudonym for someone else).

With a confusing cast of personae in place, Chavez-Dawson weaves further fictions. According to an excerpt from the artist’s notebook, the name of Robin Nature-Bold was revealed to him in a waking dream, which featured Andy Kauffman, Andy Warhol and Peter Sellers engaged in a rather unsavoury sex ritual, watched over by Janis Joplin and Valerie Solanis. Robin Nature-Bold’s performance piece, Whatever You See Are Your Own Demons, They’re Not Coming From Me!, is based on the unlikely tale of one Deacon Brodie, a squatter in Anthony Burgess’ attic who lived on a diet of egg whites and played his Casio keyboard incessantly, disrupting already tense negotiations between the author and Stanley Kubrick over the filming of A Clockwork Orange.

With this anecdote in mind, and having procured a Casiotone 101 keyboard from a later tenant of Burgess’ lodgings, ‘Nature-Bold’ enacted a ritualistic performance intended to ‘invoke the frequency of Brodie’. This took the form of ‘Nature-Bold’, a shaman or voodoo priest dressed head-to-toe in white, bashed out improvised melodies on his keyboard, to a tune based on repeat viewings of a scene in the 1932 film adaptation of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde. While he performed, candles were lit, and egg whites scrambled. The detritus of this pseudo-magickal event remains in the gallery, the keyboard bound up in white fun fur, Nature-Bold’s white pinstripe jacket and leather gloves, ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ painted on the knuckles, are suspended on lines of wire, stretched out to form the Christ-like pose of a triumphant musician leaving the stage.

The Museum Guard, meanwhile, carried a rather gaudy gilt frame around Edinburgh, stopping off at galleries, where he offered representatives of each the chance to sign the frame and inscribe it with the name of their favourite work of art. Silent throughout his journey, negotiations were handled by Deacon Brodie-Morgannwy and the frame now hangs on the Embassy’s wall, enclosing a video projection of the journey-performance.

Of all the pop culture icons, seminal texts, artistic practices and invented rituals that Chavez-Dawson folds together in his arcane performances and convoluted backstories, one name leaps out: Andy Kauffman. The late (or living, depending on who you ask) comedian’s outre cast of alter-egos - the foul-mouthed club comic Tony Clifton, Kauffman the misogynist champion of inter-gender wrestling, Kauffman the naif, feeding his audience milk and cookies - are not precise matches for Chavez-Dawson’s merry band, but the presentation of suspect facts and fleshed-out fictions as two sides of the same coin, true or false according to the inclinations of the audience, is Kauffman to a tee. And, like Kauffman, Chavez-Dawson is either very funny or deeply infuriating (again, depending on who you ask). Infuriating because his work shrugs off questions that it is almost always worth asking of art: What does it mean? Is it any good? It is impossible to tell whether Chavez-Dawson is serious, or even half-serious, in his bid to link the art venues of Edinburgh by taking a psychogeographic tour of them, or if, in hiding behind the Museum Guard persona, he taking the mick out of the sort of artist who makes this sort of work. The more ritualistic, and more obviously hokey, efforts of Robin Nature-Bold are similarly evasive. The audience, caught up in the serious business of Nature-Bold’s musical attempt to summon the spirit of a fiction, can easily be forgiven for taking the events unfolding before them at face value, stifling giggles perhaps, but engaged nonetheless. This might be the response Chavez-Dawson as Nature-Bold is aiming for, flagging up the willingness of the contemporary art cognoscenti to leave any skeptical tendencies at the gallery door. Or he might be engaging in an ‘honest’ investigation of the effects of adopting a persona on his practice, or using that persona to bind together disparate cultural tropes, or he might just be having enormous fun at his own, and our expense.

This uncertainty, the impossibility of settling on a single interpretation of Chavez-Dawson’s mult-layered working method, let alone the work he makes, is likely to split gallery-goers into two camps. Some will be put off by his permanently raised eyebrow, and others will be willing to join in and enjoy the joke, whichever punch-line they pick. I’m keeping a foot in both camps: Chavez-Dawson, if that is his real name, is amusing, confusing and infuriating, all at the same time. Whether this is a good thing or not remains open to question.

This review was first published in The Herald on February 1st, 2008.