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March 2008 Archives

On a windy Saturday morning last June, Didier Pasquette stepped off the roof of a tower block at Red Road in the North of Glasgow on to a high wire some ninety metres above the ground, and began to walk towards his target, the next block of flats on the estate.

With a long pole to aid his balance, but none of the safeguards you might expect - no net to catch him, no harness to hold him - Pasquette took tentative, oddly graceful steps into the void between the two buildings, watched by a small band of local residents.

The skywalker wasn’t taking this unconventional stroll to add to his list of record-breaking tightrope stunts - in the past he’s crossed the Thames, 30 metres above the flowing river, and walked the length of the pitch at the Stade de France in Paris - but at the behest of artist Catherine Yass.

For Yass, Pasquette’s daredevil passage between the towers of Petershill Drive marked the realisation of a work she has spent years developing, revising and bringing into being.

‘I first had the idea for this work, or some kind high wire work, in 2002,’ she explains, ‘but I never really thought it would be possible. So, for a long time, it was a dream about a dream: I was dreaming about this walk through the air, which is something people do dream about, and is a wonderful, fantastical thought.’

That flight of fancy has come to fruition in the form of High Wire, a four screen video piece recording Pasquette’s walk with accompanying photographs, which premiered last night at the CCA, a centrepiece of the Glasgow International festival of visual art.

But why film a tightrope walk, and why film it here in Glasgow?

High Wire is the latest in a strand of lens-based works by Yass that focus on the built environment. All deceptively simple, each one of these brief filmed pieces is a close examination of a single site, with roots in Yass’ ongoing investigation into the real-world outcomes of Utopian idealism, often tempered by personal concerns. For the 2002 piece Descent, which earned Yass a Turner Prize nomination, the artist slowly lowered a crane-mounted camera through a fog-bound Canary Wharf construction site. Wall traced the contours of the barrier between Israel and Palestine in unforgiving close-up, and, most recently, Yass trained her lens on the passage of a ship through the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river, an engineering marvel that displaced millions of Chinese citizens, for Lock.

‘I’m looking for concrete manifestations in the world for things that are very much intangible,’ Yass explains, ‘You’d hardly say that Canary Wharf was built from some great Utopian ideal, but it was built on an ideal of capitalism, the wall in Israel was built as a result of a movement which had once been idealist, and in China at the moment there is this great celebration of capital, and that’s become their Utopia, as far as I understand it.’

The meditative, almost elegiac quality of Yass’ film installations masks, then, a distinctly ambivalent view of the structures she films. They are also more than dry essays on the relationship between man and his surroundings. ‘I wouldn’t have done any of them if there wasn’t a strong personal element,’ Yass admits, ‘Wall, for example, had a lot to do with thinking about how your own mind can get blocked up, how you can create barriers in your own mind, and not think imaginatively around the corners of things.’

These two sources of inspiration - the public and socio-political matched with the private and personal - dovetail neatly in High Wire, with the fantasy of walking in the air allied to what Yass calls the ‘social dreams’ expressed in the high-rise architecture of the Red Road development. ‘I was thinking about dreams and fantasies and what happens when we try to put them into reality,’ she says, ‘In this case, that was with respect to Modernism and Modernist architecture - these towers were maybe built with a sense of Utopia, and later people began to see the problems with them - and the dream of walking through the air. Then there’s the relationship between that dream which might be very personal, and a social dream.’

For those who lack a head for heights, viewing High Wire might well be less a dream, more a nightmare. The four projected loops - three track Pasquette’s progress from different angles, the fourth is a view from the skywalker’s head-mounted camera - combine to form a vertiginous vista that is little short of terrifying.

Watching it on a small computer monitor in Yass’ London studio, I found myself hanging on to the arms of my chair as if my life, or Pasquette’s, depended on it - blown up to three by four metre projections, High Wire ought really to come with a health warning.

And then, well, there’s a twist. Something happens, something which Yass has asked me not to reveal, preferring that visitors to the installation find out for themselves. Suffice it to say that, while Pasquette’s walk in the sky did not - thank goodness - end in tragedy, nor was it an unqualified success. ‘My heart,’ says Yass of this unexpected turn of events, ‘was in my mouth.’

This unforeseen incident flags up something of a shift in Yass’ practice. For, while High Rise follows the precedent set by earlier pieces in terms of its central themes, it is the first time the artist has added a human actor to her work; where before her moving cameras were always precisely constrained, attached to cranes, tracks, and, in one case, a remote control aeroplane.

‘In all of these works, the camera has become the eye, and in that respect this one is no different,’ Yass says, ‘But what happened when we actually did it - what made it interesting in the end, what made it the project what it is - happened because the camera was on a person and not a machine.’

That human element resurfaces in the photographs that complete the High Wire installation. Yass has enlarged negative prints of the Red Road blocks and mounted them on light boxes, having painstakingly scratched the surface of her original negatives, marking out the lines of the high wire rope. As with the restraint shown in the filmed work, an apparently simple gesture stands in for a densely layered set of concerns.

‘If you’re printing a negative,’ Yass says, ‘It always has the potential to become something other than itself. It’s on the way somewhere, rather than being something very final. We think of photography as indexically recording something, but you can think of it as a kind of drawing - Fox Talbot called photography the ‘pencil of nature’ - so I was interested in linking drawing and photography, and was thinking about architects plans, where again we have that transformation from one thing to another.’

In the end, transformation might be the key to understanding the work of Catherine Yass: she has transformed a private dream into a public spectacle, and transformed the spectacle into a work that, ultimately, seeks to transform our understanding of the structures that surround us.

This feature was first published in The Herald in March , 2008.

Torsten Lauschmann is a tricky artist to pin down. He’s a photographer, painter, sculptor and digital artist. He’s performed with various Glasgow bands, busked around Europe with a solar-powered laptop under the name Slender Whiteman, published a web magazine, Egoburger, and authored audiovisual editing software. Lauschmann is also something of a prankster, posing as Professor Hans Peter Niesward of the Institute of Gravitational Physics he caused a stir online with World Jump Day, a bid to halt global warming with a precisely co-ordinated worldwide leap, and recently alarmed a Glasgow audience expecting a conventional performance by baking bread, while, inexplicably, dressed up as a caveman.

His latest solo outing is introduced with a lengthy quote from Dadaist Francis Picabia. ‘What I like,’ Picabia wrote in an excitable anti-classicist broadside of 1923, ‘is to invent, to imagine, to make myself a new man every moment, then to forget him, forget everything. We should be equipped with a special eraser, gradually effacing our works and the memory of them’.

It’s a quotation that might well be meant to serve as a manifesto for Lauschmann’s restless cross-media practice, his tendency to relentlessly revise and reinvent his work. But it also points to the problem with this admirably polymathic, unbounded approach to making art, and the problem with this show: it is rather patchy.

The exhibit opens with Quality (money chord), a vintage electronic organ tipped over and harshly lit from above, casting a sharp shadow onto which is projected a busy, flowing animated sequence made up of of numbers and symbols, a pseudo-scientific attempt, perhaps, to define that ‘money chord’ - musician’s slang for the perfect pop progression - leaking out of the old organ. Next comes Pandora’s Ball, another video projection that plays tricks on the viewer. The titular ball is still, and behind it a constantly shifting oblong of projected video jerks across the wall, showing dancing feet, lifted from an unidentified song and dance number. Like the impossibly precise projection of numbers into shadow in the piece beside it, Pandora’s Ball has visitors peering, puzzled, in a bid to understand its mechanics: the ball, it turns out, is not quite there, a sculptural wall drawing, fleshed out with a projected surface that, somehow, obscures the moving footage of feet.

These projected puzzles are followed by a simple sculpture, Crystal Swingball, which is exactly that: a pint-sized version of the garden game, hastily assembled on a base made of dollops of greasy oil paint from a bamboo stick, a bit of string and the titular crystal. It doesn’t look much fun to play with, though - one swing, and the sharp-edged crystal would have your eye out.

This sort of darkly humorous reversal appears again in Fear Among Scientists, for my money, the best piece here, and certainly the funniest. Numbers crudely carved out of plywood set out the sum 3 - 1 = 2. But look closely, and Lauschmann has painted in the shadows the numbers cast, leaving the total intact, but introducing an impossible system of arithmetic. According to the shadow numbers, 8 + 7 = 2.

Two nearby photographs are similarly perverse. The Curtain (13 Seconds) and The Curtain (27 Seconds) are still photographs of an earlier work, The Curtain, a two-dimensional but distinctly sculptural video work that saw stripes of muted colours slowly shifting across a large, wide screen, suggesting drapes blowing in a breeze, the movement of each stripe suggested by the movement of its neighbour, according to the the algorithms of mathematician John Horton Conway’s cellular automaton, the Game of Life. Is this, like the shadowy equation, a joke? Preserving an arbitrary moment in the progression of a piece that rests on time and movement, certainly seems an odd tactic.

Finally, with related works set beside the entrance and exit of GOMA’s corridor-like upstairs exhibition space, Lauschmann changes tack again, bookending his show with images of his partner, fellow artist Cathy Wilkes, and of their son.

Lauschmann has looked to his nearest and dearest before. Mother And Child, a loving ‘digital portrait’ of his family fast asleep, was a rich, layered piece of work, at once a contemporary reworking of religious iconography, and a private, intimate moment exposed to the world, both generous and discomforting, casting the viewer as voyeur. It was, too, a new kind of portrait, a video loop projected onto a wall drawing, its painterly qualities undermined by the occasional stirrings of the sleeping pair.

Compared to a piece like Mother And Child, the Polaroid photographs gathered here seem a little slight. The first is a simple portrait of a slightly distracted Wilkes, gazing off into the middle distance. The four images that close the show - one showing Lauschmann’s son playing with his toy lamb, another is of the boy mucking about, wrapping himself in the living room curtains, a third snap sees a pair of toy horses discarded on the floor, while the fourth image documents pencil lines on a wall, marking the growing child’s height - might well have formed a quiet, oblique portrait of the artist’s, his son, their relationship and life at home, but Lauschmann takes, arguably, a step too far, training twin spotlights on the photographs, positioned so that their light is cast in the shape of a heart. It’s a mawkish, sentimental moment. Or terribly sweet. Either way, it seems typical of Lauschmann to be exploring themes - fatherhood, family, love - that are rarely found in the contemporary art gallery. It also casts Crystal Swingball in a new light, recasting it as a thoughtful piece about paternal responsibility and anxiety, rather than a one-note joke. (Lauschmann counsels against such interpretetation, it should be said, warning in a note accompanying the exhibition that the meaning of his work ‘will disappear every time one asks, “But what is it about?”’)

It is perhaps unfair to complain when an artist like Lauschmann, who very deliberately casts his artist’s net wide, produces a show that flits from theme to theme. But this is less a show than a Lauschmann sampler - unlike his last, cohesive solo exhibit at Mary Mary, or the wonderful, immersive installation, Suburbia in 3D: Chasing butterflies, mounted at Transmission in 2004 - and it seems a shame that the works here, whether focussed on the family, geeky gags, or inventive fusions of projected video, sculpture and drawing, have been set up to fight each other for the viewer’s attention.

This review was first published in The Herald on March 28th, 2008.

Every year, doggerfisher mounts a group show. Rather than lay out the gallery’s wares, gallerist Susannah Beaumont gathers together represented artists, artists who have shown in in the space before and international artists whose work has never before been seen in Scotland. This time, there is a theme too, with the six artists chosen all sharing a concern for ‘the divide and the shared territory between sculpture and wall-based work’.

As themes go, it seems fair to say that this is a loose one, bordering on the nebulous, but, whether it’s really an excuse to get a bunch of sympathetic artists in a room together or not, it works, giving the visitor a hook on which to hang their thoughts about the work on show.

Some seem to have taken the tension between work that goes on the floor and work that goes on the wall rather literally. Sally Osborn’s twin installations, are both titled Thinking For U, and both feature black wax discs, and, yes, one is on the floor, under a puddle of water, a second is up on the wall and a third bridges the gap, propped up between the two. But there is more to Osborn’s work than that. She drapes found furniture - a low stool and a high backed chair - with lengths of fabric, striped and printed with text, effortlessly evoking, if not a narrative, then a heady atmosphere, hinting at rituals, half suburban, half glamorous.

Tension and to-and-froing is everywhere, and not just in terms of the difference between the sculptor’s floor and painter’s wall. Neil Clements’ Tipton is ostensibly a painting - in fact it is a painting, in the sense of being canvas covered with paint - but the canvas is stretched over a jagged, off-kilter geometrically formed frame, and the oil is applied in an even coating, making the work a sculptural form, more than anything else. That it is hung on the wall fits the underlying theme of the show, but Clements is exploring different territory too, placing his work in between two media.

Jonathon Owen is up to similar tricks. His untitled piece is made from a rubber car mat, and hung up on the wall, but the real tension here is between the reconfiguration of a lowly quotidian object into something almost comically precious, the dull rubber cut with extravagant care into a lacy filigree, a pattern that clashes with the existing triangular shapes incised in the surface to provide grip for a driver’s feet.

Clements’ untitled installation, a thin metal structure that cordons off an area to the rear of the gallery, deals in tension of a different sort: at intervals, the metal form is lit by a sudden burst of red neon light. The sudden, unpredictable click and flash of the bulb is distinctly unnerving, a distracting warning that something - God knows what - is up.

Clair Barclay’s work dominates the main gallery space, and, as ever, her multi-part installation is complex, oddly disquieting and powerful. Barclay’s work always carries hints of a situation or event, invariably mysterious, rarely pleasant. This discomforting air is enhanced by the use of attractive, tactile materials - she tends toward the organic, for want of a better word, often using animal hides, printed fabric, porcelain, untreated wood and delicately machined metals, objects with an unknown purpose. A brass frame leans against the wall, bearing a skimpy curtain of red and white, like an unusable deck-chair. Connected to the frame by looping brass wires, there are three wooden objects, shaped to resemble skittles, or, more menacingly, stout clubs. A second assembly sees another frame, free-standing this time, bearing a wedge-shaped platform on which rests a trio of circular brass forms, like a pocket watch or compass stripped of its workings. What Barclay is hinting at is anyone’s guess - tastefully tooled up Mods and Rockers sprang to my mind, of all things, thanks to that deck-chair and those clubs - but the relationship she sets up between the discrete parts of her installations is so precise, so taught, that meaning doesn’t seem to matter.

If it weren’t for Barclay’s strong presence, Albrecht Schäfer would absolutely steal the show. Indeed, his untitled sculpture has the look of an element stripped out from one of Barclay’s installations. Twin wooden laths stretch from floor to ceiling, curved at the midpoint, just touching each other and apparently under great tension. It is as if these two thin lengths of timber are holding up the gallery roof, and as if a well aimed kick to the base of Shäfer’s structure could bring the building tumbling down. His other pieces here are more delicate. Noguchi Split is a transformation of the Japanese-American sculptor and designer’s ubiquitous paper globe lampshade, cut along its bamboo lines and allowed to fall into thin interlocking spirals of wood and paper. As with the untitled laths, Shäfer makes a simple gesture to powerful effect, economically exploring the nature of the material or object to hand. More complex are the pieces he has installed in doggerfisher’s office space, Propeller No. 1 - Propellor No. 17, a reprise of a 1989 work. The propellors, tiny and made of paper, like origami sycamore seed helicopters, are set on matchstick-thin slivers of wood protruding from the wall, light enough to move in the air circulating around the room. Some hardly budge at all, others turn at a sluggish pace, and one, placed directly above a radiator, spins on its axis like crazy. They’re delightful, mesmerising machines, and, again, Schäfer makes a lot out of very little.

The same goes for Sara Barker, who presents a pair of curving forms, like off-cuts from a Brutalist building. They are simple, beautiful things, but at first glance, both look monolithic, heavy, menacing - if you found these sculptures sitting next to you at the bar, you’d be sure not to spill their pints - but on closer examination, their stumpy heft is partly an illusion. They are not solid lumps of building material, but made of cardboard slathered in concrete.

Other works do not fit in quite so neatly - Owen’s carefully burnt and woven book pages, Clements’ forgettable oil landscapes on steel - but what might at first appear to be a rather thin curatorial conceit turns out to prompt unexpected, even unlikely connections between a broad group of artists, and offers unforeseen means of understanding their work.

This review was first published in The Herald on March 21st, 2008.

The trend for artists using unconventional, mostly domestic spaces as temporary galleries has long been a part of the Glasgow art scene. From Cathy Wilkes gallery, Dalriada, set up in her council flat, to the long-running, now defunct Switchspace project run by Sorcha Dallas and Marianne Greated, which began life in Dallas’ living room, to the first incarnation of Mary Mary gallery, these projects were born of economic necessity, and a desire by emerging artists and curators to get their work out into the public eye, sidestepping the established exhibition system.

Now, with a collaboration between Katrina Brown, director of new arts organisation the Common Guild, and artist Douglas Gordon, the established - I hesitate to use the word ‘establishment’ - are getting in on the act. Always Begin By Degrees takes its title from a piece by Roni Horn, which itself quotes from Emily Dickinson. Horn’s work, which sets the line in aluminium, also sets the tone: language, communication and conversations are everywhere. Philip Parreno presents a pair of cartoonish speech bubbles, floating silently. Adel Abdessemed acts as an angry censor in his brief video loop, Talk Is Cheap, which sees a jackbooted foot stomping repeatedly on a microphone, replacing speech with a violent staccato rhythm. Pavel Büchler’s Bengal Rose consists of a found tube of paint containing the titular colour, and described as a replacement ‘for the last rose cut in my garden on the last sunny day of the Autumn’, a physical analogue for Juliet’s thorny meditation on the nature of naming.

Anna Gaskell’s film Eraser sees a group of schoolgirls recounting a story that begins with the mundane - a mother hurrying to get her daughter to church on time - and ends in implied tragedy, with the daughter in a car-crash coma, hearing the voices of everyone but her mother. Each girl filters the tale through her memory of events, adding details of her own, taking personal routes to the grim denouement, making it clear that Gaskell is as interested in the mechanics of memory and storytelling, and the shared language of a group, as she is in the tale being told.

As well as the works on show, Always Begin By Degrees offers visitors the chance to read books in Gordon’s library, a room designed by Andrew Miller, who has made a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of shelving backed with bright flashes of colour, and provided a reading table.

A monitor set on the table shows Marcel Marcel Broodthaers’ 1972 Speakers’ Corner Performance, which sees the Belgian conceptualist chalk up instructions on a child’s blackboard. ‘Silence’, he writes, then ‘Silence, please’, as his Hyde Park audience chat, heckle and, in the case of one older woman, sing. Finally, Broodthaers acknowledges the spectators, writing ‘You are artists’ on his board. It’s a well placed piece, filling the usual hush of a library with fuzzy noise, and raising questions about the visitor’s role in the room, an artist-designed space holding Gordon’s collection of twinned books, a work in itself.

There are also two sofas in the building, but not explicitly in the show, by Franz West, accompanied by a text by Gordon which reads ‘Every time you think of me,’, a sentence completed on the wall opposite, ‘we die.’ West, born and based in Vienna, and his sofas call to mind Freudian talking cures, Gordon adds the spark for a distinctly dark, soul-baring conversation.

These uncredited works, the description of library designer Miller as an artist in residence, and the fact that details of each work are lightly sketched on the walls in pencil show a keen curatorial engagement with the status of the space, at once a gallery and a home. Cerith Wyn Evans has picked up on this facet of the show with Untitled (Threshold), a length of rope barring entry to the upper floors of the building, adorned with Tibetan prayer bells, a pairing which invites visitors to reconsider their surroundings with a nod to museum-like formality, in turn undermined by the joke of turning aids to meditation into a primitive alarm system.

This is how group shows should be done: there’s no sign of an overweening theme, and so no attempt to set up awkward interconnections between disparate artists. Instead, visitors are free to eavesdrop on the quiet conversations between works on show. It is, too, I suspect, a manifesto of sorts for the future activities of the Common Guild, an organisation with an international outlook, but rooted firmly in Glasgow, and one that, like this opening exhibition, sets out to foster an open conversation, about art in the city, between artists, curators and audiences alike.

This review was first published in The Herald on March 14th, 2008.

Try To Do Things We Can All Understand, London-based artist EJ Major’s first solo exhibit, takes its title from the first work on show, a wall of monitors showing stills from 29 films accompanied by matching lines of dialogue, each displayed at random.

At first, it is hard not to treat the piece as a sort of quick-fire film quiz, racking one’s brains to identify a given still or quote, but as images and texts fade into one another the fragments begin to form a loose narrative.

A glimpse of Bette Davis sitting in the back of a car, her eyes downcast, calls up the breakdown of the Hollywood star system and Davis’ fiery feud with Joan Crawford. Robert Redford, looking especially craggy beside a roaring camp fire, points to the double standard that allows male actors to play romantic leads into their 70s while their female counterparts struggle to find a part, a thought reinforced by the appearance of exceptions to the rule, Meryl Streep or Sigourney Weaver. When Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette pop up, silently mouthing Tarantino’s clever-clever bon mots from True Romance, Hans Zimmer’s tinkly reworking of Carl Orff’s Musica Poetica seems to fill the gallery. More generically, passionate kisses and violent tempers, steely gazes and weeping women, hove into view, flagging up cinematic clichés and stock shots, the trite tactics directors fall back on to elicit an almost conditioned response in their audience.

These commonplaces aside, each viewer will bring their own set of memories and associations, reading these fleeting, randomised images to write their own, personal story, just as Major’s reasons for choosing these particular scenes from these particular films are unknown, rooted in her own private associations.

The snippets of dialogue work in parallel to the images, and, with the odd exception - Marylin Monroe’s memorable cry of ‘You’re three dear sweet dead men!’ in John Huston’s The Misfits - are hard to place. Free of specific associations, these brief, often prosaic texts allow a more specific, though inevitably fractured, narrative to reveal itself, with a question, ‘Why are you doing this?’, answered cryptically, ‘She looks very small.’

Taken together, the gobbets of dialogue and freeze-framed images form a densely woven work, concerned with the viewer’s response, that unavoidable urge to impose an ordered narrative on this disordered presentation of Major’s filmic autobiography, a taught essay on the tension between text and image in the language of cinema, and a meditation on the power of shared symbolism.

Autobiography, text and image underpin the most recent work on show, From A Distance, too. This time, the text is William Faulkner’s stream of consciousness novel As I Lay Dying, which Major read and annotated at 17, an age at which she periodically lost the ability to speak, while the images are culled from the pages of Brownie annuals, and other sources less suitable for children. Major matches her teenage underlinings, many of which reflect her personal, traumatic, relationship with language at the time, to the sanitised vision of girlhood provided by the comic strips. The result is a rather discomforting, if sometimes hilarious, psychosexual drama. The single word ‘steer’ is accompanied by a collaged image of a Girl Guide riding a flying penis, repeated instances of the word ‘laughing’ on a page are accompanied by line drawings of a lonely girl, sitting apart from he peers, and the phrase ‘it talks’ is illustrated with an exasperated mother and glum daughter. Some of these juxtapositions are, I think, made with a wink, but the public, adult revising of private, juvenile preoccupations, the remaking of a text already remade in the earlier act of annotation, and the implied critique of the gender roles reinforced in children’s literature combine to form a work that, like Try To Do Things We All Can Understand, offers a layered examination of language, shared elements of popular culture and the divide between the public and the private.

This divide is explored more explicitly still in Marie Claire RIP. Twelve self-portraits show Major, first as a fresh-faced, peppy teen, ending up hollow-cheeked, battered, bruised and wearing filthy clothes. The series is based on an article in the titular magazine which featured mug-shots of an anonymous woman, taken over a fourteen-year period, to illustrate the effects of heroin addiction. This is powerful stuff, and, once again, Major uses relatively simple tactics to expose a broad range of concerns. The series is at once a memorial to the unknown woman and a coruscating attack, on both the assumption that her deteriorating appearance is the most important aspect of this woman’s addiction, and the magazine’s intrusive use of the images, using the mug-shots to turn a private life into public property. It is, too, a nuanced look at the nature of photography, questioning assumptions of documentary truth, and blurring the boundaries between the portrait and the self-portrait.

After this, the mail art project Love is… comes as something of a relief. In 2004, Major took screenshots of every second of Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, printed postcards of each image and distributed all 7,000 of them, accompanied by a note asking recipients to return the card along with their thoughts on the concept of love. The volume and range of responses is remarkable. A five year old girl defined love as ‘Mum and Dad’, an elderly lady returned the card unused, a polite note explaining that, at 85, she had no use for Major’s services. Predictably, there are several exasperated requests that Major ‘get a life’ (from people who nonetheless took the trouble to post the card), musings trite enough to grace a greetings card, and a slew of popular song lyrics.

This is an assured show, then, one that, across our distinct bodies of work deftly marries together musings on the consumption and disruption of popular culture, gender and identity by making the private public.

This review was first published in The Herald in April 2008.

The latest exhibit at Inverleith is not a group show, but nor is it a pair of solo outings. Instead, curator Paul Nesbitt has brought together two Glasgow artists, sculptor Nick Evans and painter Tony Swain, who share certain concerns, rooted in a deliberate, investigative approach, and a tendency to set their audience a series of challenges.

Tony Swain paints over newspaper pages, allowing existing images - photographs, design elements and the flow of text - to guide his brush and set his palette of colours.

It seems that, first and foremost, he has taken to the medium for its suggestive properties, a way to prompt his imagination and to constrain it, a chance to accept new challenges posed by a page’s layout. But there is much more going on than that. Newsprint is a fragile, temporary medium, not just in the sense of being tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, but in the way it dimples under the weight of paint, and yellows in sunlight, becoming brittle over time. Swain makes no attempt to halt this process - the works on show here curl up at the corners, and waft in the draft from an open window - as if he wants his paintings, for all the care he takes over them, to be seen as of a moment, the moment of their making. Even his titles, which are brief, gnomic, and share an economy of language with newspaper headlines, hint that these are works for today, not for all time.

Swain must be aware, too, that in choosing to leave this image intact, or letting that paragraph peep through his layers of paint, viewers will attempt to puzzle out meaning. In According to Era, a figure of indeterminate gender, trapped behind painted bars, is almost completely obliterated, with nothing remaining but a shock of hair and a pair of folded arms. In the bottom left corner, a pull quote leaps out, reading “I planned my suicide for weeks. My jump rope was made of leather so I knew it would hold my weight.”. Is this, then, a painting about attempted suicide, with the absent figure and prison bars suggested as much by the text, which Swain must have read, as they are by the formal aspects of the printed image? And if it is, how are we to account for the single legible gobbet of printed text that remains unpainted in amongst the collaged suburban apocalypse of Remembered as one? This time, it seems impossible to reconcile old news of Menzies Campbell’s tenure as leader of the Lib Dems with the overblown fantasy landscape Swain has crafted over and around the text.

The puzzle of the marks Swain makes is harder still to unravel. Too sorry, and Something vital soon both look to have been culled from broadsheet travel supplements, and in both Swain has done relatively little with his source material, extending a tropical blue sky here, hiding a figure there, but presenting more than re-working. But in The family kept changing shape, an out-of-focus printed photograph of what looks like a dancer’s legs, Swain crafts a completely incongruous miniature cityscape, dwarfed by the limbs above it. Then, returning to Remembered as one, the viewer is faced with a work made of multiple slices of newsprint, with a tidal wave looming over sets of windows, a brick-walled tunnel, an inverted image of crowds at a procession of carnival, the collaged parts linked together by brushwork in such a way that it is nigh on impossible to tell where one image begins and another ends, or whether a given element has been slightly altered or completely created by Swain’s hand.

In the downstairs galleries, Nick Evans offers a different set of problems for the viewer to ponder. Like Swain, his work is born of his chosen materials, and the result of an intuitive process.

First come Figures Standing, a trio of towering, totem-like forms. They are made of blocks of cast aluminium that betray their origins as shaped polystyrene. This is the first in a series of internalised contradictions. The brittle, breakable and disposable nature of polystyrene is contrasted with the soft, pliable but permanent nature of aluminium. But polystyrene and aluminium are not opposites, they share a lightness, and Evans, contrarily, uses that lightness to set up another contradiction: these monumental structures that loom over the viewer are, regardless of their real weight and stability, dangerously fragile, threatening to topple at the slightest touch. Then there’s that title, which suggests Evans is in representational mode, or at least providing a context, even as he presents a work that is distinctly formalist. Next door, another contradiction comes in the form of Numbers, seven small pots resting on a shelf. This time, the title is less thorny, hinting that these are editions in an ongoing series that sees Evans aiming, if not at the Platonic form of a pot, then to make a very good pot indeed, a project suggested by his material, porcelain. And yet these cast pots, be they vase-like or gourd-shaped, show signs of their making, bearing traces of the molds that made them. Like the standing figures, there is also a sense that Evans is playing games with the properties of his materials and methods - these drab little things are resolutely matte, with none of the translucent sheen associated with porcelain, and their skew-whiff nature must be meant to undermine the usual goals of the potter, who aims for symmetry and balance.

The final pair of works on show, Figures Fallen are, despite their title, quite unlike the first three. This time, Evans figures come closer to representation than before, with twin Z-shaped sculptures resting on the floor, calling to mind seated versions of the figures that guard the coastline of Easter Island. Made of plaster, their surfaces are ridged, suggesting that they were cast in molds made of corrugated cardboard (though given Evans’ slippery way of working, they might have been carefully marked by hand). And, while the title is apt in the sense that these are indeed figures, it offers another deliberate inconsistency: the twin works are mounted on the floor to give the illusion that they are hovering just above it, figures falling, not Figures Fallen.

In the end, this is a powerful pairing, bristling with subtle connections. Evans and Swain are not simply a good match, they are allies of a sort, both deeply attuned to their media, both exposing the strategies and tactics they use to make work, both among the very best artists working in Scotland today.

This review was first published in The Herald on March 7th, 2008.