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

May 2008 Archives

Lucy Skaer is on something of a roll at the moment. Her new Fruitmarket show, the first major solo outing in Scotland for the Cambridge-born, Glasgow-based artist, follows her selection to represent Scotland alongside five other young artists at last year’s Venice Biennale.

Add to that a nomination for the Beck’s Futures award back in 2003, and the fact that Charles Saatchi and Turner Prize-winner Mark Wallinger have both taken an interest in her work, and this early retrospective, gathering work from 2001 to the present, begins to look a little overdue.

The exhibition opens with a brand new installation, Room of Lines. In the middle of the room, Skaer has placed a grand old Georgian table, its top slathered in black ink. Up on the walls there are four prints, made by laying paper across the table - the surface of the first is thick with ink, a solid copy of the table’s shape, the next is slightly washed-out, and by the fourth, the heavy paper reveals the scratches and patches of the surface, now hidden beneath the black layer left by the printing process.

Dotted about the room are four sculptures, large in size but fragile in nature, made up of interlocking plaster wedges, some resting on the floor, others hugging the walls. These undulating forms are based on skeletal figures culled from representations of the danse macabre, the medieval allegory on death and its inevitability. You wouldn’t know it, though - Skaer has spun her skeletons on their axes, then split them, and there is little evidence of them in these white sarcophagi.

This is a fitting start. Skaer has long been engaged in a game of revelation and obfuscation, choosing images often loaded with political, historical and art-historical baggage and transforming them, camouflaging her sources, but edging close enough to representation that viewers can, after a good long look, identify them.

This tactic is to the fore in another new work, Three Possible Edges, which looms over the Fruitmarket’s stairwell. On three huge panels, Skaer has adopted three images - of a battleship, some police horses, and a whale skeleton - and enlarged them to life size, rendering them in densely worked, printed and drawn, pixel-like spiral motifs. The same little sworls, thousands of them, make up The Big Wave, an enlargement of Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic Edo period print The Great Wave at Kanagawa, spread across a series of panels draped like unfurled scrolls from the ceiling. In both works, the borrowed images move in and out of view, sometimes clear, sometimes hidden by Skaer’s painstaking process.

Upstairs, Leonora is an installation bearing another spiral drawing of another life-size whale skeleton, a small table resurfaced with mother- of-pearl hands and a film of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, with her hands filling the frame. As with Room of Lines, these elements are loosely gathered, and apparently have little in common. But this lightness of touch works wonders, providing enough of a hint that Skaer is engaging with Carrington’s work and using her as the glue to bind her own works together.

Next come a set of small sculptures based on Rorschach inkblots, which, like the danse macabre skeletons, have been spun into three dimensions. They immediately call to mind Renato Giuseppe Bertelli’s bust, Continuous Profile - Head of Mussolini. Like Bertelli’s perpetually spinning commemoration of a dictator’s face, complete with fascistic sheen, Skaer’s transformation of the dubious two-dimensional tools of pseudo-scientific psychological testing into three-dimensional sculptures has a curious effect: hiding the represented form in plain sight, removing the familiar in a bid to make the viewer look again, and closer, considering both the reconfigured shapes and their history.

Perhaps the most striking work here is Flash in the Metropolitan, a brief 16mm film projected on to the wall of a small, dark and decidedly claustrophobic side-room. Shot in 2006 in collaboration with artist- film-maker Rosalind Nashashibi while the pair were on a Scottish Arts Council residency programme in New York, the film tours the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, tracking through the Near Eastern, African and Oceanic collections, offering fleeting glimpses of statues, bowls and historical artefacts.

These ancient, lasting objects are granted only a split second in the limelight, lit up by a flashing strobe, but the metronomic regularity of those flashes reverses the transitory nature of these brief glimpses, hinting in three short minutes at the vast, almost unimaginable stretches of time that separate the old objects. There’s a hint of ritual about the film and its making, too - it’s easy to imagine Skaer and Nashashibi ceremonially pacing the dark museum in near silence, aiming their lamp at a chosen relic, making up their own druidic rites.

Of course, the two artists are not high priestesses of some contemporary art sect and, for all we know, they spent their evening in the Met collapsing into giggles. But thanks to the solemn pacing and the deep black space in which it is shown, Flash in the Metropolitan shares something with the objects it illuminates, offering a taste of the quiet awe with which these artifacts might have been regarded in their own time.

It casts a shadow over the other work on show, too. Skaer’s act of patiently repeating tiny spirals takes on a ritual quality, the hands inlaid on the Leonora table call to mind a seance, and the enclosed skeletons in the Room of Lines and the appearance of animals throughout the show hint at a hidden, and rather spooky, symbolic system. Even the process of making those big imprints of a table’s surface takes on an alchemical quality.

This odd sensation - that there is something systematic to be grasped beneath the surface of Skaer’s work beyond the act of teasing out the images she obscures, like the random blobs of a Rorschach test, and that there are ambiguous undercurrents linking seemingly separate works - is undermined by the weaker pieces on show. To be fair to Skaer, most of these weak links are earlier works, like the dayglo-hued, forced symmetry of Venn Diagram (Snow), or the overly explicit, almost glib overlays of Venn Diagram (Rorshach/Corn).

If the show is a little patchy, it does the best work little harm, and the earlier, faltering steps offer a valuable chance to see an artist in progress, refining her practice, mulling over the same concerns but always improving, arriving in 2008 with a subtle, taut and engrossing body of new work.

This review was first published in The Herald on May 23rd, 2008.

A funny thing happens at the degree shows: there is so much art, stuffed into every studio, corridor, nook and cranny of the art schools that a viewer’s brain can’t quite cope, and attempts to pick out themes, group artists together and spot trends in a bid to impose order on the chaos. Artists whose work, if seen in different galleries weeks apart, might seem to have little in common become kissing cousins, and the artists whose work stands out set the tone for their peers.

At Duncan of Jordanstone College, the first theme to hove into view is the animal. There are beasts everywhere, real or imagined, and it seems as if half of the studio spaces contain fur, feathers, hides and horns.

Ashley Nieuwenhuizen’s work is perhaps the most powerful examination of the relationship between human and animal. She has performed a series of arcane rituals, strapping dead birds to her body with twine, slowly, deliberately ingesting horse hair, which are matched to hybrid drawings and a furry knapsack studded with teats which emits contented purrs. Disturbing stuff, sure, but Nieuwenhuizen is serious, not out to shock. Ai Kato’s sculptures are decidedly discomforting too. She has crafted a new mythology inhabited by a figure adorned with duck bills and mollusc shells who surfs a wave of ghosts, and a winged and bearded baby nestled in a chamber made of animal hides. Iain Sommerville’s work is a sort of update to the Punch and Judy show, with angry cartoons reminiscent of Ralph Steadman overlooking a pair of literally pig-headed thugs. Laurie Gault’s striking sculptures are another direct look at human-animal relations, this time expressed with great restraint.

Gault’s work - antlers on poles cast in a matte plasticky yellow substance, an outsize crocodile clip with a peacock feather for a tail, stumpy thumb-like forms - flags up another trend. The best of the graduates making sculpture show a great affinity for their materials. Scott Shepherd breathes life into grubby rubber castings of two-pin plugs, showing an inflatable udder-like structure and a poisonous jellyfish submerged in brackish water. Alistair Jelks’ figurative sculpture, like a profoundly depressed modern take on Rodin’s The Thinker, stands out thanks to his assured use of cast iron with its patina of rust. Sharon McNiven engages with the history of her chosen media, exploring the possibilities of traditional woodworking techniques to make precise abstract forms. Lauren Curran disrupts the pristine sheen of her small sculptures with imprints of mushrooms, and what look like tiny pursed lips. These sculptors know their stuff, in both senses of the term.

When it comes to painting and drawing, the trend, if you can call it that, is skill. Ghe Zhang’s hyper-real canvases work with multiple traditions in Chinese art, and are executed with a quiet panache. Joanna Fraser is like a latter-day Joan Eardley, painting girls at rest and at play in a fluid style, allowing surroundings to drift away to keep the focus firmly on her young subjects. Camilla Symons is a superb draughtswoman, with some fine work in pencil on show, but it is her silverpoint renderings of rabbits and birds that really take the breath away. Two painters with a shared liking for urban spaces also stand out. David Anderson almost seems in awe of the underpasses, car parks and unassuming stairwells he paints, while Ross Brown prefers derelict vistas, undermining his deft renderings with hastily-made charcoal marks. Then there’s Nicole Porter and Fraser Gray, two very different painters who match technical facility with a concern for the process of making work. Porter’s realist canvases include self-portraits of the artist in her studio, charming small-scale paintings of pages in her sketchbook and a painting of a painting of her fellow graduates in conversation. Gray, meanwhile, sits on the fence between street art and studio work, inserting a canvas into a wall-drawing and drilling viewing port into the wall overlooking one of his large-scale pieces.

This tendency explore the process of making art is to the fore in the work of artists of a more explicitly conceptual bent, too. Poppy Brewer presents the results of a performance, also documented in grainy black and white video, in which she crafted a sort of cloth shelter, cut precise strips from a sheet of paper and made gnomic notes about the idea of infinity on blackboards. Breeshey Gray performs too, turning her allotted space into a domestic salon, chatting about art with her friends, and drinking tea. This everyday ritual is explored again via a collection of carefully catalogued tea bags, a quirky monument to a year’s worth of cuppas. Another art-making ritual, this one rather more riotous, can be found in Nadia Rossi’s madcap lab. Rossi has filled a room with bits and bobs, and cut holes in the walls so that, with the help of visitors, she can poke her arms into the space and chuck paint about, combine objects and otherwise overcome her self-imposed restrictions. Fraser MacDonald’s rough-hewn hoops match one vicious game, croquet, with another, the art world, while his gilded training shoe and pastorally painted Tetrapak carton are, thanks to their museum-like presentation, works of art about curation. This is underlined by another of the artist’s projects, a tiny gallery housed in a locker, which over the last year has shown pieces by real live artists, David Shrigley among them, and what look like figments of MacDonald’s imagination.

There are, of course, plenty of artists who buck the trends, carving out a niche all their own. Kirsten Wilson has made two matching monolithic structures into which she blasts high volume noise. The interior of the first is bare - step inside and be deafened - the second is lined with sound-proofing material, together they expose the relationship between sound and space. Graeme Plunkett works with sound too. He has housed a domestic canary in a cage rigged up with sensors and tiny loudspeakers which play recordings of birdsong triggered by the bird’s motion. Ethically suspect? Perhaps, but an intriguing look at the audible environment nonetheless. Outside the building, Euan James Taylor’s work a highlight of the show. Taylor, who collaborated with Macdonald on the locker gallery, has rigged up gloriously pointless structures out of pallets - a stile over a wall is placed right next to an entranceway, for example - and, in a little caravan, documents the activities of his invented organisation, Inefficient Solutions, “purveyors of superficial commodities” devoted to “creating and solving problems”.

Of course, not all the work on show matches the standard set by the artists listed above, but this is without doubt a strong year group. There is nothing here to make you cringe, no embarrassingly derivative works, and very few outright failures. It’s a fine start to the degree show season.

All too often, the curators of group shows are guilty of shoehorning artists together, beginning with a premise, then finding work that proves it. Here, curator Lynne Cook of the Dia Centre for the Arts in New York has done the opposite, corralling three artists - Chantal Akerman, Lili Dujourie and Francesca Woodman - whose work practically begs to be shown together.

All three use the camera, whether to make photographs, film or video; all three train their lenses on themselves in their immediate environs. And in so doing, all three raise questions about gender and the female body in art, make inquiries into issues of identity, and use their chosen media to slip the usual moorings of time. Seeing them together, there are so many shared concerns, so many echoes, such a sense of dialogue between their respective practices that it is hard to believe that Akerman, Dujourie and Woodman were operating in isolation, largely unaware of each other's work.

Ellipsis opens with Woodman, who died young and relatively obscure, aged 22, a suicide. It seems fair to say that her posthumous reputation - at least among the young artists on whom she continues to exert an influence - is in part thanks to the poisonous Romantic notion that a great talent lost is all the greater, but in the room at the DCA devoted to her small black-and-white prints the weight of that reputation is lifted from the shoulders of her work. We see her in her studio, or in the grubby rooms of abandoned houses, relentlessly investigating the possibilities of self-portraiture. Mirrors and glass are everywhere. Woodman hides herself, uselessly, behind clear panes, huddles behind mirrors or crouches like a museum exhibit inside a vitrine. This tendency to reflect, deflect and direct the viewer's gaze is at its most powerful in a work where, unusually, Woodman appears only by proxy: three women, naked, stare into the lens, their faces obscured by a print of Woodman's own face.

Elsewhere, the focus is on the female body in its surroundings, with Woodman deliberately making herself invisible, concealed behind drapes of peeling wallpaper. There is a lot of blurring, too, not just to produce artefacts of long exposure, but to introduce the passage of time into the still photographs.

Time and movement are central to the work of Lili Dujourie. Fourteen of her video works, made between 1972 and 1981 - coincidentally or not, the same span as Woodman's working life - are ranged across a bank of monitors on the gallery floor. The first five of these, all bearing the title Homage à (one of many ellipses in this show) leave the viewer to fill in the possible subject of Dujourie's tributes. That subject is any artist - male, it is safe to assume - who has ever painted a nude: Dujourie films herself on a bed, or on the floor beside it, shifting from familiar reclining poses to awkward arrangements of limbs, a device that highlights the artificial positions in representations of women's bodies. Perhaps thanks to the sometimes violent movements or obvious discomfort of some poses, these pieces call to mind more unsavoury examples of such representation - Walter Sickert's Camden Town nudes, say, or John Deakin's exploitative photographic studies of Henrietta Moraes for Francis Bacon. In other videos, Dujourie again adopts cliched poses, here a sultry vamp, there a listless housewife. While time is inevitably present in the moving image, Dujourie, in a way that recalls the motion blur in Woodman's work, injects a sense of progression into her works, only to subvert it. Oostende, a series of images shot from the artist's studio, are shown as slides, each one with a projector of its own. The mode of display will have viewers waiting with baited breath for the usually imminent shift on to the next image, but it never comes - an ellipsis with no resolution.

More ellipses follow in the films of Chantal Akerman. Je tu il elle, an installation reworking of a feature-length film, offers a deconstructed narrative on three screens. The first shows the heroine played, inevitably, by Akerman engaged in odd rituals, eating sugar from a bag, restlessly rearranging sheets of paper on the floor and, in an echo of Dujourie, shifting between poses on a mattress. The second sees a woman who may or may not be the same character chatting in a bar with a man, waiting with him in an idling truck, and watching him shave. The third is an extended, if not explicit, sex scene in which Akerman's character, or someone who looks the same, fumbles with a girlfriend. It's an exercise in mystery, obfuscation and omission, with Akerman setting up possible interpretations and leaving them hanging: are we being shown a split narrative, the imaginings of the first woman, or something else entirely? Akerman's new edit of the 1971 film Mirror provides, finally, some resolution, reflecting and combining devices just seen in Woodman's photographs and Dujourie's Homage series: a young woman stands before a looking glass and dispassionately appraises her own body, feature by feature.

This is a powerful show that explores - if you'll excuse the term - the first flowering of feminist video art. It is worth noting that these women share more than a common set of concerns in that, while they provided primary texts for feminist critical theory, and their work can only be seen today through the lens of that discourse, none of them made their work explicitly within that context. While the body, questions of identity and the mediated gaze of the camera are to the fore, Ellipsis is also a show about time. This is not the sort of exhibition you can flit through, pausing for a little while before works that catch your eye. Instead, the shifting of time in the works on show - Dujourie's frozen slides, the long static shots in Akerman's films, Woodman's stilled movements - imposes a sort of active torpor on the viewer, slowing time to the pace of a too-hot afternoon. This effect is, at least in part, down to sensitive curation by Cook, who has done much more than simply bring Akerman, Dujourie and Woodman together, and has, moreover, arranged their work in such a way as to expose new, unexpected connections between the three artists.

Ellipsis is at DCA, Dundee until June 22nd, 2008.

This review was first published in The Herald on May 9th, 2008.

Jonathan Monk belongs to that group of artists - Christine Borland, Douglas Gordon, David Shrigley et al - who studied together at the Glasgow School of Art and kick-started the city’s then-ailing scene. But, unlike most of his peers, Monk exhibits in Scotland only rarely (it’s been eight years since his last outing) and remains relatively unknown here, despite a sturdy international reputation, as evinced by the major solo show spread across two Paris galleries next month. This imbalance might be down to Monk’s self-imposed exile in Berlin, or the fact that he’s represented by a London gallery, but one thing’s for sure, it’s no reflection on the quality of his work, which is charachterised by a lightness of touch and a witty, sidelong approach to some pretty weighty conceptual concerns.

That wit, or cheek, is made clear from the off at Tramway, where Monk is pretending to present two shows, one titled Something no less important than Nothing, the other dubbed Nothing no less important than Something. The pair of exhibits are, in fact, one and the same, with visitors assigned a title according to the invitation card they receive, or left to pick whichever title they find best fits the show before them.

The first work on show, Two Correlated Rotations, is another comic double act. A small projector, kitted out with a complex system that allows the spooled film to loop indefinitely, shows a film of itself being prepared to show a film loop.

But, before anyone has the chance to let out an exasperated sigh at this too clever by half conceptual jiggery-pokery, Monk presents Golden Lights Displaying Your Name. For this new work, the artist has coated the tram tracks set into the floor of Tramway 2 with gold leaf, in the hope that visitors will pick up flecks of metal on their shoes, and tramp the precious material around the city. Aside from being starkly beautiful, the work poetically invokes the building’s former purpose, and, with restraint, nods to the adage that art only truly comes into being when experienced by an audience.

Monk plays with this idea throughout this show. There are posters to be taken away, multiple mirrors in which visitors can see their fractured reflection, and directly interactive works.

These are not, thankfully, ‘interactive’ in the style of those displays that ruin many a museum, but thoughtful invitations to viewers to become actors, fellow artists even, in Monk’s work.

Another Fine Mess Repeated (out of sync) is a small projection of Laurel & Hardy engaged in a shin-kicking, trouser-dropping slapstick routine, matched with a turntable, speaker system and small collection of decidedly naff records, so that visitors to the gallery can select their own soundtrack. Change is a simple installation of an overhead projector and grey cloth screen. On top of the projector is a heap of coins, and a note tell visitors that they are ‘encouraged to change/alter the piece, adding and subtracting if required’. Gallery goers are a conservative bunch, it seems: a few coppers have been swapped for cents, of the dollar and Euro variety, and, at the time of writing, the coins have been shaped into a smiley face.

In the centre of the room, there’s an installation consisting of a video screen showing footage of famous drummers bashing away and, facing the other way, a drum kit on which visitors are encouraged to have a go, providing sound to match the silent images. While progressive rocker Carl Palmer bashes away noiselessly on the screen behind me, I manage to tap out a rather ineffectual 4/4 rhythm embellished with a few mistimed cymbal splashes, until the bored glances of the gallery attendants remind me that I lack both confidence and musical ability. It’s a depressing moment, but for other visitors with more skill and chutzpah, the installation will be transformed, perhaps into a moment of communion with the rock gods, or, more prosaically, a chance to show off.

Elsewhere, Monk explores the history of contemporary art, his own work included. Two paintings mounted high on the wall - Jackson Pollock-style abstract drip jobs - have been rescued from the Tramway’s stores, where they have lain since Monk first exhibited them here in 1997. On the opposite wall, there is a framed poster for a 1987 Martin Kippenberger show, itself bearing an image appropriated from a clothing catalogue.

This is a complex show, with Monk attempting to site his practice in an art-historical context, question the position of the artist with regard to his audience, and engage directly with the exhibition space he finds himself in, not just physically, but with regard to his history in it. In other, lesser hands, that set of concerns could easily lead to a terribly dry, overly academic show, but Monk approaches the serious business of making art with a wink and a raised eyebrow. He’s obviously having fun, and you will too.

Something No Less Important Than Nothing/Nothing No Less Important Than Something is at Tramway, Glasgow until 18th May.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday, May 2nd, 2008.