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.