Work

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August 2008 Archives

The cluster of galleries on Market and Cockburn Streets are, coincidentally, all showing work about exploring worlds, private, public and extraterrestrial.

At Fruitmarket, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have turned the gallery into a Wunderkammer of immersive installations, small but complete environments for visitors to explore. Some are simple, like the specially-commissioned new work The House of Books Has No Windows, a fairy-tale cottage made of tales. A cute, miniature incarnation of Borges’ Library of Babel, visitors are encouraged to enter the tiny house. Once inside the dark, claustrophobic Wendy house, the work makes use of the one sense that artists tend to ignore: smell. That dry, musty, mildewed scent of old paper and cloth is strong enough to catches in the back of the throat, prompting memories of opening a never-borrowed book from the library stacks, or rummaging for hours in second hand bookshops. After this simple, subtle piece, Opera for a Small Room is a bit of a shock. In a pitch black room, a plywood shed is packed to the gunnels with a vast record collection, various dusty turntables and vintage radios, and an array of speakers which blast a heady sound collage of field recordings, rock ‘n’ roll and opera, all overlaid with an unseen characters memories of lost love. Upstairs, things take a turn toward the spooky, with The Dark Pool, a haunted attic space, with strange clanking noises emanating from stacked boxes, disembodied voices conversing through metal horns, and quasi-medical apparatus gargling with water.

Around the corner at the Collective Gallery, artists and performers have gathered to explore outer space. The Golden Record project takes its name from the disc carried by the Voyager spacecraft, packed with sounds and images designed to represent life on Earth to any aliens who might happen upon it. The 116 images of earth included, compiled by astronomer Carl Sagan, have been reinterpreted by as many artists, inspired by the curious titles - Old Man with Beard and Glasses, Physical Unit Definitions, Underwater Scene with Diver - rather than the original images. In the second gallery, grouped around the Carpenters classic Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft and intended to replace the Golden Record’s recorded greetings in 55 languages, is a series of very short films, most by comedians, offering advice and instructions to the little green men. Topics include a history of sex toys, a guide to hair removal techniques, and musings on the evil of mobile ‘phones. The result is like spending an hour drifting around YouTube, but genuinely entertaining.

rosler.jpg

At Stills, a return to private, interior space. Instead of an exhibition, the gallery is housing a library of nigh on 8,000 books and periodicals from the collection of New York artist and author Martha Rosler, which has been touring galleries since 2005. On one level, this is a new kind of self-portrait - there can be few things more personal, or more revealing than a collection of books - but, in Edinburgh in August, it also offers an oasis of calm and quiet learning, a welcome antidote to the festivals that surround it.

The Golden Record is at The Collective Gallery until 13 September, Janet Cardiff and Georges Bures Miller are at Fruitmarket until 28 September and the Martha Rosler Library is at Stills until 9 November.

This review was first published in The Herald in August, 2008.

For his first solo outing in the UK, Doves, Alexander Heim has focussed firmly on the dull, dreary world he sees around him. It’s not clear whether Heim is offering an encomium to the poured concrete and pebbledash of the suburbs and city centre, or is happily resigned to the drab fate of the modern city-dweller. At times he seems keen to show the quirks that undermine the plodding efforts of the town planners, screening surveillance footage of a scrappy pigeon going about its business in a railway station concourse, and documenting ungainly collisions of paving stones and tarmac in photographs that call to mind Boyle Family’s meticulous recreations. The Doves of the show’s title are more celebratory. These three gunmetal grey winged sculptures in papier mâché, propped up with breeze blocks, are monolithic - a Concrete Henge, if you like, bound to puzzle future archeologists. Adding to the ambiguity, Heim also shows a set of beautifully crafted bowls, their interior surfaces puddled with enamel glazes in deep blue, green and purple. These careful, deliberate objects, hanging just so on the gallery wall, at first look like a counterpoint to the half-hearted Brutalism of the Doves, but by offering up something pretty for visitors to look at, Heim seems to be asking his audience to look again at the more unprepossessing work here, not to mention the world outside the gallery, and find beauty in it too.

At Edinburgh printmakers Chad McCail is looking to the world around him as well, but with an analytical eye, exploring social mores and global politics through a cartoon filter, crafting a world peopled by ‘wealthy parasites, robots and zombies’, McCail’s parodic labels for the upper, middle and working classes.

Compulsory Education is a concise history in cartoon strip form of the school system, which McCail presents as a tool of the military-industrial complex. A series of captions, tell the story, from the defeat of the Prussian army at the Battle of Jena, to that state’s adoption of compulsory schooling in a bid to create a generation of “obedient soldiers”, ending with a table of European countries which adopted the Prussian academic model. Whether or not you buy into McCail’s revisionist analysis of education as a method of social control, one thing is certain: this is a moving work, and, therefore, convincing. The zombie children, taught to “obey orders” in factory-like institutions, and their robot peers, charged to “learn more so they can transmit commands”, are as cute as a button, and McCail draws scenes with a pared down comic efficiency, rendering Prussian victories over France and Austria as wealthy parasites prostrating themselves before other, identical wealthy parasites as robots look on and zombies do the dirty work. There’s a pleasing irony to this audience manipulation - McCail’s critique uses the methods of the very system he denounces, borrowing the tactics of cartoons, which, from Nazi anti-Semitic caricatures to the recent Danish controversy, have long been at the vanguard of the propaganda war.

In relationships grow stronger and the Puberty series, McCail adopts a different style, this time based on the line drawings of children’s textbooks and educational pamphlets. The shift in style marks a shift in tone, with McCail documenting his Utopian vision for a society in which issues of sexuality, social responsibility and gender are discussed openly, with knowledge passed freely between the generations. relationships grow stronger sees a gang of teens being waved off by their mum, dad and grandma, on their way to plant a tree, which, bizarrely, is festooned with male and female genitalia. Partly a metaphor for budding sexuality, the scene also suggests a possible ritual for marking the transition from childhood to adulthood, a theme explored further in the Puberty prints, which show kids and grown ups rationally discussing the contents of a porn mag, adults calming an angry parent who has caught two teenagers kissing (he’s so angry, he’s transforming into a bear), and a man giving a boy a knife, recognising his ability to use it safely. This is strange stuff, and, like the cartoon pieces, curiously affecting. And that’s what makes McCail’s work so strong - in matching simple styles with complex politics, he manages to engage heart and mind alike.

There’s more complexity, more twisting of reality, and more deceptively simple tactics at play in 39, the debut show by Edinburgh-based artist Hugh Brady. Brady has converted his mews studio into a cool and considered essay on the role of the artist, representations of artists in popular culture, the self-reflexive nature of the art world, the clichés of contemporary art and the business of making art. The glue that binds this ambitious exhibit together is Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up. The entrance to the show bears the same sign that graces the photographic studio in which much of the film is set, and the beams from the fictional studio’s door are painted over the beams of Brady’s real studio door, while a dual-screen video piece lifts interior scenes for the film, filling the upper floor of the building with the sound of star David Hemmings’ footsteps on a floor which Brady has, inevitably, recreated here. A flood of allusions to perennially hip or currently vogue-ish art and artists follows. A section of wall has been removed in a nod to Gordon Matta-Clark, the exposed bricks splashed with silver, calling to mind Richard Serra’s molten lead splashes (and his role in Mathew Barney’s Cremaster 3). There is a glibly minimalist painting of a canvas stretcher, taken from a photograph of Warhol’s studio, and artlessly installed fluorescent strip lights as a homage to Dan Flavin, or in parody of the sort of artists who pay homage to Dan Flavin. A concrete sculpture looks like the sort of art that borrows from architecture, but turns out to be a genuine maquette rescued from a skip outside an architects office. On the walls, abstract minimalist patterns ape the work of Daniel Buren, but are in fact patterns borrowed from bathroom tiles seen Federico Fellin’s 8 1/2 (also released in 1966). This parade of deliberately obvious references matched with an attempt to travel through time, eliding truth and fiction on the way, by layering London then over Edinburgh now might sound like the stuff of a pretentious philosophy undergrad’s wet dream, but Brady manages to pull it off. This is in part thanks to his restrained palette of three colours - black, white and silver - that acts as a sort of sturdy aesthetic bridge between works, but is mostly down to Brady’s nuanced understanding of the exhibition space and his relationship to it, which makes for a show that is, for all its conceptual toing and froing, a deeply personal attempt to come to terms with the difficulties of making art, here and now, in this particular place.

Alexander Heim: Doves is at doggerfisher until 13th September, Chad McCail is at Edinburgh Printmakers until 6th Septmeber and Hugh Brady: 39 is at 16B Lennox Street Lane until 25th August. This review was first published in The Herald on 22nd August , 2008.

By rights, these twin showings of new work by Steven Campbell should be sad affairs. The opening night last Friday fell on the first anniversary of Campbell’s death, and the painter’s absence is almost palpable. Thanks to the artist’s wild palette, his irrepressible outpouring of ideas on to canvas, and the wild imagination that informs the last works he made, though, the atmosphere at the Glasgow School of Art and the Glasgow Print Studio is not maudlin, but triumphant, a fitting coda to a career with its fair share of ups and downs.

The pleasure in Campbell’s work comes in unpicking of the arcane tangle of allusions and references that fill every corner of his densely-worked canvases, some standing in puzzling isolation, others drifting from painting to painting, offering clues to a mystery that is ultimately impossible to solve, even, one suspects for Campbell himself.

The paintings here - most, sadly, lacking Campbell’s fantastic, funny and poetic titles - are grouped into three series. In the Baby Faced Killer works, a decidedly sinister, expressionless child-man, in red shirt and riding boots, commits impossible crimes. In one, he seems to be losing a fight with two adversaries, who are wielding the dismembered limbs of a man in a yellow suit, while furniture floats around the room, as if a Victorian seance has taken a terrible turn.

In another, set in the same sitting room, the killer stares down at the yellow-suited man, whole this time, laid out on the carpet, while, for whatever reason, Victorian biographer Lytton Strachey looks on. In a third, the fugitive is brought to justice, gripped by an equally youthful detective on the sawn-off branch of a tree. The Fantômas series is, similarly, rooted in a peculiar take on detective fiction, with the Zelig-like master of disguise given a magical twist, able to merge into and emerge from his surroundings like a chameleon. The Skin paintings, inspired in part by Italian votive paintings, centre on the macabre removal of bones, with floppy figures held aloft by eagles, or lolling on the floor, their skeletons used to build ladders or furniture.

This division into three is, in part, artificial - the baby-faced killer is haunted by chairs made of bones from the Skin series, and his dismembered victim reappears alongside Fantômas - as if Campbell has conjured up a world in which to set his stories. The real world occasionally intrudes - some of the claustrophobic rooms are decorated with paintings within paintings that borrow from Jean-Michel Basquiat, a nod to Campbell’s early years in New York - but the motif that binds most of these paintings together is the Paisley pattern. The fractured narrative running through the works is held together by these aptly psychedelic swirls, with the Fantômas character donning a Paisley suit to elude his pursuers, the boneless figures of the Skin paintings resting on paisley floors, and, in a wonderfully prosaic, suburban twist, the baby-faced killer is often seen lurking beside an overstuffed wing-back chair upholstered in paisley fabric.

This shared setting for the three series only adds to the hallucinatory confusion of the work, undermining any attempt to untangle the story hidden in these works - in fact, tracing the links between each painting, it begins to look as if Campbell is having a joke at the expense of his audience, lifting a symbolic trope from one work to subvert the narrative of another.

Narrative is not quite the right word for what Campbell is up to, though. He embraces the obvious problem of storytelling in static medium, presenting vignettes that capture a single moment, leaving the viewer grasping at possible prologues and epilogues, or, with some wily tricks, embeds the passage of time in a single image. A work in the Fantômas series sees a smartly turned-out middle-aged man in a green waistcoat lunging to catch a dropped paintbrush. Behind him, caught in the same lunge, are two near-identical men, each one younger than the last. All three are propelled forward by their arms, rendered as Heath Robinson contraptions. It’s a self-portrait of sorts, in which Campbell manages to pass on a sense of his lifelong urge to paint as something irrepressible, almost beyond his control in a single deft image, one that, with a simple repetition of a figure, manages to impress a lifetime on to the surface of the canvas.

Elsewhere, Campbell squishes linear progress into a single moment.

The Childhood Bedroom of Captain Hook with Collapsible Bed, one of few titled pieces, sees our anti-hero gazing at his own reflection in a scrying mirror as his future takes place around him - the patterned carpet beneath his feet hides a smirking crocodile, and a clock ticks away in the corner. (This is a simplification - muddying the waters, as usual, Campbell’s Hook has revealed his fate by decapitating himself, allowing that prophetic, crocodile-hiding paisley pattern to gush from the veins in his neck.) These might be the last works Campbell made, but I doubt it’s the last we’ll see of him. These two shows are taken from a collection of 30 oils, and some 200 drawings that are yet to be exhibited. There are whispers, too, of a definitive retrospective, tracing Campbell’s career from the giddy heights of his early career, when he rose to fame alongside the so-called New Glasgow Boys - a glib label that, like his contemporaries Stephen Conroy, Ken Currie, Peter Howson and Adrian Wisniewski, Campbell had little time for - to the recent re-evaluation of his work after a long stint in the critical wilderness, heralded by 2005’s Campbell Soup exhibit, which exposed the artist’s influence on today’s Glasgow painters. If the late, last works are anything to go by, that retrospective will reveal Campbell, for all his compositional skill, and agile handling of paint, as, above all, a storyteller.

Stephen Campbell: New Work 2006-2007 is at Glasgow School of Art until October 11 and Glasgow Print Studio until September 28th.

This review was first published in The Herald on Tuesday 19th August , 2008.

For ten years, Ingleby Gallery was housed in a Georgian townhouse on an out of the way terrace in the New Town, a place that lent the space a rather proper air, undercut by ambitious, almost eccentric projects, like the breakneck programme of twenty-six shows that marked the gallery’s anniversary year.

Now, Ingleby, in a move more ambitious still, has shifted to a new location on Calton Road. It’s a huge, three-storey affair, with a room given over to prints and editions, a small street-level gallery, and a genuinely breath-taking exhibition space on the first floor.

Ingleby Installation View

This huge room comes close to overwhelming the work of Kay Rosen, an American artist who makes quiet, subtle work that explores the use of words as images, deftly altering meaning with the application of colour. Memory of Red is a large wall drawing in a sturdy sans-serif typeface, that reads ‘Remembered’, the word divided, with that final ‘red’ picked out in pink, and the clipped ‘remembe’ in red. This simple tactic has a strange effect, what you might call a linguistic illusion, sending the reading mind and seeing eye into a bit of a tizzy. In another large piece, Rosen offers her version of seascape painting, with the words ‘sky’, ‘fog’ and ‘sea’ layered over each other in grey on a grey background. Her prints offer sight gags and puns: the word ‘yellow’ in yellow is split in half to form a ‘yell’ and an ‘ow’, the first word describing the second. Greyer G invents a palindrome, with the letters fading from dark at the edges to light at the centre.

There’s humour to be found downstairs, too. Edinburgh-born Susan Collis makes work that immediately calls to mind the old gag about the critic who lavishes attention on the gallery fire extinguisher instead of the sculpture beside it. This is because Collis celebrates the most mundane objects, rendering the contents of hardware store draws in precious metals and gems. Riffing on the freshly refitted status of the space she is showing in, Collis has inlaid mother of pearl into the gallery floor to form a shimmering monument in miniature to spilt paint. Fixed is a wall-spanning installation that, from afar, looks like unfinished preparations to hang a show of paintings. Up close, the rawl plugs are made of irridescent coral, and the tiny screws have been fashioned from 18 carat white gold and inset with diamonds. A broom in the corner looks ready for the tip, but the splatters on its handle and the paint that clogs its bristles are crafted from a list of materials that reads beautifully, from citron cyrsoprase to white howite.

Mark Wallinger Billboard

Outside, there’s the first installment of a year-long public art project dubbed Billboard for Edinburgh. Mark Wallinger is the first of four artists to occupy the space with a stark text reading “Mark Wallinger Is Innocent”, of what crime I’m not quite sure. One thing is certain, though: Ingleby Gallery has made a fine start in its new home.

Kay Rosen and Susan Collis are at Ingleby Gallery until 24 September.

This review was originally published in The Herald.

The trouble with Tracey Emin is “Tracey Emin”. More than any artist in recent memory, Emin is a fully-fledged celebrity, her life, and her work, firmly lodged in the public imagination as a crude cartoon drawn by tabloid headline-writers.

Tracey Emin

This is not the same fame as that of those artists who have defined a public persona and woven it into their practice, such as Dali or Warhol. Nor is Emin’s fame a match for those artists whose private lives have ended up public property, such as Picasso with his promiscuity or Pollock and his boozing. No, Tracey Emin is different, because almost all of her work is about Tracey Emin. She has invited us, with a candour that is often alarming, to consider her life as she has lived it.

Now, though, Emin is inviting us to consider the work itself. The subtitle to her first major retrospective, 20 Years, has a proud feel to it. There’s a nod to Emin’s debut - titled My Major Retrospective and reproduced here, it consisted of tiny photographic reproductions of destroyed early pieces - and a strong hint that Emin is now out to show that she’s proven herself more than a flash in the Brit Art pan. Has she? Yes and no.

Any artist, when gathering two decades’ worth of work, will be forced to include a few dead-ends along with pieces that still resonate, but there’s an awful lot of weak stuff here.

Most of this lesser work is what you might call unfiltered: the straightforward confessional pieces are not a life transformed into art so much as a life lived and presented for examination. Wall-mounted vitrines collect autobiographical ephemera alongside framed texts that explain their significance.

May Dodge, My Nan gathers family snaps and a little collage made from a doily, Uncle Colin contains a cigarette packet salvaged from the car crash that killed Emin’s uncle, along with a newspaper report of the tragedy. These are moving, sure, and the spiky poetry of Emin’s writing is at times a joy to read. But they are ultimately slight, affecting in the moment but soon forgotten.

The same can’t be said of the superficially similar video works here. In Why I Never Became A Dancer, Emin narrates the tale of a gang of lads surrounding her at a disco competition to chant the word “slag”, then appears on screen, with a triumphant grin on her face, boogying to Sylvester’s You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real). CV relates the artist’s history year by year, again with the emphasis on triumph over adversity, as the camera pans around a dingy flat, eventually alighting on Emin, naked on the floor in a foetal huddle. The Perfect Place To Grow, a ramshackle hut surrounded by plants, contains a brief film of Emin’s father presenting her with a flower - a manifestation of his ideal home. These works share a sense of transformation, a moulding of autobiographical material into something generous, inviting empathy, unlike the flatly presented revelations in those texts and vitrines.

The Perfect Place To Grow, installation view

This is also true of My Bed. This piece has come to define Emin’s work, even supplanting Carl Andre’s “pile of bricks” as emblem of the supposed con game of contemporary art. It stands up rather well. Now that the controversy surrounding this grubby mattress surrounded by manky tissues, crushed fag packets and stained knickers has faded, it begins to look like something more than a monument to Emin’s bed-bound depression, subverting the coolly presented Duchampian readymade to form an object that hasn’t been found, but lived.

The blankets, which - after that bed, and the tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, which was destroyed in the Momart fire - are Emin’s best known works, reveal another subtle engagement with art history. Gathered here in the staid spaces of the National Gallery of Modern Art, these appliqued works take on a monumental air, adding another layer to Emin’s use of craft materials which don’t belong in the world of fine art, her adoption of the higgledy-piggledy aesthetic of “outsider” art, and the collaborative act of sewing them together with friends, sticking two fingers up at the idea of the artist as lone hero. Telling stories in slogans and clipped phrases, the best of them are incredibly dense. Automatic Orgasm (Come Unto Me) casts Emin as a latter-day St Teresa, experiencing a sort of secular, blasphemous ecstasy. Hotel International, the first blanket, offers what feels like a complete family history of Emin and her clan, marrying specific anecdotes to simple lists of names and dates.

A woman examines a Tracey Emin blanket

There’s much more to see, too. Too much. There are so many scritchy, hurried monoprints that they begin to lose their impact, a shame, since the Abortion: How It Feels series is perhaps the strongest, most affecting of Emin’s revelatory works, and the Bird Drawings provide a surprising, funny counterpoint to the relentless confessions that surround them. It is as if, in a bid to demonstrate the real depth and breadth of her practice, Emin has opted for quantity over quality. The result is a feeling that there’s a very good show trapped inside this too-complete outpouring of work.

That said, this is a valuable exhibition. It reveals Emin to be oddly prescient, prefiguring the defining trope of 21st-century pop culture, that pact made between a public with an apparently inexhaustible appetite for voyeurism, and exhibitionists happy to expose themselves. But is Emin a creature of her time, or will a future retrospective - 40 Years, say - draw such a big crowd, and so much attention?

I reckon so, as long as the wheat is sorted from the chaff: Emin’s blankets, her video works, and even her bed look set to stand the test of time.

Tracey Emin: 20 Years is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until November 9th.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 8th August , 2008.

The title of this career-long survey of political pieces by Richard Hamilton is something of a misnomer: for the most part, these aren’t Protest Pictures at all. Sure, it’s not hard to guess where on the political spectrum Hamilton’s views lie, but the works on show at Inverleith House aren’t tub-thumping, flag-waving calls to arms. They’re much more subtle than that, ranging from ambiguous reportage to finely tuned satire, via keen observation of the media’s role in presenting and filtering ideas and ideals.

The show begins in 1967 with the Redlands case, when the Rolling Stones and art dealer Robert Fraser fell victim to a dubious drug bust. Hamilton focusses on a single image culled from a newspaper photograph of Fraser and Mick Jagger, handcuffed in the back of a Black Maria and shielding their faces from the press pack. The first of the repeated re-workings add a coloured tint, the next borrows the style of court sketch artists. A poster work collects a scrap book of cuttings on the Stones’ court appearances. It remains unclear whether Hamilton is condemning this last gasp attempt by a stuffy establishment to punish the figureheads of a new lifestyle, or cooly documenting the process.

Later versions of the scene, made in the early 1970s, seem to acknowledge Hamilton’s own role in crafting an iconic image and see him acting as a seer, presaging the status of the scandal, like that later disaster for the Stones, Altamont, as a pop cultural turning point. In a pair of prints that borrow their title from a contemporary headline - A strong sweet smell of incense - Fraser and Jagger are obscured behind a layer of decaying celluloid, as if the image has been replayed over and over again. These are followed by a final commemoration, a screenprint that describes the scene in flat panels of bright colour, as if Hamilton is committing the lurid, gossipy tale to collective memory.

The Treatment Room, an installation dating to 1983, is chilling enough, and a clear condemnation of Thatcherism, but again Hamilton resists the urge to shout, preferring to whisper, however bitterly. Occupying a room of its own, the walls painted in that familiar, queasy NHS green, the piece is a stylised radiography room, complete with bed, stool and protective screen. On the gantry where an X-ray machine is usually mounted, there is a television emitting a different kind of radiation, in the form of a party political broadcast by Mrs. Thatcher.

Upstairs, still in the 1980s, comes a room dubbed The Troubles, dominated by three diptychs. The Subject shows a marching Orangeman set beside a blurred scene showing what might be headlights, or a riot in progress. Next, in a rusted frame, The Citizen is a Republican prisoner on hunger strike, the second panel blurring his dirty protest into near-abstract sworls. Last, The State, a soldier, his weapon and camoflague uniform are precisely rendered, with real fabric pockets applied to the painting’s surface, emphasisng the apparatus over the man inside it. The power of these works is in Hamilton’s ability to present the situation in Northern Ireland from conflicting viewpoints: the titles veer between representing the paintings’ subjects from their own point of view and that of outside observers, the three works are doubly mediated, through Hamilton and through his source, a television documentary.

This tension between source material and finished work is explored again in the Kent State series. First come photographs of TV footage of the campus anti-war protest of 1970 and the National Guard retaliation, which resulted in the death of four students. Next, a series of twelve proofs of a screenprint based on contemporary footage, which begin with a pale blue ground, and end with the image of a student lying prone. Then, the finished print, with a thirteenth stencil applied to reveal bright red bloodstains on the student’s body. A coda of sorts comes in the form of a pastel drawing, rendering the scene in sickly, hallucinatory bursts of colour, with loose lines suggesting a sort of moral heat haze.

The show closes with a new work, Shock and Awe, which casts Tony Blair, done up as an avenging cowboy, both hands on his six guns, ready to draw. Behind him, the sky is a post-apocalyptic red, and oil fires rage. That might sound a little trite, but even when he appears to be making a quick, cartoonish satirical jab, Hamilton hangs on to the subtlety and ambiguity that runs through his practice as a whole. The head that Hamilton has grafted on to a gunslinger’s body isn’t the boggle-eyed grimacing former PM of a Steve Bell strip, instead bearing a look that suggests Blair, beneath a half-hearted attempt at a steely glare, knows that something has gone very, very wrong - he looks, aptly enough, like a man caught in a lie, trying desperately to bluff his way out of it. It looks like Hamilton is nodding in the direction of Warhol’s silvery screenprint of Elvis, too, adding another layer of satire (or kicking a man when he’s down), by reminding us of the days when Blair caught flak for nothing more than the minor, if cringeworthy, crime of hitching his wagon to Cool Britannia, posturing with his Fender Stratocaster and posing with Britpop stars.

Beside Hamilton’s broadside against Blair hang a series of works dating back to the early 1960s, revealing that the artist has come full circle. Portrait of Hugh Gaitskill as a Famous Monster of Filmland attacks the then Labour leader for his policies in favour of nuclear deterrence - like Blairs Iraq adventure, a stance that hardly reflected the views of his party’s rank and file - by layering up a mask fashioned from B-movie bogey men over Gaitskill’s face. In combining Jack the Ripper, The Man with the Atom Brain and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Hamilton casts his subject as a monster-villain, and predicts a mutant future should the Cold War powers choose to test the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

There are one or two off-key notes here, as when an infographic of the first Gulf War is shown on a television dripping in blood, or posters protesting museum fees cast institutions as political prisoners, but in both cases, one suspects that Hamilton has an eyebrow raised. Those slips aside, though, this is an outstanding body of work, proof that, in the right hands, explicitly political art can rise above agit-prop or hamfisted condemnation.

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

The blockbuster exhibition at this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival will, no doubt, be the survey of Tracey Emin’s twenty-year career at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the first retrospective of the artist’s work. It’s a canny piece of programming - only Emin’s fellow YBA Damien Hirst beats the Margate-born artist when it comes to garnering press attention - but it also shows that the EAF, still a whipper-snapper in art festival terms, has come of age, establishing a sound track record of attracting major shows by significant British artists.

Another survey show hasn’t generated the headlines guaranteed by Emin, but is certain to be a highlight of the Festival is Protest Pictures at Inverleith House. The show of work by Richard Hamilton, sometimes identified as the first practitioner of Pop Art, thanks to his famed collage Just What Is It that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, is set to focus on the politically-driven pieces in his fifty-year catalogue. Protest Pictures will include everything from Hamilton’s satirical portrait of Hugh Gaitskell, made in response to the then Labour leader’s refusal to commit to a policy of nuclear disarmament, through a series of powerful works made in response to the Troubles in Northen Ireland, right up to work completed in the last year, including Shock & Awe, which sees Tony Blair’s head grafted onto the body of a gunslinging cowboy.

The other major Edinburgh galleries seemed to have erred on the safe side. The National Gallery Complex has fallen back on that old crowd-pleasing fail-safe, a show of Impressionist painting, while the National Portrait Gallery offers the rather underwhelming travelling exhibition of Vanity Fair Portraits. At the Queen’s Gallery, there are highlights from the Royal Collection’s Renaissance holdings - it’s been running for a while, but is well worth a second look, thanks to a breath-taking selection of drawings by da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. Another populist choice, but a welcome one, is the Scottish Gallery’s choice of Elizabeth Blackadder, mounting a major show of some forty oil and watercolour works.

Away from the hustle and bustle of the festivals, Portobello plays host to a public art project mounted by community arts organisation Big Things On The Beach. Garden Gallery will see local residents playing host to paintings, sculpture, installations and performances, all sited in their front gardens.

More innovative public art comes courtesy of Ingleby Gallery, which has moved from its former home in a Georgian townhouse into a vast space on Calton Road. Continuing their commitment to innovative curation - last year saw Ingleby mount a frenetic programme of twenty-six shows matching pairs of artists together - the gallery is launching Billboard for Edinburgh programme with work by Turner Prize-winner Mark Wallinger mounted on an advertising hoarding. Inside, the new gallery will host work by American artist Kay Rosen, whose work explores the use of text and language as images, and the first solo outing in Scotland by Susan Collis who renders mundane, everyday objects in precious materials. Another dual show, this time by the highly-regarded artistic partnership of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who will take over the Fruitmarket with their immersive, often disturbing multimedia installations.

Unconventional spaces and places seem to be something of a theme this year. As well as gardens and billboards, works of art will be taking up residence in abandoned buildings and artist’s studios. Richard Wilson will reprise 20:50 - last seen in Edinburgh at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1987 - in a derelict warehouse, alongside short films and works on paper. 20:50 is a must see. Often held up as an exemplar of installation work, the piece sees a carefully-proportioned space filled up with sump oil, creating a reflective surface that appears to flip the room upside down. Edinburgh-based artist Hugh Brady is also exploring the site-specific side of things, turning his studio, a stone-floored former stables, into something that hovers between being a work of art in its own right and an exhibition of new pieces. Younger artists seem especially keen to escape the confines of the typical white-walled gallery. Ric Warren, a recent graduate of Glasgow School of Art, will be setting three of his architectural sculptures, each examining an aspect of climate change, in Charlotte Square Gardens, Ettie Spencer has been growing a crop of tobacco plants in a disused office block, and Estonian artist Mare Tralla will be painting at sites around Edinburgh under the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras. In the Old Town, in the area surrounding Advocate’s Close, various nooks and crannies will be filled with hard-to-find art. More up-and-coming artists can be found at Total Kunst, which, as in previous years, will host a changing programme of short exhibits, and at the Annuale, a series of fringe exhibitions and events organised by artist-run space The Embassy devoted to local artists that has run alongside, and counter to, the Art Festival proper for the past five years.

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With work ranging from Renaissance masters to fresh-faced graduates, via key names in contemporary art, the EAF is certainly a broad church, as accessible to young art students hungry for fresh work by their peers as it is to arch traditionalists or casual gallery-goers seeking respite from the busy, juggler-strewn festival streets. It might be argued that this is a failing. It’s hard to tell the difference between the Edinburgh Art Festival and the uncoordinated flurry of shows mounted by the Edinburgh galleries in August prior to its inception. And there is no hint of a curatorial theme, no sense of focus to the proceedings. That’s not neccesarily a bad thing. The galleries would no doubt balk at anything that interfered with their freedom to programme, and, as far as the public are concerned, the more variety the better. But it will be interesting to see, with its status as a grown-up art festival secured after five short years, how the EAF will rise to its next challenge, perhaps developing into a coherent, curated and comissioning festival.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 25th July , 2008.

When the short list for the Turner Prize was announced in May, Cathy Wilkes drew a lot of flack. Most commentators, and not just those at the Red Tops and middle market tabloid titles taking their annual pop at ‘modern art’, focussed on a single element of the installation at Milton Keynes Gallery that earned Wilkes her nomination, turning up their noses at the fact that her work featured a shop mannequin sitting on a toilet, as if this one, apparently tawdry, image should stand for the artist’s practice as a whole.

Part of this refusal to look beyond a sole, headline-friendly portion of Wilkes’ work can be put down to the good old London-centric approach of the press. Wilkes has represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale, shown work at the prestigious roving biennial Manifesta, and regularly mounts exhibitions at major galleries in Europe, but, compared to artists of similar international standing is rarely seen in the capital. The hoopla surrounding the Turner might also be to blame. In recent years, regardless of the artists nominated, the same story plays out. The moment the nominees are made known, dead cert is picked by critics and bookies alike (Mark Leckey has been assigned that role this year), an outlier is identified as a possible contender (think Tomma Abts, or Grayson Perry) and one or more of the remaining prospects is, as Wilkes has been, branded a bit of an eccentric, or offered up as a sacrificial lamb for those who like to have a wry chuckle at the supposed pretensions of contemporary artists.

None of these reasons for the reaction to Wilkes’ Turner Prize nomination have much to do with the artist or her work, but looking at her latest installation at the Modern Institute, Prices, it is easy to see how observers might be tempted to latch on to that mannequin on the loo. This is because Wilkes work is, for want of a better word, difficult. Her installations or tableaux are made up of arranged or altered found objects matched with sculptures, paintings and, sometimes, texts that, taken together, hint at themes and concerns that are never made explicit. They shrug off any attempt by the viewer to decide, with any finality, what a given work is about, offering up and then confounding easy interpretations. Even the broad themes that can be identified in Wilkes’ work - the autobiographical sources, an ongoing examination of femininity, feminism and domestic politics - are decidedly ambiguous.

Prices is no different. Tightly assembled at the far end of the Modern Institute’s main gallery space, the piece revolves around a supermarket checkout, complete with till. On top of the reclaimed unit, there are glass and plastic bowls, each containing the dried-out residue of what might once have been soup, a couple of cups of tea, long since drunk, and a scattering of spilt sugar crystals. On the floor beside the checkout, there are more dirty bowls, and a fish tank - unconvincing in its new role as a museum vitrine - packed with more found objects and sculptural assemblies. There’s a squeezy bottle of honey in there, a battery and some grains of sand in a jam jar, and a rather grubby decorative jug of the sort found for ten pence in a charity shop. Looming over all this is a mannequin, its left hand bearing traces of the food that fills the nearby bowls, and, almost standing apart from the body of the installation but recognisably a part of it, are three more obviously sculptural works. The first of these is a flat board covered in a yellow material that calls to mind Marigold washing up gloves, its surface inscribed with a heart shape, which is marked out by tiny whelk shells, more of which have been scattered around the floor. A pair of squat towers finish the piece, each made of terracotta tiles and with a cross scraped into or painted onto their sides.

And so the difficult business of untangling Wilkes work begins. These objects are bound together, thanks to Wilkes’ unerring knack for arranging discrete elements into a sculptural whole. Sometimes these connections are self-evident but more often, there’s a slippery connection to be made, that only reveals itself after a good long look. There is, for example, a sort of ley line made up of molluscs that links the fish tank vitrine to the mannequin, and the bowls on the floor match those on the checkout, as if their placement is governed by some invented mathematical rule, like the Fibonacci sequence that governs the growth of the shells beside them. The tile stacks occupy the corners of an unfinished oblong, but one is reflected in a mirror affixed to the side of the shop unit, suggesting a second, impossible installation through the looking glass. When it comes to decoding the meaning in Prices, Wilkes again provides obvious clues, only to undermine them. There is an air of domestic drudgery, with the allusions to long supermarket queues and the mealtime frustrations of a young child, allied to the objectification of women implied by that mannequin. It might just be possible to reconcile this with the religious monuments in miniature, and even the scattered whelks, to identify some sort of feminist critique of a patriarchal society, but there is nothing so strident, or coherent, in this piece, just a set of oblique allusions.

Muddying the waters further is Wilkes’ tendency to return to the same artefacts, reworking them with each new installation. The Prices mannequin has a few strands of hair pasted to its scalp, a reminder that, in the past, Wilkes’ shop dummies have worn glossy wigs. The bottle of honey echoes her past use of jars half full of apricot jam, while the printed card that advertises this show bears an image of the yellow board, but with the heart shape marked out in flowers, not shells. And it seems safe to say that the towers of tiles, or the bowls and spoons, will show up, altered and renewed, when Wilkes mounts her Turner Prize show, continuing the long, slowly shifting development of her private language, with its vocabulary of objects and grammar of arrangement.

That language is, in the end, what makes Wilkes work so thoroughly engrossing. There is a sense that there is a key to translating or decoding these unprepossessing objects - arranged just so for purposes known only to Wilkes, and even then, perhaps, only in the moment of arrangement - but one that will be forever out of reach. The result is work that, almost uniquely, satisfies and frustrates in equal measure.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 18th July , 2008.