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September 2008 Archives

Hannah Frank

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In 1927, when Hannah Frank began to submit her work for inclusion in the Glasgow University Magazine - first poetry, then illustrations - she adopted the pen name Al Aaraaf. The pseudonym was borrowed from the title of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, one inspired in part by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s observation of a supernova, a star that appears suddenly in the heavens, shines with a greater and greater intensity, only to disappear again. It’s a charming choice of alias, full of youthful ambition, and one that contains, too, more than a hint of the doomy romance that runs through Frank’s Art Nouveau-inspired work in pen and ink.

But in retrospect, whatever Frank’s gifts, prophecy is not among them. Far from shining brightly and briefly, she was to continue working steadily, seriously and prolifically, for decades (she finally downed tools in 2000, aged 92, on the completion of a last sculpture, Standing Figure) and in relative obscurity, her talent only fully recognised now, with an exhibition in celebration of the artist’s 100th birthday.

Born in 1908, the daughter of Charles Frank, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who found success in Glasgow selling photographic supplies from a shop on the Saltmarket, Hannah Frank’s career began with a compromise suggested by artist and family friend John Quinton Pringle - rather than devote herself wholly to her art, it was decided that Frank should attend Glasgow University, taking night classes at the School of Art. Compromise might not be the right word, though: Frank’s illustrations are informed by a passion for literature, spun out of quotations from Coleridge, Keats and The Rubaiyat, as well as biblical scenes, mostly drawn from the Book of Job.

If her literary influences are clear, a glance is enough to tell that Frank’s talent was forged at the Glasgow School of Art. There are nods to the Glasgow Style, and the influence of both Margaret Mackintosh and Jessie M King is clear. That said, Frank ploughed her own furrow, looking back further to Victorian illustration and, with her liking for strong contrast effects and adherence to a strict black and white palette, borrowing from Aubrey Beardsley. This blend of influences results in a strong, decisive graphic style in which economically described figures and faces are set against stylised grounds. In Woman With Book, a drawing from 1934, Frank dispatches her central figure with a few concise, careful strokes, only to lavish attention on the decorative floral patterns that frame her subject. Night Forms, from 1932, features Frank’s trademark female figures. Described in long, languid lines, these witchy, sultry women, with long, strong-jawed faces and dark robes, dominate this exhibition, reappearing in the spooky Moon Ballet of 1934, and again in Misericordia, a 1937 illustration, and putting in a final appearance, more stylised still, in Dance, which sees a single figure described in two swooping lines. It might be a stretch to call Frank’s work proto-feminist, but these female figures, who almost always appear as couples or in huddled groups, are studies in both independence and companionship, and there’s no mistaking that these are works by a woman artist, about women’s lives, and their bodies.

One very much gets the impression that Frank is not a woman who does things by halves and, by the early 1950s, she turned away from drawing and illustration completely, taking up sculpture full-time. Studying under Benno Schotz, the long-serving head of the Glasgow School of Art sculpture department, Frank began modelling in clay in a bid to gain a better grasp of anatomy, so as to improve her drawing, but instead found a new metier. Her fascination with the female form continued apace, but in marked contrast to the willowy figures that fill Frank’s drawings and engravings, some of her small-scale sculptures have the bottom-heavy fecundity of fertility idols, while others mix classical reclining poses with attenuated limbs and worked surfaces that call to mind Giacometti.

There are some previously unseen works here in the University Chapel, too, pastel drawings discovered by Hannah’s niece, Fiona Frank, in an old suitcase stored in the attic of her aunt’s care home, carefully wrapped up in sugar paper. All are undated, but, going by the hairdos and frocks of Frank’s sitters, they look to be from the 1940s or early 1950s. The pastels are not as immediately striking as the earlier illustrations, and are perhaps best seen as a digression, but they are valuable, showing another side to Frank’s practice. For all her devotion to a monochrome palette, the pastels reveal that she had an eye for colour, perhaps discovered in response to her mother’s exasperated request, quoted in a wall text: “Give me colour!” There are hints, too, that, though many of her preparatory sketches from life and self-portraits in pencil lack spark, Frank was more than capable of working quickly, abandoning the precise, deliberate touch that characterises her stylised graphic work to produce strong, lively pieces. Seeing them, and the last drawings in pen and ink, which offer clues that Frank was moving towards a fresher style, still indebted to Art Nouveau but dropping the decorative trappings learned from Mackintosh and King, it seems a shame that she gave up on drawing in favour of making sculpture.

Still devoted to poetry, and still in possession of the confidence and ambition that lie behind her old nom de plume, Hannah Frank has said that she hopes, quoting Longfellow, to “leave footprints on the sands of time”. With this exhibition, she has her wish. I doubt it will be the last retrospective look at the work of a Glasgow artist who, better late than never, has made her name at 100.

Hannah Frank: 100th Birthday Exhibition is at Glasgow University Chapel until October 11.

This review was first published in The Herald on 26th September , 2008.

Richard Hughes

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The last time Richard Hughes showed in Glasgow, his work could be divided into two types. For the most part, he made immaculate sculptures of rather mundane, often unpleasant things. Roadsider (First of the Morning) was a perfect model of a bottle flung from a car window by a driver caught short between service stations. Cast in three stages from resin, everything from the yellow liquid pooled inside, to the blue plastic cap of the bottle, to the beads of condensation on its surface were absolutely realistic, utterly convincing. Even if you were allowed to pick up the art in galleries, you wouldn’t want to touch this.

Hughes’s second tactic was to make sculptures from the sorts of odds and ends he also makes sculptures of, as in Love Seat, a jumbled pile of mannequin legs, grubby long-johns and sports socks that, when seen from just the right angle, transformed into a hand making the peace sign.

Hughes still makes work such as this. At his first solo outing in New York earlier this year, he showed Crash My Party You Bastards, which looked like an attempt to recreate the aftermath of some very rowdy uninvited guests, but, viewed from across the room, resolved itself into a pouting teenager’s face, forming a seedy update to Dali’s Face of Mae West with its sofa lips.

But for this show, Hughes seems to have left behind the double-take transformations and casual trompe-l’oeil experiments to focus his attentions on the grimly realistic side of his practice, though there are still signs that this is an artist doing much more than meticulously crafting copies of the underwhelming items that catch his eye.

The walls of the main gallery space at The Modern Institute are dotted with little deflated balloons, all in rather sickly, faded colours, some with jolly faces printed on them.

This being Hughes, they’re not balloons, but precise resin casts, and to underline the fact that these are made, not found objects, each one is pinned, impossibly, upside down, sticking up instead of drooping down.

These sad little reminders of a sad little party hark back to Hughes’s long-running preoccupation with evoking dingy moments, but giving them a little nudge - in the past he has crafted discarded bike tyres, but looped them, impossibly, around gallery pillars - as if to suggest that there is magic to be found in overlooked episodes, or that we should re-evaluate those hazy memories of teenage years spent aimlessly mucking about.

In the next room, there’s a sculpture of a roll of soggy carpet that’s been left too close to a bonfire, so that one end is singed, and, thanks to a pulsing light inside, still glowing. If you hold your hand over the embers at the tip, it’s a little warm, and there’s even a faint chemical whiff in the air.

Like the 180-degree twist of the balloons, Hughes isn’t just engaged in perfect model- making - the sculpture of a carpet roll looks like a sculpture of an oversized hand-rolled cigarette, right down to a bend in the middle, as if it’s just been flicked away.

The rest of the works inside the gallery, though, are more prosaic, more straightforward. There’s a filthy white tarpaulin banner, the sort you see strung up over a shop’s signage announcing a closing-down sale, slumped on the floor, caught at the moment it fell from a set of four nails still firmly affixed to the wall.

Another faintly glowing cigarette end shows up, one step closer to reality than the carpet, this time on top of flattened cardboard boxes made of fibreglass and polyester resin.

Across the room, a single plimsoll sits unhappily, blackened with mould, with grass growing through its sole.

Technically, this is Hughes at his best - it is almost impossible to believe that the discarded cigarette isn’t about to start a fire in the gallery, or that the abandoned trainer isn’t soaked through with brackish water. And so, these pretty repulsive objects become incredibly attractive: the first reaction is to cringe, and think “Yuck!”; the second, which follows quickly, is to get in close, inspecting the works from every angle, spotting the mark of a paintbrush here, an unrealistic sheen there, wondering how on earth Hughes manages to make these things.

This is something Hughes has in common with Robert Gober, the American sculptor best known for his fastidious sculptures of sinks, bundles of newspaper and body parts, or, even, with the hyper-realistic figures made by Duane Hanson and Ron Mueck.

But where those artists prompt an urge to inspect, to work out the techniques of not-quite-perfect reproduction, they lack Hughes’s knack for bringing to mind a sense of time captured, the idea that the rotting trainer has been stumbled over while tramping across a patch of waste ground at the edge of a city, or that the cigarette has been dropped in the middle of some furtive conversation round the back of a suburban supermarket.

In the end, these pieces, though apparently more simple than the temporary illusions Hughes makes from piles of junk, or the subtle twists he adds to some of his recreations, offer the greater rewards.

Outside on Robertson Street, Hughes turns his gallery practice on its head with a public work, set in a lot awaiting redevelopment. It is monumental in scale, and, made of bronze, in its materials. Inevitably, though, Hughes has made a memorial to an apparently ordinary incident, casting a stubby, leafless tree which has grown through the burned-out back of an abandoned plastic chair. Out in the street, and viewed from a distance - the lot is fenced off - the thing appears to be absolutely real, if rather unlikely. And it infects its surroundings: the traffic cones that have been chucked over the fence could be by Hughes, and there’s even a plastic bottle lying by the gates, with a blue cap, just like Roadsider.

It’s a funny reversal of the old joke, in which a gallery-goer ignores the art, inspecting instead the fire extinguishers and light fittings, but, more than that, Hughes really has managed to question the status of the junk littering the city-centre patch he’s invaded with an impossibly real, but obviously fake sculpture, in just the same way that his work inside the gallery ask us to look again at the abandoned artefacts he chooses to recreate.

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

Kate Davis: Outsider

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Four years ago, Kate Davis mounted a show at Sorcha Dallas called Participant. It featured drawings and screenprints of bottles, glasses and cutlery striking oddly human poses, each packed with art-historical allusions, but the piece that stood out was a big plinth, painted a slightly queasy, fleshy pink. There wasn’t much room for it in such a small gallery, so visitors had to make up their minds whether to edge around it, and squint at the other works from too close a vantage point, or clamber on top of it to get a proper look. Whichever course they took, Davis had made certain that they’d follow the implied instruction in her show title.

Now, the plinth is back, transformed, and Davis has titled her collection of new works Outsider.

The structure has been split in two - one half for each gallery space - upturned and fitted with a glass front, turning it into a scruffy version of a museum display cabinet. It’s not pink any more, but traces of its former colour can be seen through scuffs in its surface, now black. Another trace of its former purpose remains, as the upright cabinets have been placed close-up against the gallery doors, but this time the platform is a barrier, casting the visitor as the outsider of the title. Despite the stand-offishness of its new form, the ex-plinth is a highly personal work: sandwiched behind the glass are neat stacks and scruffy heaps of Davis’s belongings. There are old blankets and sleeping bags, tights and sunglasses, compilation CDs and books. Lots of books, by Kafka, Woolf, Hughes and Plath, and - lest viewers take this library as a series of clues - a guide to gluten-free cooking. advertisement

The drawings are in what Davis, a consummate draughtswoman, has made her trademark style - they are nigh-on photorealistic, dense with finicky detail, pristine and precise. Each one contains reproductions of work by another artist, Franz Gertsch, known, too, for photorealism. Gertsch liked to cast himself as without responsibility for his work, making large-scale reproductions of chance moments caught with a point-and-shoot camera. Davis has a bit of a problem with this tactic, it seems. In the first of her drawings, a Gertsch is reproduced, trapped under the wheel of a car, as a trainer- clad foot scuffs gravel over it. In the rest, Gertsch’s pieces are submerged in scenes of Davis’s own devising, the boundaries between original and copy blurred. In one, a magazine is being read, while the reader tucks in to scrambled eggs on toast, in the next a Gertsch scene is glimpsed in water pooled in a kitchen sink, a bottle of pills and some loo roll beside it on the counter. Overlaid on these mergers of Davis’s everyday life and Gertsch’s impersonal practice is a line which reads, “I want everything I make to reflect my whole life”.

That quote is borrowed from the choreographer Yvonne Rainer, so for all that it might be a statement of intent on Davis’s part, she, an outsider like her audience, has taken it from someone else. The items inside the former plinth are, for the most part, impersonal, the kind of stuff everyone has piled up in an unused cupboard, and the glass frontage hints that, however much we might like to, we cannot enter into the life of another by examining the artefacts that surround them.

Davis is in her own drawings, but never fully - we glimpse a hand here, a foot there. As she strives to reconcile herself to the newly personal tack her work is taking, she has stepped outside herself, using her own past work as an art-historical reference point, just like those quotations from Gertsch and Rainer.

Hidden away in the gallery office is a final piece, a print of a note Davis has made in the run up to the show. It provides a sort of meta-manifesto, in which a shopping list and a reminder to book a hospital appointment are presented on the same level as prompts to “finish edge of sink in pencil” and “trace out Gertsch head on knees to reflect my drawing”.

There’s another hidden work, too, in the form of the press release for the show. Rather than provide the usual gobbet of gnomic artspeak padded out with a potted biography, Davis shares a personal letter to her gallerist, in which she ponders the shift in her practice since the last show, and gives voice to her hope that she will be able successfully to communicate her ideas.

It’s a tentative piece of writing, and, for all the confidence of her drawings, this is a tentative show. Davis is showing us that she is an artist feeling her way towards a new mode of practice, uncertain as to how she should proceed. The engagement with art history that characterised her past work is here in spades - the absorption of feminist forebears’ work centred on their own lives and bodies, the calculated undermining of Gertsch’s almost macho posture of artist as machine - and the new-found self-examination is set within those self-imposed academic constraints. But, once the idea that Davis has cast artist and audience alike as outsiders, looking in on a life, and the making of work about that life, it begins to look like we’re all in this together, participants again, not outsiders at all. This give-and-take, the setting up of ideas in order to knock them down, and the exposure of the working out behind the work all add up to a self-portrait of an artist on the cusp of something new. I can’t wait to see what Davis does next.

This review was first published in The Herald on 12th September, 2008.

Altered States of Paint

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This year, those of us who can’t remember anything about the 1960s because, not having been born, we weren’t really there, have had to put up with baby boomers reminiscing about 1968, painted as twelve months of sit-ins, student uprisings, civil rights triumphs and general grooviness.

The ideas that lie behind Altered States of Paint are drawn from the darker side of the counterculture, and the show is more ‘69 than ‘68, skipping free love and revolutionary politics in favour of Woodstock warnings against taking the brown acid, the occultist experimentation of Kenneth Anger and Bobby Beausoleil, Brian Jones floating dead in his swimming pool, and the violent full-stop to the decade provided by Charles Manson and the Hells Angels at Altamont. The show’s title is borrowed from Ken Russell’s 1980 film Altered States, in which hero Dr. Jessup loses mind and body both, on fly agaric in his isolation tank, and curator Graham Domke quotes Aldous Huxley in his introductory text: ‘The man who comes back through the Door in the Wall will never be quite the same as the man who went out.’

Heavy stuff. And yet the show opens with Rabiya Choudry’s decidedly jolly wall painting. This huge slab of black, pink and glittering gold completely covers the entrance to the gallery, and is full of cartoon faces with bulging eyes, halfway between SpongeBob SquarePants and Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, peeping out from behind bold graphic motifs. It’s an indication that, for all those intimations of psychedelic doom and gloom, Domke has conjured up a complex creature of an exhibition, happy to undermine his stated premise, to clash artists rather than match them, and, ultimately, to confuse his audience rather than guiding them.

Inside the gallery proper, the first room holds a sort of capsule show-within-a-show, with work by all but one of the exhibiting artists. Till Gerhard’s Healter might reference the Manson Family’s unfortunate obsession with the Beatles, but it’s a light, airy piece of work, with three women dancing around a fairground helter skelter, obscured by spray-painted blasts of colour. Andreas Dobler’s Up In Smoke has an impenetrable, alien air, with rail tracks burnt to ash and two concrete structures with smoking bowls set in a fiery void. Then comes a sudden shift. Angela de la Cruz alters the state of painting by turning her canvases into sculptural forms, breaking down the stretcher of Super Clutter XXL and bolting it back together, turning a cool, collected work in high-gloss pink and brown into a frozen act of violence. Neil Clements makes sculptural paintings too, the surface of Dee a restrained minimalist essay in grey and black, countered by a canvas that borrows its shape from the Gibson Flying V guitar. What is going on here? These are artists with very different aims, some internationally established, some, like Clements and Choudry, emerging onto the Scottish scene. Jutter Koether’s small painting, which layers liquid glass and pushed-in thumbtacks over a roughly-sketched “A”, provides an answer, or a clue - all the works in the room are, or contain, the triangular shape of that letter. It’s a neat trick - rather than forcing a connection between the artists he has brought together, Domke allows a simple, formal correspondence to hint that, for all their differences, these painters share something, even if, at this point, it is no more than a superficial similarity.

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In the main gallery space, the connections implied by that A-shape become clearer: these painters are all explorers. Andreas Dobler explores worlds of his own devising. Turfstones offers a post-apocalyptic scene, with half-buried Brutalist relics fording a lava stream. Meditating the wreck sees a woman, cross-legged, contemplating a crashed space ship. Stretch it is full of a strange elastic mould, infecting an artist’s studio. Til Gerhard’s explorations drift through real time and interior space, borrowing cultural artefacts from the past - the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks LP, scenes from the The Wicker Man - and dips them in private hallucinatory visions.

Jutta Koether provides a companion piece to her work in the first gallery, this time a letter K, spelling out her debt to Kenneth Anger. A series of small works, again peppered with tacks, suggest the completion of arcane rituals, and the repeated use of reflective materials offers a distorted view of the viewer, and skewed glimpses of the exhibition itself. Her large scale work, Touch and Resist 5 is a huge, hastily-rendered monochrome, seven metres across, that borrows compositionally from Titian and Reubens, but, thanks to its clumsy, hurried brushtrokes, is firmly placed within the Koether canon.

Once more, Koether provides the glue that binds the show together. The explicit engagement with art history of Touch and Resist 5 points to Clements. ‘85, another canvas cut into the shape of a guitar, this time the sort favoured by heavy metal soloists, again operates at the junction between painting and sculpture with. Clements goes further with (Full Stop), a pair of paintings that merge two traditions. Both might be seen as close-up copies of Malevich’s Black Square, but after hanging his stark canvases, Clements holds a can of spraypaint up and empties it onto the centre of each work, following the instructions of arch-conceptualist Lawrence Weiner.

Like Clements, de la Cruz makes work that explores its own making, but hers is a still more self-contained, self-referential practice. Clutter VI (with white blanket) is deconstructs and reconstructs another painting, only to obscure it almost completely beneath another canvas. Ready To Wear is a small, square work, and this time the canvas is peeled back and ruched, revealing the frame and the wall behind. Best of all, the all-black canvas of Stuck has been unceremoniously jammed into an entranceway, firmly closing the doors of perception that this exhibit promised to open.

The inclusion of Clements and de la Cruz is intriguing. Their work is the best here, but, for all that they fit in with a loose theme of painterly exploration, neither are easy bedfellows for the more explicit mining of the dark side of the 1960s dream found in the work of their peers here. They do, though, complete the exhibition. Without their cool, collected essays on the possibilities of painting, Altered States of paint might well have been too overbearing, too trippy, and, like the those rose-tinted memories of ‘68, too simple a show.

This review was first published in The Herald on Friday 5th September , 2008.

Inspirations

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Galleries are not always perfect places for looking at art. They can be guilty of pandering to an elite, and are often intimidating, even to seasoned art fanciers. Might it not, then, be a good plan to bring art out into the world, installing it in spaces where people gather, rather than hiding it away in white cubes and museum halls?

This show, housed in a café on the ground floor of the old Sherrif Court, is not so much an argument against that idea as an argument in favour of the practice being forbidden by law.

Inspirations matches work by the likes of John Bellany, Ken Currie, Peter Howson and the late Steven Campbell with portraits of the artists by Shahin Memishi. This might be an interesting conceit, were it not for the fact that Memishi is - and this is a generous assessment - only a fairly capable painter, to the extent that it is a surprise his subjects agreed to sit for him. Memishi, it seems safe to say, has a higher opinion of his own work than that, setting up his Two Figures on an easel in front of Ken Currie’s brooding and bleak White Terror II, almost completely obscuring one of the best works here. I was offended by this, goodness knows what Currie would make of it. A portrait of John Bellany attempts to communicate that painter’s recent adoption of a bright palette by surrounding him with primary-hued squiggles. This ham-fisted tactic is thrown into sharp relief by the presence of Steven Campbell’s Un Homme et une femme, with its knowing, sophisticated nods to Picasso.

To make matters worse, the hanging of the show is chaotic, and absurdly cramped. Half the paintings are skew-whiff on the wall, others are plonked unceremoniously on the floor. A fine collection of drawings by Peter Howson - as always, more satisfying than his painting - is fixed so high on the wall that visitors wanting to take a good long look at them will be forced to stand on a chair. One final, farcical note: Steven Campbell’s name is misspelled, as Stephen, both on the label beside his painting and in the title of Memishi’s portrait of the artist.

Whatever the faults of traditional gallery spaces, visitors can at least expect work to be hung with the aid of a spirit level, at eye level, and with the details of the work both present and correct. Here, the only information you can trust is the list of high prices.

It’s not clear whether Memishi genuinely beleieves his work to be of the same calibre as the painters who inspire him, or if he simply has the brass neck to drum up publicity for his mediocre paintings by partnering them with the work of some of Glasgow’s best, and best-loved artists. Whichever it is, Memishi has embarrassed himself, and this show will irritate, or even anger any art lovers lured by those big names on the bill.

This review was not published in The Herald on September 3rd, 2008.