At first glance, Richard Forster’s small drawings of the seashore look to be, well, a bit boring. Seen from the entrance to the gallery, the 40-odd works, all 5in x 7in, are arranged at regular intervals around the walls, and each shows the same dimly-lit grey scene, a sliver of sand, an expanse of sea, a stripe of sky.
Up close, though, they take the breath away. Forster is a remarkable draughtsman, capturing each spackle of foam on a cresting wave, the interlocking filigree pattern on the surface of the water as it is sucked away from the shore, and the sheen of wet sand as the wave finally recedes with a photorealistic intensity. In fact, it is sometimes hard to shake the impression that these aren’t drawings at all, but photographic prints, old daguerreotypes or calotypes perhaps, rescued from a forgotten Edwardian album.
This is not just down to Forster’s skill: these are not drawings of the sea and the shore, but drawings of photographs of the sea and the shore, meticulously made reproductions of throwaway, ephemeral snapshots. There is something determined, obsessive, even masochistic about this process. Forster worked at full tilt for four months to produce these drawings, and each gasp at the artist’s skill is matched with a shake of the head at this strange, zealous quest to make perfect copies of his photographic source material. advertisement
The time taken to make these works is more than a simple fact about their making, though: it is a clue that Forster’s subject is not just the shoreline, but time itself. These new works look old, the single, static viewpoint is undermined by the ever-shifting waters, the fast, instantaneous nature of contemporary photography is reconfigured by Forster’s slow transcription, and the slow process of examining his finished works, one by one. The sea is, too, inextricably linked to time, from the repeated crashing waves that mark minutes to the cyclic forces of the tides that mark the seasons.
Something like a narrative, the ordered passing of time, unfolds as these superficially similar works reveal their differences. There’s the ebb and flow of the waves on the shore, of course, but more than that Forster (who you might accuse of absenting himself as an artist in his all-consuming act of copying) makes himself known, the protagonist in a slow drama. For the most part, he sticks to the plan, relentlessly taking shot after shot of his patch of beach, with the same horizon line and measly strip of sky, but mistakes are made, and patterns form. On one short wall, three drawings offer more in the way of sky, with clouds lit from within by the moon or sun. In another triptych hidden inside the series, Forster traces the progress of a single wave, having taken three shots in quick succession (interestingly, in the publication that accompanies the show, these three alone are laid out together on a fold-out sheet).
One drawing stands out from its peers, because the horizon line is at an angle, a tiny difference that in this context seems nothing short of shocking. Perhaps Forster lost his footing, or nudged his tripod. The thirteenth and fourteenth drawings are, unlike the others, verging on the abstract, with soft white bands against a grey background, as if Forster, fingers feeling the chill after standing for so long on the same spot, shifted the focus of his camera a little to far, and pressed the shutter release a couple of times before he had a chance to correct the error.
Then, as the long series of drawings draws to a close with a run of drawings made from clear, crisp images, the last one looks to have been taken carelessly, with the camera pointing down. It would be a stretch to call these drawings a new sort of self-portrait, but Forster is doing more than presenting a dispassionate survey of the changing sea, he is present in these drawings, sharing two intimate experiences: the brief, immediate act of taking photographs out in the world, and the long hard slog in the studio, transcribing them. This might, though, be an illusion.
It’s easy to assume the drawings are arranged as the photographs were taken, but it is possible that Forster’s project is even more deliberate: it could be that he spent as long at the beach as he did wielding a pencil, selecting and ordering his photographic prints before making his drawings, like a film director in the edit suite, with a plan to manipulate his audience, purposely crafting the hint of narrative structure that appears as they pace the gallery.
This is rewarding work. Forster’s deceptively simple, apparently repetitive set of drawings offers a display of virtuoso draughtsmanship backed with a rich meditation on place, time and the nature of photography and drawing.
Outside, the latest instalment in Ingleby’s Billboard for Edinburgh public art project, Rachel Whiteread has taken over an advertising hoarding high on the wall of the gallery building. Instead of blowing up one of her collaged works on paper, Whiteread has picked a photograph of her installation Place (Village). The village in question is made up of vintage doll’s houses, some home-made, which Whiteread has been collecting for 20 years, each one empty, and lit from within.
In installation form, Place (Village), which has been shown in different configurations in Boston, London and Naples, is sad and a little spooky, like a ghost town in miniature. Here, on a grey wall, under grey Edinburgh skies, after Forster’s incessant monochromes, the red roofs, and backlit windows form a jolly, twinkly, positively Christmassy scene. After Mark Wallinger’s plain, dry offering - he presented a simple slogan text, “Mark Wallinger is innocent” - the billboard project has found its feet, showing the potential of the innovative format to transform an artist’s work.
This review was first published in The Herald on 4th November , 2008.