Work

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

Richard Foster & Rachel Whiteread

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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.