Robin Gillanders: A Retrospective

Publication: The Times.  
November 2017

This meticulously crafted and presented show of predominantly black and white, analogue photography by the eminent Scottish photographer Robin Gillanders gives a brief insight into a career spanning four decades. Although a long way from a survey or an in-depth retrospective it gives some notion of Gillanders’ concerns ­– a fascination with the human face, an examination of the meaning of portraiture, as well as collaborations and connections with other artists.

Gillanders work is underpinned by a deep poeticism underlined by the way he uses the camera to capture impressions, fragments of time, which he imbues with a significance that extends well beyond the moment. Perhaps this is why he has been drawn to the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, a kindred spirit in many respects. Gillanders’ many projects with and about Finlay, extend the latter’s range, opening up new possibilities. Finlay held a well known fascination for sailing boats and here Gillanders captures some of the artist’s hand-made vessels, either ‘at home’ on his mantel self, or sailing in the small loch at Finlay’s sculpture garden, Little Sparta.

Two sets of images face each other at the entrance to this show; on one side a collection of male heads, contemporaries of Gillanders, and on the other three portraits of younger, less well known female artists – the writer Kathleen Jamie, visual artist Hanna Tuulikki and singer-songwriter, Karine Polwart.

These sets of images could hardly be more different in their content and approach. Each woman was asked to bring a significant object to accompany the portrait and all were photographed in a set in Gillanders’ studio, comprising a table and grey background. The prints are large format coloured giclée. In one, Tuulikki listens intently to a tuning fork while Polwart chooses heather and bog-cotton as her creative talisman. In contrast the male heads, which Gillanders describes as a series of ‘studies’ rather than portraiture, presents a starker, monochrome vision.

Gillanders worked with writer Henry Gough-Cooper on a reinterpretation of Roland Barthes’ collection of essay fragments, A Lover’s Discourse, transforming this under the title A Lover’s Complaint. Gough Cooper distilled Barthes fragments into a haiku verse, with Gillanders adding his own photographic ‘haiku’.  This may be the most of obscure and inaccessible part of Gillanders’ oeuvre and among the frozen shards of glass, reflections and crushed polythene forms which he depicts, viewers may struggle to link these to Gough Cooper’s distilled words, and ultimately to Barthes’ original thoughts.

A more accessible project is the series the Philosopher’s Garden – a tribute to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his final work The Reveries of a Solitary Walker. Shot in Ermenonville where Rousseau spent his final years, and where the Reveries were written, Gillanders reveals a deep empathy for Rousseau, his love of nature and animals as well as his more intellectually minded work.