The Vigorous Imagination Revisited at Roger Billcliffe Gallery

Publication: The Times.   
November 2017

THIRTY years ago The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art hosted The Vigorous Imagination – the work of 17 young painters, installation and performance artists, and sculptors. This was a show-piece, Festival exhibition, which somehow caught the public mood and encapsulated the confidence of a new, energetic generation of Scottish artists.

The genesis of the show was an open-air ‘protest exhibition’ outside the Scottish National Gallery, by the painters Philip Braham and the late Ian Hughes. Like Sandy Moffat and John Bellany, who had staged a similar outcry in the same place 20 years previously, Braham’s and Hughes’s protest focussed on the lack of celebration of home-grown talent, in preference to French painting, in particular, which had dominated Scottish art since the 19th century.

The result was an invitation to host a show which would survey the current scene. Art critic Clare Henry, Keith Hartley of the SNGMA and Henry Meyric Hughes of the British Council were the selectors. They chose only four women (Gwen Hardy, Sam Ainslie, Kate Whiteford and June Redfern). They were greatly outnumbered by their male counterparts, including Adrian Wiszniewski, Stephen Conroy, Steven Campbell, Mario Rossi, Keith McIntyre, David Mach, Joseph Urie and Peter Howson. Most of the artists were in their twenties, but Ainslie was in her late 30s and Urie was, then, 40.

As with any show of this nature there were exclusions and disappointments because the selection criteria (including the age of the participants) seemed partial, subjective and arbitrary. But the most startling aspect by today’s standards was the lack of gender balance, because the selection implied that the work of women was somehow less important and prominent than that of their male counterparts.

The current show, divided somewhat awkwardly across two commercial venues, gives the opportunity to re-assess some of the original works (the majority of these are in Edinburgh) and to compare these with recent works, in some cases side by side.

It’s clear that most of the artists have moved on, sometimes in very different directions, although the early genesis of ideas, techniques, and motifs can be clearly traced. Calum Colvin, who combines photography, painting and installation, has traced a clear trajectory from his early style to a much more refined, complex and satisfying current body of work, exemplified by a suit relating to Charles Edward Stuart. Gwen Hardy, who trained with the German painter Georg Baselitz, while still in her early twenties, has moved away from bright colours and figuration to a more subdued, morbid and intense focus on human skin.

In 1987, Philip Braham’s work focussed on the Battle of Pinkie in 1547, where the Scots were defeated by the English, despite superior numbers, as a metaphor for contemporaneous political division. His recent work is still, contemplative and more concerned with landscape as a repository of memory, transcending quotidian concerns.

The work of Ken Currie has matured, greatly improving with age. The same can be said of Ron O’Donnell, whose interest in photography, like Colvin’s, endures. But here he presents a more refined vision, combining installation and sculpture, with a photographic end-product. The results are beautiful and often heart-rending.

June Redfern’s early worked exuded a raw energy, based on the female form. The work has mellowed to a more delicate palette, where figures are depicted rather than explored, so that it is less edgy, and more commercially accessible.

There is much to ponder and enjoy here, despite the flaws. The significant challenge of the original show, which undoubtedly laid much groundwork in terms of confidence and identity, has been been met by succeeding generations of Scottish artists.