Wiesław Borowski

Sue Jane Taylor – North Sea Diaries 1984-89

January 2014

Sue Jane Taylor – North Sea Diaries 1984-89


Between 1984 and 1989, the artist Sue Jane Taylor recorded the life, on shore and off shore, of the men who were involved in oil production and the fabrication of structures  related to the oil industry.  This essay sets out not to document this work as such, but rather, to set Taylor’s work in a context of Scottish art and, more widely, the general history of art as it relates to the depiction of human beings as they conduct, often in extremis, hard manual and physical labour.


Part One

Scottish art falls, by and large, into the category of the genteel, epitomised by the belle peinture of the mid-twentieth century Edinburgh School which dominated ways of seeing Scotland and its landscape. 

The products of this way of seeing and thinking about the world, essentially as an aesthetic exercise in colour, composition and form, are still very much with us, as evidenced by the majority of work seen, even now, in such institutions as the Royal Glasgow Institute, the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour. 

But running parallel to this world of landscape, seascape and still-life there has been a different, alternative vein in Scottish art.  Scotland industrialised early; its reserves of coal, iron, labour and its developing communications infrastructure encouraged a rapid urban expansion in the 19th century when traditional ‘heavy’ industries such as coal mining, ship-building and foundry-work reached their peak. 

The advent of the First World War further led to even heavier industrial activity – in particular on the Clyde – where massive man-power and resources went into the construction of some of the biggest engineering structures the world had ever seen.  Muirhead Bone (1876-1953 ) recorded Glasgow’s late nineteenth century expansion and its continuing activity during the 1914-18 war.  The etching ‘Cranes: Start of a New Ship’ (1917) or ‘Building a Liner’, of the same year, are  typical examples of Bone’s work at this time. [ILLUSTRATION] They show the energy and activity of a working shipyard where the workers are dwarfed by the sheer size of the structures they are toiling to complete.  Other artists, too, have worked in this tradition.  Around the time Bone was working in Glasgow as a war artist, John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961) spent six weeks in 1918 painting in Portsmouth Docks.  But here Fergusson is not concerned with mimesis or representation.  He is, rather, more interested in the compositional opportunities allowed by this (to him) new working environment. Fergusson’s paintings of submarines, destroyers and the docks are general where Bone’s are precise, and colourful where Bone’s are hard-edged and monotone.  Before Fergusson and Bone, William Bell Scott (1811-1890) had depicted industrial Britain in such works as ‘Iron and Coal’ (1861), popular in part because of the relative rarity of its subject matter.

It should also be remembered that one of the most talented painters to have emerged from Scotland in the past twenty years or so, Steven Campbell, was employed as a steel works maintenance engineer for seven years prior to entering Glasgow School of Art.  Art work completed for the sleeves and cover of Sting’s ‘The Soul Cages’ (a tribute to the singer’s father “first son of a riveter’s son”) in 1991 testifies to Campbell’s rootedness in this tradition.  And like Stanley Spencer before him Campbell invests the imagery of the shipyard with religious and spiritual metaphor.  Writers too, most notably Anthony Alvarez in his poetic travelogue from the 1980s, Offshore, have depicted the strange otherness, hardship and world of interdependence which exists in such ‘artificial’ communities.  Other Scottish-based artists, in particular Kate Downie, have delighted in depicting with verve and passion the glories of Scotland’s engineering.  In her work relating to the  Forth rail bridge Downie rightly sees a poetic and sculptural configuration (as well as a purely functional one). [ILLUSTRATION]

The English painter Stanley Spencer was assigned the task of recording the life and work of the Lithgow shipyards at Port Glasgow during the Second World War. Spencer’s work as an official war artist was the subject of a major exhibition in Glasgow in 1994 and another in Edinburgh in 1999. And it is to these works, in particular, over and above those of Bone that we should look in establishing a precedent for Taylor’s vision.  For where in Bone’s images the men are reduced in scale and hence importance (in later years he refrained almost entirely from depictions of human activity) Spencer presents us with close up images of toil, sweat, dirt and heat.  This is labour in the raw: the very human experience of the gut-wrenching physical activity of ‘The Black Squad’ (riveters, blacksmiths, platers, burners, punchers and welders) .  Spencer made himself a part of this world; his work identifies with the working men and women he represents in his stylised but oddly realist images.  Spencer as an educated middle-class, diminutive southern English intellectual made himself at home and was accepted and admired in an environment diametrically opposed to his own: so too did Taylor as a young woman in a threatening, at times hostile, and frightening male environment make herself at home, and also ultimately found acceptance.


Part Two

There was, perhaps, an inevitability to Taylor’s decision to depict the life and images on the various oil-related installations she visited during the 1980s, due in part to growing up in the Black Isle a part of Scotland which was affected physically and economically by the developing oil industry.

An influx of money and labour from the urbanised central belt brought new housing, better roads and the kind of disposable incomes unimaginable only a few years before.  Young men whose only options in previous years would have lain in either farming or moving south in search of better jobs found they could stay in the place of their birth, earn good money, buy fast cars and drink, often to excess.  The mixture of new blood and new ways was not always a positive thing.  And in many places the age-old cycle of the agricultural year and man’s dependency on the land and his symbiosis with nature was shattered forever.  But this is no nostalgic lament and Taylor for one is philosophical about such change, believing that the ill-effects are balanced by the benefits.  Others, notably the Easter Ross writer Bess Ross in recent  work such Farm Land and, thirty years before, John McGrath in The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black Black Oil depicted such enormous cultural and economic changes on small communities.

For a young, visually aware person growing up in such an environment, the effect of these notable physical changes and interventions on the landscape must have been enormous.  One can imagine in Taylor an admixture of fascination and trepidation, gazing at the vast male-built, man-inhabited world which such structures represented.  Taylor admits, too, a kind of quasi-eroticism in her attraction to this world of men, machinery, steel and flame.

Part Three

Taylor trained at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen and followed this with post-graduate studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, London.  Gray’s was a natural choice for a young, gifted artist from the Highlands of Scotland.  At Gray’s she was taught design by Fred Stiven, Ainslie Yule and, later, printmaking by Gordon Bryce and drawing by Frances Walker.  This was a liberal curriculum allowing breadth, depth and scope for personal experimentation.  It is difficult to exaggerate the effect of such a training on a young artist; these teachers were part of a continuing tradition in Scottish art where the crafts of drawing and painting were allied strongly to observational and compositional skills.  It is also no exaggeration to state that in Scotland, the links between this kind of approach and world of mathematics (in particular geometry), architecture, design and engineering were particularly strong.  Stiven for one, himself heavily influenced by the Russian Constructivists, was fascinated by geometric forms and the patterning achieved through their juxtaposition; in a sense his work was a form of engineered artistry.  From these teachers Taylor learned important basic principles: she cites  the ‘golden mean’ and the fundamentals underlying the practice of modern masters such as Le Corbusier, as being of particular significance.  They both are, especially so in relation to her later work where an understanding of architecture, structure and proportion are vital to conveying the type of engineered forms which so excited her.  Although no-one could reasonably argue that such thinking pervaded the design of oil-platforms and other related structures, such a grounding in the case of Taylor was fundamental to her ability to render them convincing in print and drawing.

She has stated that the craft of drawing and representation is central to her approach.  Such an awareness is obvious when considering not only her depictions of man-made structures but also, importantly, the human form.  Such a thorough grounding in what many still regard as the fundamental precepts of an artist’s training was unfashionable for a period, its merits seem obvious. 

When Taylor moved, at the age of 22 to study for a post-graduate diploma at the Slade she recalls a vibrant cosmopolitan atmosphere with an exciting city to explore.  At the Slade which, significantly numbers Stanley Spencer amongst its alumni Taylor studied print-making under Barto dos Santos who was a powerful personality and an inspiring teacher.  Significantly, Taylor recalls Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, (again, an alumnus of the Slade) in his capacity not as a teacher but as external assessor:  “I will never forget his amazing, big sculptural hands – just like his own sculptures – and his huge, solid, strong head resting on this massive strong body.” [1] Although Paolozzi’s physical appearance obviously left an impact, his importance as artistic influence cannot be denied. 

The critic and academic, Dr. Andrew Patrizio, has written extensively on industry and engineering as it relates to art in Scotland. and it is striking that in a discussion of Paolozzi’s early years in the port of Leith in the 1930s, Patrizio argues convincingly  of the effect on the artist:  “the considerable industrial presence of Leith Docks with its large steel-hulled ships, loading areas, stacked cargo, cranes and the like, would have made an impact on the young Paolozzi that was later reflected in his approach particularly to sculpture, which uses materials and techniques rooted in heavy industry.”[2]

Part Four

While becoming more involved in the subject of the worker in oil-related industries Taylor wanted to look into how other visual artists portrayed the theme of the worker, particularly in more recent art history. Courbet, Millet and Gauguin were obvious artists to look at as their work ranged from more romantic subjects, such as peasants in the fields, to a much starker and brutal reality.

Perhaps rather more surprisingly the inter-war German artist, Kathe Köllwitz provided an influence not only through her “powerful portrait studies but also her agility and natural ability to transfer these skills to etching and lithography. And her observation of the marked, scarred faces of the toils of poverty and working life at that time.”[3]  Taylor also cites the 18thcentury Italian printmaker and etcher, Giambattista Piranesi, as a powerful model, in particular “his incredible, fantastical images of imaginary prisons…., creating such powerful towering structures in the form of the  etched line.”[4]  In Piranesi’s fantastical studies we see an imagination – informed by architectural understanding – creating detailed drawings of prisons, squares etc. 

Again, perhaps less obviously but in an entirely consistent way, Taylor points to Henry Moore’s, mixed-media studies of miners from the early years of the Second World War.  Like Bone during the First World War, Moore (the son of a miner) was appointed an official war artist.  Taylor admires the way in which Moore used line to create such strong, powerful three-dimensional working figures. 

The list of influences on Taylor is as broad as it is deep but it would be impossible not to mention here Joan Eardley who, like Taylor, worked for part of her career on Clydeside but moved to more peaceful conditions in the north of Scotland.  Eardley was transfixed by the influence of the se and her habit of working en plein air obviously appeals to Taylor.  Another artist of the sea is Turner. Taylor admires him for his “free style of painting watercolour from the open air, expressive and experimental for his time. His method and way of recording and experiencing the natural elements … such as strapping himself to a mast in extreme rough weather out at sea.”[5] In common with Moore, the Polish artist, Josef Herman, portrayed the working man in the form of Scottish and Welsh miners.

As a student at the Slade she became fascinated by the concept of “The Northern Landscape” and wanted to travel around Scandinavia. In 1984 Taylor  was awarded the Swedish Institute one year scholarship to study at the Konsthogskolan in Stockholm.  Edvard Munch in particular had a deep influence and there is clear thematic association with Taylor’s work, as was demonstrated in a touring exhibition ‘Munch and the Workers,’ – which was shown at The City Art Centre[6] in Edinburgh in 1985 and included not only depictions of agricultural and agrarianlabourbut workers in an urbansettingundertaking constructional labour. 

In all of these cases, and in the work of many others besides (including Taylor’s) there is an important dimension: that of empathy with the worker and an identification with him, as if he and the artist were involved in some communal project linked via the activity of work.

Part Five

The body of work contained within the time period under discussion (1984-89) is large by any standards, amounting to over four hundred photographs, drawing, prints, paintings and sculptures.  Outlined above are some of the generalities relating to this.  However, it seems at this stage to consider in detail a small number of images, linking them to the general themes.

The Oil Man and the Stag (1989)  [ILLUSTRATION]

This etching completed in 1989 represents the Scottish oil industry in allegorical as well as literal terms.  The image of sardonic worker in blue hard hat (on which are inscribed the words ‘Oil Man’) and spotted kerchief is juxtaposed with the head and antlers of the stag.  To one side is a dark and windblown tree, forever recalling Norman MacCaig’s description: “The ideal shape of a circle/means nothing to you: you’re all/ armpits and elbows…When the salt gales drag through you/ you whip them with flowers…”[7] The work relates to a number of others completed at this time, including ‘Crann Dubh’ (Black Tree) which shows two men in proximity to another lone, dark outlined skeletal tree. The motif of the stag (well known from the kitsch of Landseer to the politicised, Socialist polemic of McGrath) might symbolise Scotland but, as with the tree, it stands for the much more general and fragile concept of nature, pitted against humanity’s need for work, wealth, fuel and profit; here old and new, industrial and organic, clash in a seemingly intractable opposition.  As well as invoking such powerful symbolism and all its attendant allusions, Taylor pictures her worker as identifiable, with a face.  This is her habitual approach and suggests empathy, understanding and her compassionate need to represent the ‘human face’ of technological progress.

Rigger 1 (1987) [ILLUSTRATION]

This etching dating from 1987 is more iconic and thus generic than ‘The Oil Man and The Stag’ and is a deceptively simple yet arresting image.  It shows the head and upper torso of a rigger clad in a  hooded red protective suit .  Although identifiable, the noble face with its straight nose and thick moustache recalls Romantic imagery of the warrior or adventurer, for all the world like some of William Allen’s exotic paintings of Circassian warriors painted during the early decades of the 19th century.  As if to emphasise the nobility of this warrior pose, the harness attachments on the rigger’s survival suit are deliberately blurred, assuming the role of ornamental buckles or even the brooches on the plaids of medieval Scottish Highland chiefs.  Although the colour scheme here is simple: red and black, the way in which it has been employed shows not only an assured compositional sense, but also the effect of colour on the senses.  For here, the red of the survival suit is allowed to ‘bleed’ beyond the confines of the etched outline of the figure, expressively suggesting movement and emotion.  This study relates directly to Taylor’s fascination with Munch who used colour in a simlarly symbolic way, in particular in his series of ‘jealousy’ paintings. [ILLUSTRATION]

Studies for ‘Kromer Hat’ (1993) [ILLUSTRATION]

Taylor first visited John Brown’s shipyard (now U.I.E) on Clydebank in September, 1987.  At one point in a series of visits to the yard, as her diaries make clear, work had almost dried up for the yard but 86 men had been retained for small contracts and care and maintenance.  Although the old cloth bunnets so vividly and memorably depicted by Stanley Spencer had long since vanished, ousted by health and safety regulations and replaced by the Hard Hat, the humour and individuality – what makes us human – of these men had asserted itself in the form of differently coloured hats for different trades.  As a further development, the Kromer Hat had made its way over from Milwaukee, primarily as a safety item. However as well as their safety aspects (they are fireproof and their peaks protects the back of the neck from sparks, and the welders’ heads from the chafing of the helmet straps) they come in a variety of patterns and colours.  This, coupled with the colourful array of bandanas, inspired the title of Taylor’s 1993 project which culminated in the unveiling of the Kromer Hat worker’s head “presented to the people of Clydebank”.  Although the head was modelled on Roy Callaghan, one of the welders, there is as well as this distinctive acknowledgment of humanity, a dedication to all workers from this industry, and beyond. 

Piper Alpha Memorial [ILLUSTRATION]

As with other sculptural commissions, including the 1991 tribute to the 187 workers who lost their lives on the Piper Alpha platform in 1988, Taylor worked towards her finished piece through a painstaking process involving a series of sketches and more finished and detailed drawings.  This underlines her approach which puts the craft of drawing and the skill of observation at its centre.  In a way, and in retrospect, is now seems obvious that her previous work had led to this point.  Taylor points out how it was almost fated that she should undertake such a project:

“It seemed all my visual work and experience in visiting all these oil related sites was in preparation for this work. The fact that I was an invited guest by Occidental – its owners – for a week on this platform almost exactly a year before the disaster and met some of the men who died that night was an inevitable fate.”[8]

Although at first glance the grouping of the figures seems casual and random, their poses and the orientation of the sculpture is highly significant.  The three figures – defined as ‘central’, ‘roustabout’ and ‘survival suit’ face, respectively, North, West and East.  Each carries subtle but strong imagery which raises the work beyond mere monumental sculpture.  For example, the east facing figure, who represents youth and movement ,wears on his left sleeve  a sea-eagle motif, native to the North Sea region and a deliberate, some might say provocative, alternative to the North American eagle.

Such complexity therefore underpins Taylor’s approach and typifies her bold and uncomprising stance, born of understanding, empathy, craft and a highly defined artistry.


Edinburgh, September 2002

[1]Taylor, Letter to Giles Sutherland 21/9/2002

[2]Patrizio, A.., Ph.D. thesis, The University of Edinburgh, 198?, p. 286

[3]Taylor, S. J., Letter to Giles Sutherland, 26th Spetember, 2002



[6]Taylor’s touring exhibition ‘Oil Worker Scotland’ was itself shown here in 1989

[7] MacCaig, N., ‘Praise of a thorn bush’, Collected Poems, pp. 302-303

[8]Taylor, S.J. Letter to Giles Sutherland, 8/10/02

Society of Scottish Artists 117th Annual Exhibition

Publication: The Times.    
December 2014

Historically, the Society of Scottish Artists has been seen as an upstart compared to its venerable, elder cousin, the Royal Scottish Academy (with which it shares exhibiting space). There are good reasons for this. The society was set up to represent the ‘more adventurous spirits in art.’ Its current strapline emphasises an open outlook: ‘international art in Scotland, Scottish art internationally.’

As if to underline this, there’s no shortage here of contributors from other countries. But this has always been the case, ever since the society invited the likes of Edvard Munch and Paul Klee in the 1930s, and, before them, the Futurists and post-Impressionists, to participate in their annual exhibition.

But there’s also plenty of home-grown talent here, such as Graham Fagan, a Scot, like many others, whose work is widely known elsewhere.

At the entrance visitors are greeted by a series of hovering, dark,  skull-like images. At first glance, these appear to be X-rays of a badly damaged skeleton. Closer inspection reveals pencil, enamel paint and Indian ink. Fagan has explored ideas of perception and reality ¾in this case, sensing his own teeth with his tongue, and sketching the results, in what might be called ‘synaesthetic drawing’.

This feeling of the quirkily macabre extends to Marina Burt’s installation comprising living (and dead) silk moths, amid tiny ceramic jars and containers, which fill the drawers of an antique dresser.  The moths’ entire life cycle is contained here in this intensely paradoxical, morbid  ¾yet delicate ¾microcosm.  The work finds a strange and compelling echo in Jo McDonald’s The Story Kist, which consists of a textured serpentine form, apparently emerging from an antique coffer.

Burt is one of a number of recent graduates from Scotland’s art colleges whose work, in a long-standing and visionary policy, is included here. All of the work by these up-and-coming artists has something of value to offer, including Morgan Cahn’s Nail Soup, a celebration of the Dundee arts community.

By design or happenstance the catalogue uses the term ‘cocooned’ in relation to Nicole Heidtke’s and Stefan Baumberger’s exhilarating work, ‘ink,’ which celebrates five-hundred years of printing in Scotland. Inscriptions from texts spanning these centuries have been etched inside five glass spheres, which rotate on approach,causing an intense blue ink to move inside the bulbs. This becomes a pale lilac stain as they slow to a stop. The faded inscriptions include excerpts from the Bible and the Arabian Nights. Another, from Holland’s 1603 translation of Plutarch’s Moralia, reads: “With one sole pen I writ this book, / Made of a grey goose quill ; / A pen it was when it I took, / And a pen I leave it still.‎”

‘ink’ is part of a section of the show,  assembled by guest curators Sarah Cook and Mark Daniels, under the auspices of the ‘Alt-w Fund,’ which promotes artistic and technological collaboration. Other elements include the fantastical and  transparent ‘Palace’ by Gina Czarnecki.  In a curious echo of Fagan’s piece, Czarnecki has used human milk teeth as a ‘decorative’ addition. The work evolves through time as visitors ‘donate’ teeth at successive venues.

The exhibits in Gallery IV give the room a dark, dystopian feel. Ross Andrew Spencer’s installation is a topography of war contained in a model landscape. This is augmented by a pair of relief paper prints, Bleeding Brain, by Ingrid Bell and Ade Adesina’s dark narratives, Contradiction and Adaptation.

Thoughtfully assembled and democratically chosen, this lean, uncluttered show brims with fresh energy, ingenuity and intellect. 

Royal Scottish Academy Annual Open Exhibition 2014

Publication: The Times.    
November 2014

The RSA’s annual open exhibition is a mixed bag in terms of format, medium and theme. It is first and foremost a selling show, designed to appeal to all budgets, in the run up to Christmas. The Academy receives no public funding and its existence is due entirely to the efforts of its members, most of whom give their time gratis, so commercial imperatives are necessarily to the fore.

Part of the attraction is that it gives other artists the chance to show their work alongside academicians, such as Richard Demarco, David Mach, Ian McCulloch and Arthur Watson, the RSA President. 400 paintings, prints, graphics, sculpture and small installations, chosen from 1400 entries, adorn the walls and plinths in the lower galleries.

By necessity, the work is hung in various clusters, groupings and ‘clouds’. Often the determining factor is size or frame style. Quality or content are sometimes less important in this context and this can make for challenging viewing. The eye can’t settle and is drawn hither and thither.

Eventually, though, it may settle on a work like Helen Glassford’s small abstract oil The Sea and Me ¾  a vital stroke of vibrant blue against a deep black ground. Maybe it’s an autobiographical fragment which speaks about despair and, ultimately, its transcendence.

‘Where do you go young seal?’ is the question posed in the title of Erlend Tait’s otherworldly portrait of a young women. The artist, who must surely be Orcadian, refers to the folklore of the selkie, the seductive seal people who took human lovers but eventually returned to the sea.

Josefina Ayllón’s untitledpainting, by contrast, sets an unidentifiable subject against a lurid green ground. The standing male figure is depicted in thick smeared acrylic but the artist seems less interested in creating the illusion of a likeness than in the physicality of the paint.

Ayllón is one of a small but significant group of artists based overseas but whose work is included because of the RSA’s new online submission procedure.

Amidst a sometimes predictable assortment, some work stands out. Photography, although in a minority, is well represented. Sylwia Kowalczyk’s stark portrait of an older women allows the sitter nowhere to hide.  Behind the heavy eyes and pallor of the sitter, there is a lifetime of struggle.

Christine Wyllie’s pair of photographically derived etchings, Herbarium I and II, shows how everyday objects can be transformed into alluring, but delicate, abstraction. 

Jackie Parry’s cast hand-made paper construction Library 2 is subtle, nuanced, and well crafted ¾its scroll-like structure clearly referencing the origins of paper and writing.  Although Parry is an academician, her work, which has evolved over decades, deserves to be better known.

By far the strangest work here is a pair of paper cups, minutely decorated by a myriad set of bizarre, inter-connected semi-pornographic images. The artist, Paul Westcombe, well known at the Saatchi and Whitechapel galleries, seems obsessed with his own sexual phantasmagoria and is clearly an acquired taste.

From the Personal to the Universal

Publication: The Times.   
October 2014

Kelvingrove is a fitting venue for this show. Alasdair Gray, who was born in December, 1934, attended art classes here as a boy under the tutelage of Miss Jean Irwin. Even then, it was clear that Gray had the makings of an artist, especially where drawing was concerned. This show, which concentrates on Gray’s drawing and painting, has been curated by gallerist Sorcha Dallas and is the first in a series marking Gray’s eightiethbirthday.

Gray was born in Riddrie, Glasgow and grew up there, spending periods in Lanarkshire and Yorkshire as a wartime evacuee. He studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1957 to 1961 where he specialised in mural painting.

Gray is a celebrated and critically acclaimed writer with a long list of credits to his name including fiction, poetry, drama and political commentary. His best known book is the novel, Lanark, published in 1981, which Gray designed and illustrated.

One of Gray’s earliest mural paintings, The Horrors of War (1955-57) commissioned by the Scotland-USSR Friendship Society, is reproduced here using a combination of digital imagery and actual paint.  This series of paintings occupies an entire room and shows a Glasgow landscape, including Sighthill Cemetery, combined with a crucifixion scene.  Gray has based this work Breughel’s Triumph of Death and Dürer’s Apocalypse, an approach he has employed variously elsewhere.

The show is divided into discrete, roughly chronological sections that range from Early Years, Art School, City Recorder to Friends and Family. Now and Then focuses on a series of paintings made for a BBC film about a doomed love affair, shot in a Glasgow tenement. Liz Lochhead wrote a series of poems while Gray’s paintings, featuring a young couple living together in a flat, formed a series of flashback sequences. The film was not made, and these narrative images are the only tangible reminder of the project.

Gray and Lochhead were, famously, part of a writing group set up at Glasgow University by Philip Hobsbaum that included James Kelman, Aonghas Macneacail and Tom Leonard.  Portraits of the group are to be found here, placed alongside fragments of texts written in their own hand.

The combination of text and imagery is a common device in Gray’s work. It is found in Temporary Typist (Frances Gordon: Glasgow Teenager), (1977).  The central image is surrounded by fragments of newspaper, concert tickets and photographs ¾ the contents of Gordon’s handbag which Gray had somehow persuaded her to reveal.

The show highlights Gray’s strengths and weaknesses. Some of his landscapes are less convining than his cityscapes, and his line can sometimes be harsh and overworked. Although his work is often stylised, it can also be generic, as in his depiction of facial features.  The upside is that much of Gray’s imagery lends itself readily to reproduction, a fact not lost on the exhibition organisers who have set up a small Alasdair Gray industry in tea towels, tee-shirts, posters and trinkets.

Gray is on firmer ground when depicting the intricacies of juxtaposed urban architecture as in Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties (1964). His skills as a portraitist, illustrator are formidable. They reveal a talented polymath, comfortable portraying a mainly urban milieu, surrounded by friends and family.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to Gray himself: “Oh dear, I’m becoming popular in Glasgow… I never expected that in my lifetime,” he chuckles, somewhat sardonically.

Alasdair Gray – ‘Phil and Hope’

Artists’ archive reminds town of sugar heritage

Publication: The Times.    
October 2014

Absent Voices

A west of Scotland community is set to receive an unusual gift from a group of artists, musicians and filmmakers.

Greenock is to be given a ‘living archive’ of songs, visual art, music, poetry and glasswork from the artists’ group Absent Voices. The project was set up by glass artist Alec Galloway to explore the town’s  300-year-old sugar industry, which closed in the late 1990s. Galloway’s family has deep connections with the town’s sugar industry, long associated with brand Tate & Lyle.

Absent Voices brings together a number of creative workers including the film-maker Alastair Cook, singer-songwriter Yvonne Lyon and painter Anne Mckay.

The archive will be donated to the town’s McLean Museum and Art Gallery, following an exhibition there next month.

Sugar and shipbuilding dominated the industrial landscape of Inverclyde for centuries but in recent decades these traditional industries have been in decline. Absent Voices has attracted funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and signals a major shift toward creative and cultural investment in the area.

Inverclyde Council are backing the initiative Inverclyde Place Partnership which is tasked with attracting inward investment through creative industries. The George Wyllie Foundation, set up in 2012 after the death of the popular artist, who lived in Gourock, aims to set up a permanent museum in the area. Creative Scotland, the publicly–funded body that supports the arts in Scotland, has also invested in the area.

Absent Voices has focussed on the Sugar Sheds at Greenock’s James Watt dock. The vast complex of A-listed Victorian refineries and warehouses, sited near the Titan crane, has not been used for sugar manufacturing since the 1960s.

The artists, many of whom live in the area, have worked in different ways but with a focus on community engagement and the creation of long-term social benefits.

Yvonne Lyon and Anne Mckay worked with pupils at Whinhill Primary where they led classes in song-writing and painting. Both artists used the physical presence of the sheds as a starting point for exploring history and heritage through creativity.

“The pupils, who initially viewed the sheds as an eyesore, had little recognition of their own human creative potential,” says Lyon. “ We worked with the children over a period of weeks creating a series of fictional characters. The characters then appeared in song and paint. This was truly inspiring for the children and for us.”

Lyon also led adult song writing classes in the town, with similarly inspiring results. “The project has in a very real sense helped to give the children and adults of Greenock a voice that has been unheard until now,” she adds.

Alastair Cook combines photographic imagery, spoken verse and music in an experimental medium he calls Filmpoem. Cook invited the poets  John Glenday, Jane McKie, Brian Johnstone, Sheree Mack, Gérard Rudolf and Vicki Feaver to compose work relating to the sugar sheds. Cook provided them with archival photographs and documents and encouraged them to visit the area.

McKie’s poem, Revenant, has been combined with blurred, semi-abstract photography and evocative clarsach music. The poem has resonances from the past and present

“Here come the guisers / looking for sweeties/ None to be found/ Save the eye of sugar/ Oozing dark rum/ The fingers of sugar/ Dusting ankle and legs/ The spent heart of sugar/ Syrupy in warehouse drains…”

Sheree Mack’s ‘Every Memory’ links sugar to its  Caribbean origins and the slave trade. “Here I stand on cobbles running into dark sheds/ sheds once alive with raw energy/ I wonder what it looked like to the white man/ leaning over the ship’s rail with a silence in his eyes /and a canker upon his tongue/ after the taste of black skin.”

Alec Galloway’s glass and collage explores his familial connections to the industry as well as wider historical perspectives.

He says, “Absent Voices has been an incredibly emotional experience as well as a hugely rewarding one creatively and the group are already planning phase two into next year.”

Frances Walker: Coastlines

Publication: The Times.    
September 2014

Veteran artist, Frances Walker, who was born in Fife in 1930, is sometimes referred to a ‘landscape painter’ and although this label has some validity, it is only a partial description of her approach. The title of an important retrospective show in Aberdeen, in 2010, Place Observed in Solitude, came closer to finding a more fitting  narrative. In a career extending for more than six decades,

Walker has also created portraits, still-lives, townscapes and interiors, in addition to seascapes and island studies.

Walker attended Edinburgh College of Art in the immediate post-war period. There, one of her teachers was Sir William Gillies, part of whose subject matter she has inherited. Gillies painted in a rich and vivid palette whereas Walker uses a sparser, leaner, muted range of colours.

Frances Walker has worked further afield than Gillies ever did.  These places include some of the loneliest and remote spots on the planet, such as Antarctica, Greenland and the furthest reaches of Scandinavia.

However, she neither seeks nor avoids isolation for its own sake. Her work, in a wide variety of media, is often a commentary on humankind and our historical interaction with wilderness.  By necessity and definition these quiet, assured prints, watercolours, oils and pastels are composed at the periphery. 

Walker’s skill ¾ in her observance of mountains, stones, rivers, the ebb and flow of tides ¾ is to include humanity, but in a way that comments on our own transience and ephemerality. Sometimes a small figure can be glimpsed in the distance against a vast sweep of sky; and a hut or house, almost dissolving back into the land, is set at the edge of her vision.

The show, curated by Royal Scottish Academy President, Arthur Watson, assumes an altogether narrower focus, concentrating on the islands, and western and northern Scottish seaboard.  Watson met Frances Walker when a  student at Grays School of Art. Years later, Watson began a long collaboration with the older artist, at Peacock Printmakers in Aberdeen.

A number of these earlier prints can be seen here including the etching and watercolour Achmelvich Shore, (Sutherland) dating from 1980.  Walker has used a controlled line to give just the right amount of detail, so, far from being a generic image, it is an identifiable place. Typically, she has placed a small west Highland croft-house near the edge of the composition. The print’s companion piece, Shore Pool, Achmelvich,  is situated at the other side of a gallery window that frames a view across the Tay.

A significant aspect of these works is their format and orientation. Although some are traditional, others, such as The Dun Burn (Tiree) have an elongated, horizontal form.  These recall an early definition of panorama, ‘a painting on a revolving cylindrical surface’ because they suggest a ‘wide angle’ view.

Here, Walker seems to suggest that the periphery of our vision is also worthy of consideration. As such, it’s a striking metaphor.

These glimpses of the Scottish littoral offer a tantalising insight into the work of a highly significant artist and teacher.

Ceramic Review Małgorzata ET BER Warlikowska Mycie Twarzy & Jedząc Marilyn Monroe BWA Wrocław, Poland Galeria Szkła i Ceramiki / Galeria Awangarda

Publication: Ceramic Review.    
September 2014

24 January to 2 March, 2014

Małgorzata  Et Ber Warlikowska’s wonderful, puzzling and eccentric ceramics, prints, paintings and sculpture are matched by her personality. Characterful, direct,  emotional and colourful, ‘Etber’ or ‘Beret’ as she is universally known, wears a cardboard face mask at the wernisaż of her two concurrent exhibitions Mycie Twarzy  (‘Face Washing’) and Jedząc Marilyn Monroe (‘Eating Marilyn Monroe’), apparentlyto shield her from the cameras’ gaze. Suddenly one is plunged into her world — fantastical, confrontational, vibrant and, occasionally, shocking.

Several themes run through this extraordinarily diverse and powerful body of work, clearly the product of a prodigiously fecund imagination. Money, corruption, the mother and child, the body, scatology ¾ and much else besides ¾ are all there, underpinned by a strong graphical element. Tangentially these works offer a critique of, and challenge to, the patriarchal hegemony which continues to thrive in Polish society. (Warlikowska is one of the small, if growing, number of female teachers in Wrocław’s prestigious Academy of Fine Art).

One work depicts some kind of genealogical structure. A question about its relationship to Warlikowska’s family background provokes a charged response. It would be easy to infer from Beret’s reaction that her emotional relationship to her family is the engine which drives her imagination.

Warlikowska assimilates written text into her ceramics. These fragments, in a variety of languages, have often been transferred as graphical facsimiles from their original sources in newspapers and other printed media. They offer inroads and tantalising insights into Warlikowska’s concerns.  

One striking installation consists of nine hands (each about 1 metre in height) with palms displayed outwards.  Each is covered in a different set of imagery and text.  One refers to the Republic of Cayman (a well-know tax haven), while another prominently displays the symbol ‘15%’. A third shows the universal sign for female ( ♀ ), sandwiched between a knife and fork.

The title of this part of the show is Mycie Twarzy ¾ literally, ‘face washing’. Fake banknotes, in a bewildering array of currencies, festoon the walls and floor. It is carnival weekend in Poland, the traditional celebration before Lent, and the preview assumes a party atmosphere. Women in colourful feather boas toss balloons and notes in the air.

The levity belies the sinister and tragi-comedic quality of some of the exhibits.  An array of white glazed ceramic masks are mounted on one wall, like the trophy heads of hunted deer. Several have sets of faecal-looking antlers,  while the scatological theme continues with slogans such as ‘Girls Do Not Do Poo’. Elsewhere, a series of large ceramic turds are covered in images of banknotes and Monroe.

It is not easy to tease out Warlikowska’s exact relationship with her ceramic medium.  Her clay and porcelain is always glazed and then painted or otherwise changed by graphical means.   A series of ceramic male torsos (from the thigh to the navel) are typically covered with imagery and slogans. These are modelled at least in part from life. Each male member is a different size and shape, while real grass grows from the top of the truncated abdomens. Sexualised female imagery pervades this culture (as elsewhere) but what are we to make of this use of the male anatomy? These are not explicitly sexual, although many will impose this meaning.

The range and complexity of Warlikowska’s oeuvre is impressive, enigmatic and complex. It provokes a visceral and intellectual reaction, which is ultimately highly rewarding.

Kate Downie – Zero to Fifty: The Road Bridge Diaries

Publication: The Times.     
September 2014

Artist Kate Downie is no stranger to depicting large structures. In the past, she has worked on a visual record of the Forth Rail Bridge; in 2011 a project in China involved her in making images of the Yangtze River Bridge. Here, she turns her attention to the Forth Road Bridge in a series of drawings, prints, paintings – and a sound installation – celebrating the famous crossing’s first half-century.

Downie has worked from a small temporary studio situated under the bridge’s north tower. But her adventurous nature and enquiring spirit have meant that she has looked at the structure from all angles and viewpoints, including its highest point, and from below, by boat. Like most of us, Downie has traversed the bridge by car but she has also cycled and walked across it, as well as spending time below, looking and listening.

Some of the statistics surrounding the road bridge are mind-boggling. The span is more 2.5 km and, at its highest point, is 150 metres above the river. At the time of its construction it was the largest structure of its kind outside the United States.  The main supporting cables contain almost 50,000 kilometres  of high tensile wire, while the total weight of steel in the bridge is around 40,000 tonnes. In 2013, the bridge carried around 23 million vehicles.

Such statistics obscure many of the human elements around the bridge’s construction and use. Downie, in characteristic fashion has managed to capture both the technological and personal sides of this justifiably celebrated structure.  

Painting the Clarsach shows workers, suspended like flies, as they labour on the complex task of coating the vertical cables. A series of eight photographically-derived monoprints, entitled The Winter Commute, creates varying mood and atmosphere. As the sun sets,  traffic, dwarfed by the enormous edifice, is silhouetted against a series of changing skies.

Downie has used more traditional methods to create a commemorative limited edition etching. The Art of Crossing shows the enormous span of the road bridge, with the rail bridge in the background.  The view is that seen from the south shore of the river, to the west  of the existing bridges. It is from this point that the new, third crossing, already well underway, will span the Forth.

Manoeuvres with Concrete, a big, bold, exciting work in charcoal and pastel, captures the intense activity around the construction of one of the new towers. This is echoed by the smaller ink study, A View into the Future, which reveals the new road bridge as it grows daily, framed by the structure of the old.

Downie’s work owes a debt of gratitude to others, such as the Scottish artist Muirhead Bone, as well as Monet, Turner, Whistler and Edward Burra.  But her approach might be summed best up by the words of the American writer, Hart Crane, in his evocative poem To Brooklyn Bridge, published in 1933: “Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift/Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,/Beading thy path—condense eternity:/And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.”

Little Road Big Road
The Apprentice

Continue Without Losing Consciousness

Publication: The Times (unpublished).   
August 2014

Visual Art: Giles Sutherland

Continue Without Losing Consciousness
Dundee Contemporary Arts


Until  24 August

As part of the country-wide Generation programme – showcasing over 100 artists in 60 venues from Orkney to Dumfries – the work of the all-male trio Rob Churm, Raydale Dower and Tony Swain can be seen under one roof at DCA.

This is an oddly cohesive show, with common elements and sub-texts  linking the artists’ work.

The project revisits a previous collaboration by the same artists, in Glasgow, in 2010, entitled Le Drapeau Noir. The original venue, then a disused and derelict space, paid homage to the avant-garde European café culture, where alternative music and life-styles have long flourished. Such spaces saw the beginnings of the Dada and Surrealist movements, which marked important developments in the political and artistic landscape.

Originally, Le Drapeau Noir (The Black Flag) was associated with the Anarchist movement in France, and dates from the mid-19th Century. It also forms the title of a famous work by René Magritte, from 1937, which is believed to have been inspired by the German bombing of the small Basque town of Guernica.

Magritte’s painting shows steely, stylised, ‘sculptural’ flying machines against a cold grey sky. The tone of the work is dark and threatening ¾ it can be assumed that Magritte’s chosen title conflated the threat of political and social disorder with the Anarchist flag.

It’s fitting that at the entrance to this show is an re-interpretation of Magritte’s work by Churm and Dower. This collaboration is complemented by Dower’s black flag (again titled Le Drapeau Noir) containing a large gaping hole at its centre. These motifs are found in various guises such as an accompanying catalogue with removable circular centre; a white rectangle with a black circle above a small cabaret stage; and a large, spherical balloon positioned at the centre of a room.

Dower’s posters use typography that recalls early Dada publications. One presents a section of Les Champs Magnétiques, the first published Surrealist poem, by André Breton and Phillip Soupault:  “Beware of pictures and drawings/ a reek of poetry which famishes / a frightening, obscene nakedness / a chance rhyme in each corner / …this blank space …./ and the table is going to fall over…/  Boom smack !/ So musical discord / such sweet thunder/.”

Dower’s homage to Dada is found in other works too, such as the small fragments and splinters of wood taken from a piano which the artist dropped to the floor as part of an ‘action’ or ‘happening’ at Glasgow’s Tramway.  The destructive forces which tore Europe apart during WWI found an echo in the mayhem of Dada.

Tony Swain’s work – landscapes over newspaper (in this case, The Guardian)  – somehow fits into this context. Part collage and part painted landscape, they show a constructed world of hotels, islands, and seascape, wholly at odds, one imagines with the reportage and commentary they partially obscure. The idea of dissonance was, after all, a common Dada theme.

Rob Churm’s intricate drawings of plants and other imagined organic forms seem to elide successfully with the over-all aesthetic of the show.

All three of the artists are well-known and accomplished musicians. All of this work finds its complement, in true Dadaist style, in a series of performances and events which take place throughout the duration of the show.