Whitney McVeigh – Language of Memory

Publication: The Times.      
December 2015

Whitney McVeigh: Language of Memory

12 Dec, 2015 to 9 March 2016


In 1928 the Surrealist poet and artist, André Breton, published a short novel, Nadja. The narrative mentions the Saint-Ouen flea market and Breton’s fascination with “…. searching for objects that can be found nowhere else: old-fashioned, broken, useless, almost incomprehensible, even perverse…. yellowed nineteenth century photographs, worthless books and iron spoons.” The use of such ‘found’ objects as artworks became a central part of the Surrealists’ method.  A few years before, in New York, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp exhibited an artwork he titled ‘Fountain’, which consisted of a signed, upturned ceramic urinal. The use of objets trouvés has been a popular artistic strategy in the intervening century.

Here, Whitney McVeigh, who was born in 1968 in New York and trained at Edinburgh College of Art, makes extensive use of objects such as old records, books, photographs as well as masonry, a typewriter and an antique toy pram. McVeigh has spent the last 20 years collecting such objects and keeping them in her small London studio. They may, in her terminology, be described as a ‘memory bank’, a ‘repository’. Photography, audio recording and written texts are all, in a sense, methods of storing and passing on memories and information.

But these are the memories of others, now long gone. McVeigh seeks to reconnect these found objects to their lost memories, in a series of sparse, poetic interventions.  ‘Solitude a breath away’ (a tiny pram full of glass objects with white residue) suggests some of McVeigh’s main themes ­­­– motherhood, loss, the passage of time and the fragility of personal histories.

Other works underline the idea of past childhoods. ‘Lock’ is a pair of child’s shoes, perhaps Edwardian, placed silently and neatly on the floor. Inside are two small rusted padlocks. These objects connect us to a past, but one which is unknown, whose narrative we must assemble individually.

‘The Children’s Treasure House’ is simply a collection of books placed on a plinth, the title taken from a series that includes “The Great Poetry Book, Vol. II”. McVeigh therefore takes not only objects but phrases as a form of ‘found’ text and, which, when placed in a new context, accumulate new meaning.

A short film, ‘Birth: Origins at the end of life’ made in St Christopher’s Hospice, London, records fragments of the lives of six women. There is a delicacy of touch here and a poignancy which avoids prurience or flashy production. Each woman, at the end of her life, talks movingly about motherhood and loss. A sound installation, where McVeigh enumerates, in a delicate whisper, each of the 6857 days between the birth of her daughter and her 18th birthday, complements some of the main strands of this poetic, fragile exploration of some of life’s most profound experience.

As with the best art, McVeigh expands personal experience to connect with the universal.


The Times 11 December 2015


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The Model Engineer



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Calum Colvin: Jacobites by Name

Publication: The Times.    
December 2015

The title of this show, by artist Calum Colvin, is taken from a popular Whig anti-Jacobite song, later modified and some would say improved, by Robert Burns, around 1791. Rather like the visual works here, it offers multiple interpretations, nuances and a complex history.

There is nothing straightforward in the historical narratives which these works address and this is reflected in Colvin’s interpretation of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s Jacobite collection.  Jacobite, taken from the Latin Jacobus (James), refers to the political movement aimed at restoring the Catholic Stuart dynasty to the throne of England, Scotland and Ireland following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

Colvin has reinterpreted various works in the collection using a variety means. His signature technique is to construct a ‘set’ comprising three-dimensional objects, photographs and other imagery, which he then paints, using various trompe l’oeiltechniques. The entire assemblage is then photographed and, in an additional layer of mediation, digitally manipulated. It is these finished photographs which are displayed, framed and glazed, amongst the historical collection.

The iconography of Jacobitism was often secretive and covert, a reflection of the fact that its supporters were viewed as traitors by the state. Portraits, mottos and other imagery was often found sewn inside articles of clothing or fans, or painted on box lids.

Here, Colvin alludes to these practices and also employs other methods such as anamorphosis ­­–  in this case, distorted imagery that is revealed through its reflection in a cylindrical mirror. 

‘Secret Portrait’ is based on an anamorphic image, made in 1745, of Charles Edward Stuart ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, (1720-88), son of the ‘Old Pretender’, James Francis Edward Stuart and the Polish Princess, Maria Clementina Sobieska.

A second, lenticular, portrait of Charles Edward Stuart, ‘Lochaber No More’ (2012) is based on two contemporaneous images – one, an engraving by Johann Georg Wille from 1748 and the other, a painting, made almost 40 years later, by Hugh Douglas Hamilton. As the angle of viewing changes, the younger Bonnie Prince Charlie morphs into the older and noticeably melancholy figure. The title of the piece comes from a popular Jacobite lament, the rendition of which caused the exiled Prince to weep.

There is great ingenuity in this show, not least in the way in which it is hung. Several of the works (including those from the collection) are placed high on the walls, precluding any careful examination. Some are interspersed with the permanent collection at a regular height, while still others are to be found hidden in a series of wall cabinets. These are not at all obvious and one suspects that a substantial portion of the viewing public will miss them. However, perhaps this is a risk worth taking, given the fact that it mirrors covert historical practices.

In many of the collection’s historical portraits and in those interpretations offered by Colvin, Charles Edward Stuart sports the insignia of the Order of the Garter. The motto reads ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense’ (dishonour on him who thinks ill of it). The Order, established in 1348, predates many dynasties and lines of succession in the English and British throne. Its pictorial and iconographic prominence here signals the strength of the perceived legitimacy of the Jacobites’ claim.

Colvin has assembled a complex and intriguing series of interventions which provoke historical and artistic re-assessment.

* ‘Jacobites by Name’ is shown in the context of the 300th anniversary of the 1715 Jacobite rising and is shown alongside ‘Rise and Fall: The Earl of Mar and the 1715 Jacobite Rising’ which examines the role of John Erskine, 6th Earl of Mar, in the rebellion.

Diana Zwibach

December 2015

The House of Dreams – Recent Work by Diana Zwibach

Diana Zwibach was born in Novi Sad on the banks of the Danube River and lived there until the age of 12 when, in 1961, she moved with her father and mother to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Her father was a radiologist and his talents were much sought after. However, his dream was to take his family to Israel and this dream became a reality when the family moved to Tel Aviv in 1964, allowing her father to take up a post at the Chaim Sheba Hospital and a lecturing position at Tel Aviv University. When in Ethiopia the Zwibach family witnessed an ill-fated coup against the regime of Emperor Haile Selassie and later, in Israel, Diana and her mother were temporarily evacuated to Rome in 1967 to avoid the potential dangers created by Israel’s Six Day War with its Arab neighbours.  When Zwibach asked her father why she and her mother were being sent away, her father replied that it was their safety; that he could not bear the thought of loosing those he loved. Tibor Zwibach’s parents, his sister and his niece had perished in Auschwitz along with so many countless others and this trauma had scarred his psyche and remained a deep and irreconcilable burden until his own premature death in 1975 at the age of 56.

Despite Tibor Zwibach’s best efforts to protect his only child, Zwibach’s probing mind and sensitive nature detected a sadness and despair in her father, a man she adored and admired. One of the images in this body of recent work – executed in a very short and intense period of creative energy – shows a male figure: tall, proud, athletic. The predominant tonality of the image is blue and is an homage to Zwibach’s father, her protector. Here, he emerges dream-like from the blue of the Danube after swimming or rowing. This is a central image in this new body of work which focuses specifically on Zwibach’s early childhood in the small, lively, colourful Serbian city. It is a city of dreams, of remembered colours, sounds, smells, people, laughter, movement…a constantly changing panoply of imagery filtered through the lens of memory and the intervening decades of living. It is a childhood remembered, cherished, valued and shared.

These images (there are around eighty in all) differ from much of Zwibach’s previous work – canvases in which she sought to come to terms with her familial history, the history of her people and the traumatic events in which she found herself caught up, as a witness to human brutality and the vast tides of history over which she had no control. Her images were frequently a testimony to pain and, as such, were tableauxof anxiety and confusion – cluttered, coloured, confused – as they reflected an inner turmoil and restlessness. They were the product of the history of post-war Europe and the history of the world beyond.

Here we find Zwibach in a more reflective, contemplative and celebratory mood. The images are almost wholly of a childhood remembered with joy and, as such, they are warm, loving and often convivial. One shows a blond girl with ribbons in her bunched hair holding a doll. In fact, the figure (the artist herself as a young girl) caresses the doll in a gesture of loving protectiveness. This might be seen as metaphor for the mature artist cherishing the memories which provide the basis for this exhibition. In another, a white seagull perches atop a wooden post protruding from the river Danube.  However, unlike the dying seagull in Anton Chekhov’s eponymous drama, Zwibach’s bird is a symbol of hope, freedom and beauty. It is a symbol with which the artist herself strongly identifies. Compositionally, this image shares a number of characteristics with others in this series. Firstly, its focus is extremely tight and the main image occupies the majority of the physical space (in this case A3 paper). The ground is a predominant solid red, so that the white bird is thrust forward into the viewer’s gaze and although there is energy and movement in the background and surrounding the central image, the effect is not to distract the viewer’s attention but, rather, to focus it. 

Zwibach employs a number of recurrent motifs throughout this new body of work, and while some are both symbolic and realistic, others merely stand for themselves, without allusion, metaphor or symbolism.  In another work there is a composition comprising a male and female figure, a donkey and a ladder. Whereas the human figures may allude to family or friends, the donkey is simply a recording of childhood remembrance: donkeys and horses were a common sight in post-war Novi Sad, beasts of burden and transportation. The ladder is a more enigmatic reference and symbolises for Zwibach the possibilities of life: ascend and descend, rather like in the game of snakes and ladders itself.

At heart Zwibach is a figurative painter. Her interest in the human figure can be traced back again to her childhood, peopled with characters, friends, family, guests – a colourful cast who lived in and passed through the convivial household created by her cultured and sociable parents.  Added to this was the vibrant life of Nowy Sad where open-air markets, Gypsies and puppet theatre gave her youthful imagination much on which to dwell.  In later years her formal training was also highly influential in directing her artistic attention to the human figure; teachers such as Moshe Rosenthalis (b.1922) in Tel Aviv,  Joseph Hirsh (1920-1998) and Zvi Tolkovsky (b.1934) of the  Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and Carol Weight (1908-1997) of the Royal College of Art in London provoked her interest and offered her an expanded view of the possibilities and purpose of art.

Many of these images, therefore, offer a perspective on the human figure; often figures are grouped in pairs or in greater combinations but sometimes the figure is solitary, isolated within its own world. In one small but powerful image a cross-legged form (it could be either male or female) contemplates a full, rising moon. Zwibach describes her childhood experience and that of her adult life as being solitary, not in a physical sense but emotionally.  It’s a theme which has been dwelt upon by numerous artists but it also reflects the human condition; at times we all to a greater or lesser extent, feel a loneliness, an isolation and a disconnection with the life which surrounds us. This is paradoxical in an age which suffers from ‘information overload’ where we are constantly bombarded by noise, images and all the concomitant sensory clutter which our technological age has unleashed.

Even where figures are found in groups of two or more, it’s possible to detect a distance between the ensemble characters; although physically close, these figures rarely touch or entwine. Even in love there is a separateness.  In one piece two figures stand on a roof top, watched by a third. The watching figure is partially truncated by the physical edge of the paper on which it is depicted, a deliberate device which emphasises the distance, both in time and space, between the observer and the observed. It’s tempting, irresistibly so, to compare this composition to some of the imagery of Chagall, whose roof-top scenes and dream-like imagery derived from his vision and memory of his native Vitebsk. However, Zwibach describes this work as work of remembrance about her parents. Here, her night-gowned mother dances in the moonlight and her father, less animated, strikes a pose with hands on hips. Gulls fly overhead and the dark blue Dunav can be seen in the distance.

It’s worth mentioning at this point the various techniques Zwibach employs to create her imagery because in a very real sense the medium is the message.  Zwibach applies acrylic-based paste to paper and card which she then manipulates using a variety of techniques. Often the paste is rolled and various implements are then employed to mark, scratch and incise the viscous liquid medium. Zwibach describes this process of incision as her attempt to get beneath the surface of things. It’s rather like a river which over a long period of time erodes the rock and soil over which it flows, revealing the underlying geology. In a literal and actual sense, therefore, Zwibach’s work is never superficial; it is, rather, an enquiry, an exploration and an investigation of truth.

The work of committed artists is always in a state of flux, transition and evolution; artists who stick to a prescribed formula of repetition are therefore no longer artists, but repeteurs, a charge which could never be levelled at Zwibach. With maturity comes experience and with this comes a greater understanding of the journey of exploration which art provokes. In these works, is possible to sense a shift and a more assured artistic stance; this is mature work and the artist has found her true voice. It is a voice which sings with clarity, precision and great harmony.

Another recurring image in the series of work, and central to any understanding of it, is that of the box, or rather a figure within a box. In the German language koffer refers both to a box and a suitcase and etymologically it is linked to the English word, coffin. Such nuances are important. In one work a female figure is depicted within a box – she may be struggling to emerge, or conversely, she may be being forced into the object. At the risk of falling into the trap which some critics describe at the intentional fallacy, it seems apposite to suggest that for Zwibach the box is a highly charged emotive symbol.  In the museum at Auschwitz are displayed, along with room-fulls of other personal effects, the suitcases of the prisoners who were transported there, never to leave. Personal effects are the material testimony to their imprisonment and suffering. The box has contained her, both in the form of a house and also a symbol from which she has constantly endeavoured to escape. Although contained by the constrains of the physical body and its ultimate and inevitable end, the artist, through their art and imagination can escape, at least temporarily, from the literal and metaphorical boxes in which they find themselves.

Standing out from the series of small scale works here are three much larger pieces, executed in charcoal. By definition they lack colour, and even tonality, but they are full of movement, energy and passion. These works also autobiographical, a trio which might be termed  ‘mindscapes’. Amongst the kaleidoscope of imagery which includes animals, trees, human figures, elements of landscape, a ship and, again, the highly symbolic seagull, it is possible to detect the image of a box or object which is being pulled ‘through’ the rest of the imagery. Here Zwibach is suggesting that memories and some material aspects of life are always present. The past is always being carried by the artist as she moves through life and makes her art. Most of us collect and keep certain objects which are significant to us: mementos, letters, artefacts, images and here Zwibach emphasises that her past is both weighted and precious, something which much always be borne and carried through life.

If Zwibach employs a panoply of symbolism in this series of images, then another central and recurring motif is the tree. For Zwibach this conjures the idea of rootedness, or rather the wish for it. Because, as someone who has lived in a number of places around the world and travels constantly, the particular quality of stability has been absent from Zwibach’s life, although her current home, in the north of England, has has given here a wonderful sense of belonging.  It is instructive that in this series, which focuses on the idea of home, the tree as leitmotif should occur so frequently. In one image, a female figure dances next to a tree while in another a figure sits in silent contemplation adjacent, again, to a tree. For this exhibition Zwibach has also created a number of small scale books, or what might be termed ‘visual autobiographies,’ and the tree is a central image here also. In one sketch a figure reaches skywards becoming a tree, in an act of metamorphosis.  The writer Herman Hesse wrote that “… trees have always been the most penetrating preachers…. they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons…In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves…”

This seems a particularly apt series of observations when considering Zwibach’s work, for as an artist she too is seeking to represent herself, her life, those she has loved and lost, her home and that strangest and most distant of places, her childhood.

Society of Scottish Artists 118th Annual Exhibition

Publication: The Times.   
December 2015

A one time, in the late 19th century, the Society of Scottish Artists was considered an upstart organisation, in contrast to the older more respectable Royal Scottish Academy. Both are now venerable institutions and the gap between the type of art and artists which forms their respective memberships has closed significantly.

This year both organisations are exhibiting side by side, in the same building, so it’s easier to compare their approaches. By and large, the SSA is the more adventurous, favouring a greater variety of media, younger artists and, often, bigger and bolder work.

That said, there’s a diversity in the current SSA show (236 artworks were chosen from a total of 1254 entries) that ranges from large installations occupying entire walls to small delicate prints, drawings and paintings that take up only a few centimetres. Between these extremes there are powerful graphics, inventive technologically-oriented installations, and sculpture that is made, literally, from shadows.

As in previous years (a tradition which stretches back to the origins of the SSA) the work of a number of invited foreign artists exerts a powerful attraction. Lise Vézina from Québec is a well established printmaker, who has also worked as a designer of women’s clothes. Her installation, ‘Tendre Le Tissu du Temps’ (Soft Tissue of Time) explores female histories from an autobiographical perspective. Found historical photographs (as well as those of the artist as a young woman) have been printed on sets of linoleum squares, punctuated by musical powder boxes). There is something poignant, magical and melancholy about this tribute to unknown women from across time and generations.

Koralia Maciej’s photographically derived graphic installation, ‘Cities in the Sky’, is spread over an entire wall and consists of interconnected composite images of architecture and construction. The philosophical basis and inspiration for Maciej’s work is Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities in which the writer imagines numerous cities as described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. Discussing one city, Thekla, Marco Polo reports an exchange with its inhabitants:

“What is the aim of a city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint?”  “We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over; we cannot interrupt our work now,” they answer.  Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. “There is the blueprint,” they say. 

The Minnesota-based art collective, Rosalux, has been invited to show a number of works following an exchange with SSA members last year. Here artists such as Ute Berog and Jack Dale demonstrate strong compositional and pictorial skills.

There are quieter moments from talented voices such as Annie Woodford and Phillipa Drummond who have created, in their respective works ‘Merisis’ and ‘Archipelago’, sensitive, delicate imagery derived from natural forms.

Andrea Geile’s ‘Level the Field No 8-No12’, a vast sculpture fabricated from rusted Corten steel, contributes an imposing monumentality while retaining an intrinsic sense of the organic.

Once again, the SSA demonstrates the health of the nation’s art scene and its outward looking approach. By showing cheek-by-jowl with the RSA Open, the SSA allows the visitor to ponder its expansive, exciting dynamism and the rather more reserved, but highly polished, approach of its older cousin.

William Gear: The Painter that Britain Forgot, City Art Centre, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times     
November 2015

William Gear: The Painter that Britain Forgot 


In the centenary year of his birth, this detailed and carefully curated show of over 100 paintings, prints and drawing – accompanied by a lavish new publication by Andrew Lambirth– does great justice to the Fife-born painter, William Gear. The show’s title suggests that Gear fell into obscurity and it is only now that his work is gaining the recognition it deserves. This is partially true. His work has always been held in high esteem, if not by a wide public, then certainly by students, academics, artists, gallery proprietors and others in the ‘art world’.

Although Gear was born and raised in the coastal mining community of Methil, and trained at Edinburgh College of Art, he spent most of his career in England where he taught and worked as a curator, between 1958 and 1964, at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, which is jointly responsible for organising this show.

At Edinburgh, Gear was one of the generation of students (including Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Alan Davie and Margaret Mellis) who came under the tutelage of William Gillies, Johnny Maxwell, William McTaggart and Samuel Peploe.

The show, divided into sections in the capacious upper gallery of the City Art Centre, charts the major developments in Gear’s stylistic development, from representation through to the large painted abstractions and prints that defined the latter part of his career. 

One sequence of work is particularly telling. It consists of a series of paintings and a pen and ink drawing composed during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. (As a Major in the Signals Corps, Gear was one of the original ‘Monuments Men’ whose job it was to record and preserve the post-war cultural heritage of Europe).

An oil painting on board, ‘Palestine Landscape’ (1943) shows a single tree and its forlorn shadow. Despite the apparent warmth of its colours it is stark, desolate and in a style and palette Gear did not revisit. It contains the grains of desert sand, which link it inextricably to the place and mood of its composition. Two other works, both completed in 1944 show the ruins of war. ­ One, ‘CittàDistrutta’, although a composite work, is more conventionally representational – a fixed narrative; the other, ‘Composizione’, has transcended the act of pure record and is almost wholly abstracted. The ruins are no longer stones, mortar, wood, bodies, fire and bodies but a series of shapes, forms and tones which, taken together, suggest rather than represent the scene of pointless destruction.

Before the war, and after his Edinburgh years, Gear had worked in Paris in the studio of the famous Cubist painter Fernand Léger. Such an apprenticeship, at such a high level, has enabled Gear to the combine the solid academicism of his conventional Scottish training with the avant-gardism of the Parisian scene. This allowed him to straddle the gulf between representation and abstraction, embracing the two worlds with ease and conviction.

Later, in the intellectual and social shake-up of post war Europe, Gear became associated with the COBRA group of artists (the acronym is derived from the capital cities of the countries where the major exponents of the movement lived – Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam). Thus Gear was one of the elite avant-garde painters (including Asger Jorn and Karel Appel), who used colour, immediacy, abstraction and wild vigour. Thus, Gear was aligned with a European avant-garde, which perhaps accounts for the fact that his work is less well known in his own country than it should be.

Despite his prolific output and his bold, daring and successful attempts to break out of the constraints of the Scottish art world, Gear’s importance has never been fully recognised, or celebrated, until now.

* A companion exhibition, JaggedGeneration: William Gear’s Contemporaries and Influences runs at the City Art Centre, from 24 October 2015 to 7 February 2016.

Until 14 February

Impulses Towards Life: Drawing and Painting from the Edinburgh College of Art Collection at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times.    
November 2015

Impulses Towards Life: Drawing and Painting from the Edinburgh College of Art Collection at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

Throughout the course of the 19th and 20th centuries it was accepted practice for art schools and colleges to teach the skills of life drawing — depicting the human figure from a life model. Edinburgh College of Art was no exception. The college, which was originally named the Trustees Academy, has roots that go back as far as 1760, but from 1826 was based in the Royal Institution, later the Royal Scottish Academy. It was here that an impressive collection of plaster casts taken from sites of antiquity, such as the Parthenon, was amassed for educational purposes.

A photograph in the archives of ECA, taken around 1890, shows the “antique room” at the Royal Institution, full of staff and students, crammed with replicas of classical statuary, including numerous busts, as well as parts of the Parthenon Frieze, nowadays known as the Elgin Marbles.

The antique casts are the subjects of detailed drawings by William McTaggart (1935-1910) and George Paul Chalmers (1833-1878). Both were contemporaries at the Trustees Academy and, as was the practice at the time, they were required to complete a series of “stump” drawings from the “antique room”. These drawings, laborious and fastidious works, were made not with a pencil but a ball of leather or suede in a stick, which allowed the graphite to be worked carefully into the paper to achieve a detailed, polished finish.

The innate classicism of these drawings and their original place of composition in the Royal Institution find a fitting echo in the neoclassical setting of the Talbot Rice Georgian Gallery — both buildings were designed by the architect William Playfair in the 1820s.

Chalmers, who hailed from Montrose, and became known as the “Angus Rembrandt”, was particularly skilled in the depiction of light. His drawing, which dates from 1855, as does McTaggart’s, shows a central grouping of standing figures, notable not only for a strong compositional sense but also in the contrasting areas of light and shade. Chalmers was mugged in Charlotte Square, aged 45, and died shortly afterwards. His legacy extended to a large body of history and genre paintings, as well as contemporary portraiture.

One of the main purposes of this collection was pedagogical; the works were held up as examples of best practice and used in the instruction of generations of students. In another sense, however, the collection also shows the evolving attitude to the figure and its depiction, throughout the 20th century, in particular.

Works by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, for example, are particularly instructive. Moore’s drawing of a large female nude, from relatively early in his career, in 1924, shows the beginnings of his journey towards stylisation. Hepworth’s work, Studies for a Man and Woman, dates from 1949 and shows her adeptness in capturing the essential qualities of grouped figures. These drawings are exemplary and they demonstrate how the basic skills of observation and technique underpinned the teaching of students not only in Edinburgh but in Europe and elsewhere. These were the basic “grammatical” components of an enduring, valuable and essential visual language.

Until December 19


Barbara Hepworth’s 1949 work, entitled Three Groups on a Pink Ground (Girl with Clasped Hands), features in the exhibition


RSA Open 2015

Publication: The Times.     
November 2015

The RSA’s annual exhibition is an attractive proposition for contemporary artists based in Scotland, and further afield. Entrants, once chosen in a rigorous selection process, have exposure in a prestigious venue at a time of year when modestly priced artworks have an appeal for the Christmas market.

Such commercial imperatives are important: artists have to make a living and the RSA, which receives no state funding, has to finance diverse activities that support artists and promote their work.

This year, nearly 400 works, in a variety of media that includes film, artists’ books, painting, print-making and sculpture in a wide range of materials, occupies three galleries in the RSA building. The walls are chock-a-block with works.  The lower Findlay Room houses smaller work, mainly in monochrome, as well as film, while the upper galleries display larger, brighter work interspersed with sculptures on plinths.

It takes time to filter and process such a visual bombardment but once this has been done, a number of works emerge that are outstanding, and in most cases, affordable.

Two films, in their own ways, repay some attention. One, ‘Le Sireneuse’ is by glass artist, Carrie Fertig and was made as a residency at Lyth Arts Centre in Caithness. Fertig made a number of hand-blown glass instruments which were played as part of a small ensemble with other musicians. The resulting HD film is an intriguing balletic interplay of sound and movement. Paul Holmes filmed the Danish jazz group Haftnor Medbøe Quartet, focussing on the facial tics and expressions of the musicians. The resulting film, devoid of music, or context, provides intriguing viewing, not least because of the intense level of eye contact between the musicians during the set.

Medbøe specialises in an intense form of Scandinavian jazz: poetic, intense and firmly linked to the cycles of nature. The same might be said of Georgia Rose Murray’s ‘Rainbow Trout, Cormorant Noir. Murray made the painting during a sojourn in Iceland, and the intense stark colours and forms of the cormorants and of the heavily glaciated landscape, predominate.

Many artists here chose to focus on Scottish landscapes in its many varieties and seasons. There are multiple contemporary references, not least to the recent demolition of Cockenzie power station, which is captured in a fleeting moment of beauty and tranquillity by Rose Strang who handles her paint and composition with deftness and confidence. The Cockenzie theme is echoed in a photograph by Will Collier, taken in the first seconds after the stacks were blown up: the smoke and debris form a ghostly after image in the sky, suggesting a quasi human form.

Geoff Uglow is a well established painter whose work commands high prices. Here a duo of work reflecting on the Scottish independence referendum, ‘Saltire’ and ‘Union Jack,’ provides views of the city of Edinburgh from Calton Hill. Although the vistas are similar and the characteristic thick, three dimensional use of paint, remains the same in both works, the subtle differences in hues cast oblique references on identity and outlook.

Elsewhere there is fine etching by Miriam Vickers and arresting mixed media construction of books, paper and copper by Keiko Mukaide and Mark Powell.

A number of RSA Academicians have contributed here, including Ian McCulloch, Jake Harvey and Joyce Cairns – each, in their respective media and approaches remain strong and distinctive.

David Martin: Open Eye Gallery

Publication: The Times.     
November 2015

IT comes as no surprise to learn that the painter, David Martin, who was born in 1975, completed his first year studies in Physics and Astronomy at Glasgow University, passing with distinction, before embarking on a highly successful artistic career.  Martin’s paintings of anonymous figures (usually young women in fashionable street clothing) are full of strange scientific motifs, glyphs and cyphers combined with textured layers of collage, sometimes in the form of maps and charts. Here around twenty recent works (some based on a recent trip to Indonesia) work well work well in the light airy space of the former Georgian townhouse.

The large painting, ‘Celestial’, which measures around 5 feet square, shows, in the foreground, the upper part of a young female figure, in a multi-storey car park.  As is the case with much of Martin’s work, the figure is drawn from life but although readily identifiable, this is less portraiture in the conventional sense and more of a study in colour, structure and light. Martin has clearly worked hard in his apprenticeship as a painter, as the painting reveals a history of depiction, perspective and the way in which colour and form can convey emotion.

That said, Martin’s paintings are non-expressionistic. They do not use colour and form as their primary mode of communication. A careful examination of the figure’s clothing reveals various patterns and motifs derived from charts, in this case they are aviation flight charts, an observation which chimes with the background structure. Partly seen and partly imagined, this shows the engineered structure of the car-park overlaid with visual echoes of the charts, as well the depictions of a spiral galaxy.

‘Remains’ shows a similar structure and approach, in that a young woman inhabits the open space in the foreground of the painting while various layered structures and landscapes form the back-drop. In this case, a Scottish highland landscape has been overlaid with echoes and ghost-structures derived from architecture and engineering.  The composition is punctuated with images of fossilised creatures such as dinosaurs and ammonites.

In both these major paintings, as elsewhere, Martin is stressing the connections between us as individuals in the present (what some scientists refer to as the Anthropocene) and the world in a wider geological time scale. His references to cosmology and astrophysics also situate contemporary humanity with a much wider context.

Martin’s work calls to mind an observation made by Albert Einstein, in 1931: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”

Martin clearly marvels at the world that him and his work is buoyed by careful craft, acute observation and great curiosity.

* David Martin’s large painting (7m in height), which occupies the entrance to 42 St Andrew’s Square (formerly the Royal Bank of Scotland) can be seen for the duration of the exhibition

Tim Stead: Object Maker and Seed Sower The Maclaurin Art Gallery, Rozelle House Ayr

Publication: The Times.   
November 2015

Tim Stead: Object Maker and Seed Sower
The Maclaurin Art Gallery
Rozelle House

Until Jan 17


Tim Stead, who died in 2000 at the age of 48, combined the roles of furniture maker, sculptor, designer, environmentalist, poet and educator with aplomb, enthusiasm and commitment.

This touring exhibition makes explicit the many facets and achievements of this talented and wonderful artist in a format that is expansive and well conceived. The Georgian splendour of Rozelle House, its converted stables and wooded grounds, a stone’s throw from Robert Burns cottage in Alloway, allows Stead’s vision the necessary space and appropriate atmosphere.

Stead studied sculpture at Trent Polytechnic and, later, at Glasgow School of Art, at a time when ‘conceptual’ art was gaining a firm hold in British art colleges. At Trent, Stead became fascinated by the forms of decaying ships and barges in the nearby Nottingham Canal and began using discarded timber to construct elaborate forms using wood, string and other recycled materials – a version of Arte Povera.

A photograph from Stead’s Trent graduation in 1974 shows him standing next to ‘Burnt Tower with Creaking Pendulum’ a large structure, over 8’ high, comprised of discarded wood, and bound together with rope and chain. There is no ‘conceptual’ basis for the work; it is what it is: an impossibly unstable-looking structure made from ‘found’ materials which delights in its own presence, form and solidity.

Such embryonic works were at the beginning of Stead’s rapid development as an artist. Many of his ideas took the form of rudimentary sketches in hundreds of notebooks which accumulated throughout his short working life. Some of these are to be seen here –they show the workings of a fertile and fecund imagination, where words and images interweave as ideas developed, took hold and grew to fruition.

In the early days Stead tended to work with imported hardwoods but later, as his consciousness developed, he used native British species such oak, elm and ash to develop his work as a furniture maker. His characteristic chairs and tables – solid, organically formed and hard-wearing – made it the ideal choice for restaurants and cafés (such as Café Gandolfi in Glasgow) as well as a domestic market.

As well as his work with wood, he also worked for the wider environment, recognising that he had some kind of a responsibility to put something back. He was instrumental in setting up the first Scottish community woodland (at Wooplaw Wood in the Borders) – an organisation which continues to thrive as an important educational and leisure resource. Towards the end of his life, Stead became unable to work with the huge slabs of timber that had characterised the earlier part of his career. Stead turned adversity to advantage and began on a massively ambitious project to develop smaller-scale sculpture.  The result is a rich legacy of hundreds of intricate, finely-honed works which reference a series archetypal forms, include the human body. It is sculpture in it purest forms and stands in a long line of work that can be traced back through Hepworth, Moore, to Gaudier-Brzeska and Brancusi, amongst others.

Stead died too young at a time when his ideas were developing at a fast rate. It is impossible to tell how his work might have developed, had he lived a normal life span. We should, however, be grateful for his invaluable and enduring legacy.


Will Maclean and Marian Leven: Confluence

Publication: The Times.    
October 2015

There is an essential symbiosis between the work of Marian Leven and Will Maclean. The couple met while students at Gray’s School of Art in the ‘60s and have been a partnership since that time.

They settled in Tayport, a few miles from the venue of this show, early in their careers. So it seems fitting that one of Scotland’s newest gallery spaces, with, arguably the best views (wide, expansive vistas across the Tay estuary to the Perthshire mountains beyond) should host two artists whose work is so deeply embedded in the cultural and physical landscape of Scotland.

In their ancestral origins the artists might seem to embody the divisions of their own nation. Maclean’s ancestry is Highland (from Skye) while Leven grew up in Fife. They maintain what might be best described as a spiritual home near Achiltibuie in Wester Ross and it is from this perspective, in a literal and figurative sense, that much of their work derives.

Neither are literal or mimetic artists; their work shares a subtlety and a complexity honed over decades of experimentation and exploration. Indeed, both are explorers in the sense that the physical landscape they inhabit is deeply intertwined with a way of seeing that is both poetic, robust and paradoxically delicate.

The sense of light reflecting from sky and water in this airy, uplifting space suits the work of both artists well (although the prevalence of reflective glass in much of the work means than some of the concentration is needs is dissipated, and sometimes lost).

Leven’s work is primarily concerned with the idea of landscape as a filter for feeling, and conversely the way in which emotion, and filtered experience, can affect our reading of landscape. Too seldom are we aware, as inhabitants of an extraordinarily beautiful country, of the way light and water create such nuanced vistas.

Leven’s painting seems to be all about conveying such sentiments and perspectives; her mastery is, at times, quite wonderful. A watercolour such as ‘Haar Lifting’, distils the various elements of light, land, sea, emotion and perception, apparently effortlessly. It recalls the work of another Lowland landscape artist, William Johnstone, in its essential combination.

Maclean’s ancestors lived and died by the sea. The sea bore them; it traditions, superstitions and weather moulded them, and its fruits sustained them. Many years ago Maclean’s Ring Net Project documented the tail-end of a hunting tradition which had obtained for millennia. Such deep rooted awareness, full of archetype and atavism, has allowed Maclean to extend his empathy to diverse cultures across the globe. Although rooted in the specific, his imagery has a universal application.

‘Shelly Man, Iceland’, for example is a combination of anthropology and artefact – the type of artwork at which Maclean excels. It incorporates the photograph of a figure covered in a literal suit of shells; Maclean has replaced the face with a bird’s skull, while gesso and paint knit the construction together. Maclean carries the unusual original into the realm of the mysterious and other-worldly, a territory which his unusually gifted artistic sensibility readily inhabits.