W. Gordon Smith Painting Competition

Publication: The Times.     
January 2016

W. Gordon Smith Painting Competition
Dovecot Gallery

It’s been commonplace, over the past few decades, to hear various pronouncements about the ‘death of painting’. It’s clear, however, that such judgements are premature, and inaccurate.  Certainly, on the evidence of this show, the craft and art of painting is very much alive. The first W. Gordon Smith Painting Competition was initiated by the late critic’s widow, Jay, to celebrate both the achievement of her husband and the medium he did so much to encourage and support over several decades. From a total entry of around 500 works, 50 were anonymously selected by a judging panel comprising the teacher Sandy Moffat, journalist Susan Mansfield, former gallery owner Tom Wilson and painter Margaret Hunter. The result is a surprisingly cohesive body of work, with a welcome gender balance, judiciously displayed in the tasteful well-lit minimalism of Dovecot, a renovated former public baths. A central focus is Gwen Hardie’s ‘Body 11.10.15’ a typically autobiographical depiction in a circular format (oil on tondo) that is also now much associated with the artist. Hardie homes in on skin and bodily surface, while also revealing depth. Although almost wholly abstracted, her works  disconcertingly probe flaws and imperfections, physical and psychological. The body is the subject and object of other works, mainly by female artists. Samantha Wilson’s ‘Mowgli’, disconcertingly, does not depict the anodyne Disney image we might expect. Here is a fragile and tortured soul, full of pathos and pain, rendered (in charcoal and powder paint) with a sensitivity that is heartfelt and genuine. Audrey Grant’s oil painting, showing a seated female figure against a disturbing yellow ground, takes its title from R.M. Rilke’s Seventh Duino Elegy ‘Nowhere, Beloved Will World Be But Within Us’ (Nirgends, Geliebte, wird Welt sein, als innen).  Grant’s imagery somehow conveys the sense of Rilke’s words while avoiding literalism. A number of other themes and tropes make themselves readily apparent here. One is landscape, perhaps not surprising in a Scottish context, but Calum McClure’s ‘Across the Pond II’ imbues a fine tradition with a contemporary edginess. Matthew Draper’s ‘Fleeting, A Hike Through Rannoch Moor (Part 3)’ (not painting, but pastel on paper) is more traditional in that it represents the muted but complex colours and moods of that most evocative of Scottish places. Karen Warner’s ‘Swirling Winds Lammermuir Hills’ conveys a keen sense of place with vibrant, energetic paint. There are a number of symbolic works here, such as Carolynda Macdonald’s ‘Under the Wings of a Dream’ which takes us to the world of the 18th century dream allegory. It shows a pair of finches removing jewels from a delicate Chinese porcelain vase, set against an idealised landscape. Alice McMourrough’s ‘The Presentation of Pythia and the Pretender’ is a fantastical and rather disturbing allegorical-mythic construction of childhood. The winning entry, by Robbie Bushe, ‘The Admissions Gate’ is a keen allegorical satire on the processes and procedures surrounding artistic acceptance and recognition. Taken together these works augur well for the continuing strength of a medium that shows no sign of declining popularity or ingenuity.

The British Art Show 8, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times.     
February 2016

This quinquennial survey show, originated by the Hayward Gallery in London, aims to present a snapshot of current artistic activity in the UK. This year’s event, which began in Leeds and tours to Norwich and Southampton, has been assembled by the London-based curators Lydia Yee and Anna Colin. Although there is clear and fair attempt to represent the constituent parts of the UK, there is an overwhelming emphasis on London. The criteria for selection by the British Art Show are broad – artists must come from, or be based in, the UK. Given the fluidity of real and virtual borders, and the increasing internationalisation of culture, one must ask the questions: is the BAS still relevant, and what is its purpose? Looking at the assembled work of forty-two artists across three venues, the issue of national identity remains problematic. If work made in Glasgow, New York, Reykjavik or Berlin is made with the same ‘non national’ reference points, is it worth having an event which is no longer defined by geographical, ethnic or stylistic borders? There are exceptions to this ‘non-identity’. Rachel Maclean, one of several Glasgow-based artists, creates accented, satirical video fictions offering a critique on game show celebrity culture and the sexualisation of society. It’s tempting, as with any show of this nature, to pick out themes, concerns, common media and technique. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies here is the popularity of textiles, ceramics and other substances such as stone, wax and metal as media – what the organisers term ‘materiality’. The irony rests in the fact that many British art colleges have only recently closed or redefined teaching departments that specialise in the use of such materials. What is disappointing is that the exponents of these media use them in a way which relegates the craft of their art to a secondary position. Aaron Angell’s ceramics, for example, seem merely clumsy rather than cleverly ironic. The same might be said of Jesse Wine’s wall-mounted tile paintings – their appeal comes from the very fact of the use of the materials and techniques, rather than honed and practised expertise. There are arresting, philosophically engaging and technically excellent works here. One is a room installation by Imogen Stidworthy, based on the work of Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Stidworthy worked with Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalya, who voiced sections from his novel The First Circle that are overplayed with film showing a reconstruction of speech analysis techniques used in Stalinist prisons. A loaf of bread, half eaten by Solzhenitsyn, just before his deportation to Germany in 1974, and later preserved in his archive, has been digitally imaged in 3-D.  The resultant imagery presents a haunting trace, or index, of the dissident’s actions and history. There are few subjects left untreated by artists and correspondingly few materials that have not been used to create art. This show demonstrates the breadth of this approach and how such experimental diversification does not necessarily always translate into successful, engaging artwork.

Converge: Visual Arts Scotland Annual Exhibition

Publication: The Times.    
February 2016

         Visual Arts Scotland, an exhibiting society dedicated to applied art, craft as well as fine art, has occupied a position somewhere between the traditional ‘beaux arts’ ethos of the Royal Scottish Academy and the experimentalism of the Society of Scottish Artists. In the past it was much associated with ‘hand craft’ and the rather lumpen associations that term had, rather unfairly, accumulated. But this is an invigorated organisation, with clear goals and intentions. It celebrates the idea (and the ideal) of the well-made, while acknowledging the fluidity of contemporary thought in relation to object making. The boundaries between fine art, manual crafts and applied art have, as the title of this show suggests, converged. An artwork such as a tapestry or wall hanging may therefore be presented and understood at a number of levels. The object can be well conceived, well made and pleasing to the eye, thus fulfilling the roles of decoration and function, as well as being thought-provoking.  This certainly seems to be how a grouping of tapestries – all entrants for the international Cordis Prize, initiated by novelist Ian Rankin and his wife Miranda Harvey, and now in its second year – have been conceived. All the works have a strong sense of spatial or temporal rootedness and all share a dedication to the strong tradition of tapestry as decoration, and narrative.  Marika Szàraz’s ‘Heaven and earth,’ with its black and grey geometries, indicates a fascination with surface, and the way light is absorbed by the density of the work. Misao Watanabe’s 5-metre-long ‘Happiness’ exudes that quality, with vivid yellow imagery derived from a field of canola flowers. Invited artists Steven MacIver and Andrew Mackenzie both explore the line, and linear structure. MacIver works with gold, silver and copper thread and constructs three- dimensional, large scale ‘drawings’ that combine the architectural and the organic. Mackenzie’s series of large drawings, using gouache and pastel on paper, ‘Service Station’, depicts that most utilitarian of structures, which have become a kind of ‘invisible’ architecture in the urban landscape. Here, the artist has based his work on an example that has been taken over by nature, where the intricate silhouettes and forms of trees soften the straight edges of human artifice. Curiously, these lines find an echo in the jewellery of Natalie Jane Adams whose wearable sculptures are constructed from acrylic thread, wrapped in metal. Theo Shields work returns us to the visceral, the atavistic and the elemental. His work is part installation, part sculpture and part document. A woodworker’s bench, complete with tools, also houses a video screen showing two short films – about furniture maker Chris Scotland and Fraser Waugh, the last trained green sand mouldmaker in Scotland, whose foundry specialises in architectural conservation. Shields has combined the raw materials used by these craftsmen and forced them into dialogue by pouring molten iron into chunks of hewn oak. The resulting works show a kind of trauma and beauty: the ‘negative’ space of a hollowed out tree-trunk of now preserved in a ‘positive’ iron object.

Robin Philipson Centenary Exhibition, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

Publication: The Times.  
March 2016

Robin Philipson, who died in 1992 aged 76, was a prolific painter, print-maker and muralist who studied and later taught at Edinburgh College of Art. Originally from Broughton-in-Furness, Cumbria, Philipson was a contemporary of James Cumming and a near contemporary of William Gillies, John Maxwell and Anne Redpath and came to be associated with the “Edinburgh school”.

On the surface Philipson appears to be a rather conservative figure. However, rather than taking a lead from the French idea of La Belle Peinture, like some of his Edinburgh colleagues, Philipson came under the influence of artists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Willem de Kooning, and he travelled widely.

Philipson was one of the generation of artists who resumed their studies after the Second World War. A fine self-portrait in pencil, from 1940, demonstrates a promising talent.

Philipson met the exiled Austrian artist, Oskar Kokoschka, in 1947, just when he was beginning his studies. A portrait of Philipson’s first wife, Brenda Mark, completed four years later, already shows the Austrian artist’s influence in its use of swirling, expressionistic paint and its deep, heavy oils. Landscape with Two Seagulls, painted a few years later, still demonstrates Kokoschka’s influence.

It was not until the late 1950s that the style and subject matter with which Philipson became associated emerged. Nude in Mirror, completed between 1960 and 1965, is an example of his more mature style and begins to develop material that absorbed Philipson throughout the rest of his career.

As in many of his works, there is a compositional divide. On the left side, the female figure (his nudes were always women) appears in lighter yellows and ochres; on the right, there are darker browns and reds showing shadows and unresolved forms.

But Philipson was much more than a decorative painter — his work often had a moral or political edge, as in Nevermind II, which was inspired by Joseph Losey’s film about the court martial and execution of a British soldier in the First World War. This is a fairly large, narrative piece that is typical of Philipson’s later works. The canvas is sectioned into three main elements, each with an attendant palette and style.

Philipson famously painted church interiors, fighting cockerels, crucifixions and still lives, as well as his nude sequences, some of which owe much to the brothel images of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Yet it is in his large set pieces that Philipson particularly excels. The monumental triptych, Threnody for Our Time (1971), shows Philipson combining many of his concerns and techniques — for this is part still-life, part social commentary and part painterly exploration. It forms the centre-piece of this show, prompting the idea that a larger exhibition, exploring Philipson’s talents, is long overdue.

To March 30: scottish-gallery.co.uk.

RSA New Contemporaries 2016 Royal Scottish Academy Edinburgh

Publication: The Times.   
March 2016

RSA New Contemporaries 2016
Royal Scottish Academy


This annual show brings together some of the top graduates from Scottish art schools in a prominent venue. In recent years art graduates have become increasingly professional, so final degree shows and, as a corollary, the present exhibition are career-launching platforms which attract the attention of a wide range of influential parties, as well as the viewing public.

In all, 61 graduates are represented and their work is spread across the entire exhibiting area of the RSA galleries. The capacious venue does full justice to the work, particularly sculpture and large pieces such as Jenni Murison’s extensive series of paintings and drawings, which have been presented as a kind of installation using a series of boxes, frames and plinths. The images themselves, small detailed still-lifes with enigmatic titles such as I’m hiding in the dark for my own surprise party, are interesting enough but it is their combined narrative force and the manner of their display that gives them an edge.

Hannah Murray’s work occupies the boundary between painting and sculpture. A link can be drawn between these compositions of paint, object and image and those of the Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor, whose emballages employed similar material and narrative techniques. In this case, however, the artist’s concerns are for the plight of women left alone in conflict zones around the world.

Yolanda McKean also employs a strong, vigorous painterly aesthetic. Her large oils — still-life and landscape –—are rooted in a Scottish tradition and could have been painted in the 1950s and 1960s were it not for their subtle contemporary resonance.

Lorna Syme’s large triptych references the work of Joseph Beuys in its use of materials such as beeswax. It is a bold, colourful work relating to nature and the pleasure of the garden.

Corey Reid has experimented with the tradition of the woodcut, by printing on polished whinstone. The imagery is bold, confident and abstract. Here, as is the fashion, the artist has created an installation by including a plan-chest, inlaid with stone, of their own making.

One of the most affecting, yet subtle and complex, pieces here is by Christine Halliday, an architecture graduate, whose project installation Consolations of the Landscape, a poetic imaginative construction, combines elements of photography, drawing and writing. Halliday’s work is rooted in the rife gender inequalities still prevalent in many parts of the world. Although her work is set in an Irish context, her concerns are universal. Halliday envisages a series of refuges, escapes and rehabilitative architecture, designed for the safety of women.

Again, this seminal show demonstrates the vigour and range of work being produced by the nation’s art schools.

Until March 30


March 2016

Art- Design-Play

The exhibition Rock-paper-scissors brings together the work of six East Lothian artists and designers who all bring inventiveness and a sense of play and exploration to their art and craft.

Emma Westwater creates multi-layered paper pieces exploring her surroundings with a bright, graphic outlook. Joel Baker, works in pebble mosaic, one of the oldest known art forms he pushes the boundaries of this ancient art. JANER Designs a team of Jane and Eric Robertson create inventive knitted home accessories, reclaimed furniture and lights made from salvage. Brian Baker is a photographer and printmaker inspired by the rich history of street photography and influenced by architecture, interior design and collage. Georgina Brown creates inspired multiple series of themed print works and drawings of the vessels found in harbours and dry docks and Anna Davis is a printmaker who enjoys the possibilities of multiple print processes such as screenprinting that can be applied to paper prints, fabric and book making.

Breathe in, breathe out, Joel Baker
Plastic Chair I

Snapshot, Janet Designs
Tsunami Cockenzie, Emma Weswater

Matiere, Pittenweem

March 2016

Matière, or its English equivalent, “matter”, is a noun with both abstract and concrete readings. In the context of this small but highly considered collection of work by 13 artists, some well established and others less so, the term refers to the “matter in hand” — what is under consideration, as well as the physical material from which the artists have made their work.

The show is linked by a number of rich veins of meaning, association and connection. One of these is familial. Matière has been curated by Janet McKenzie, who along with her husband, the late Michael Spens — author, architect and soldier — edited the internationally famous art journal Studio International.

McKenzie, and her daughters, Mariota and Christiana Spens, have also contributed works. All, in some respect, have been formed by the pain of loss. McKenzie’s prints, made with a chainsaw and router, have sharp and jagged lines, raging against the injustice of terminal illness and the frailty of existence.

Christiana’s work appears delicate, decorative and feminine at first sight. Closer inspection reveals an intensely political agenda where maps of the Middle East are intertwined with complex collaged narratives of war and oppression. Mariota challenges the orthodoxy of traditional picture framing and display by using a canvas stretched on a frame constructed of tree branches, collected in the woods around her home in Fife. The painting itself, which shares a sense of outrage with the work of her sister and mother, is a critique of what she calls the “fat white men” whose political and cultural legacy so many appear to be questioning.

McKenzie’s prints were realised through the technical expertise of Arthur Watson, president of the Royal Scottish Academy and an accomplished artist in his own right, who has been described as a “poetic conceptualist”. Here Watson evokes a life-changing visit to Venice in 1990, binding a number of long seed pods with a spoke shave (a tool typically used by cartwrights to fashion wheels). From these dangle labels with the names of those who so significantly influenced Watson 26 years ago.

The Australians GW Bot and Irene Barberis have contrasting techniques and styles. Barberis has contributed a luminous pink cross, Reforming the Line, fashioned from plastic sheet roofing and cut acrylic sheet. Bot has worked tirelessly in her exploration of Aboriginal culture, and in particular, the way in which it employs mark making. Her “glyphs” — signs and ciphers, almost intelligible, but just beyond understanding — seem archetypal, intensely rooted in the mysterious land and landscape.

In a similar way, Susan Winton, Will Maclean and Marian Leven all celebrate the links between culture, landscape, light and a sense of place. Maclean’s work alludes to nuclear weaponry and naval submarines which have become so identified with the western seaboard of Scotland, and so forms a link with the work of Christiana Spens, for one.

Richard Demarco links the primeval landscapes of Scotland and the work of Joseph Beuys in a rare editioned print celebrating Beuys’ Celtic Kinloch Rannoch Scottish Symphony performed in Edinburgh in 1970.

Despite the limitations of the venue, which is rather cramped and off the beaten track, this show is one to search out.
Until March 14.

Orchard, an exhibition of prints by Sarah Gittins

April 2016

Fife and Dundee-based artist, Sarah Gittins will show two substantial new series of prints in her solo exhibition, Orchard, at Leith School of Art, Edinburgh. The first series follows the changes of the orchard through the seasons. The second series imagines the mature orchard growing in the streets and spaces of Dundee. Over the past two years Sarah has been making regular visits to draw the historic, tangled apple orchard in the grounds of the Hill of Tarvit, near Cupar in Northeast Fife. Moments from those drawings were then gathered to create the Orchard Cycle; a series of twelve, circular screenprints which track the cycle of life within this beautiful community of apple trees. In the second series, If the City were an Orchard, the Hill of Tarvit orchard is reimagined into the streets of Dundee. This series of prints are inspired by the ongoing work of DUO (Dundee Urban Orchard), which is an art and horticulture project run by Sarah and Jonathan Baxter. DUO is working with community groups and organisations to establish a network of 24 small-scale orchards across Dundee, reimagining Dundee as an Orchard City. Sarah is known for creating beautifully drawn works with narrative content that opens up new ways of seeing the world. The works in this exhibition take the viewer on a gentle and powerful visual journey through the cultivated space of an orchard. Orchard is on show at Leith School of Art, 25 North Junction Street. The exhibition runs from 11thApril until 11th June. It is open to visitors from 9am until 4.30pm Monday to Saturday.

Nicolas Party Glasgow Print Studio

April 2016

The TimesBorn in Switzerland, in 1980, resident in Brussels and trained in Glasgow, Nicolas Party is one of the new breed of younger artists completely at home in the internationalised world of contemporary art. In his earlier years Party was active as a graffiti artist but now specialises in creating art environments that use entire rooms and galleries. In the past he has transformed venues such as Glasgow’s Modern Institute, and Inverleith House in Edinburgh, into colourful painted installations. He has worked in a similar way in venues from Stavanger to New York. Here, the artist has opted for a monochrome palette, using dense blacks, stark whites and nuanced greys to transform the large gallery space of the this former industrial workshop into a typical Party gesamkunstwerk. The imagery is a constructed, abstracted mindscape, which recalls elements of Surrealism in its dreamlike symbolism.  Large sausage-shaped motifs float amongst black and white ribbons, and their shadows. Grey trees with withered limbs cast their twisted, dense black shadows, while bird-like motifs soar amidst these tangled imaginings. In some areas, Party has used charcoal to create grey textured half-tones on walls and partitions. The cast-iron Edwardian pillars that support the floors and ceilings have been transformed using a dense matt black paint that seems to suck all light from the surrounding space. Buried amongst this large-scale imagery is a series of pencil drawings depicting elements associated with traditional still-life, such as fruit and kitchenware. The imagery is not straightforward: a pear-like fruit is propped with a stick while another is twisted and distorted. A coffee pot is shown with an inverted spout. Perhaps it is not surprising that the legacy of Surrealism persists in Party’s work, given that his domicile was also that of René Magritte, one of the most prominent members of the Surrealist movement. Party’s technique of juxtaposing smaller, discrete imagery amongst large, all encompassing works is now well established. There is a relationship and what might be called a ‘dialogue’ between these elements. The monotones of the smaller works are reflected in the larger scheme, as are aspects of the imagery. In a new departure for Party, he has made a series of mezzotint prints, which he has developed with the printmakers at the Glasgow Print Studio. The technique of mezzotint was first developed in the mid-17th Century and allowed for the creation of a greater variety of tone, which, in turn, made it possible to depict shade and shadows with more subtlety and realism. Party’s mezzotints, derived primarily from his drawings, again reflect his investigation of the borderland between the real and the imagined. They are in a sense self-reflexive in that they draw attention to their own artifice. All of this is the product of a fecund imagination and shows a gifted artist working at the height of his powers. * The exhibition is part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2016, which runs throughout the city until 25 April: glasgowinternational.org