Catalogue Essay from the Exhibition Seas of Crises Mon Feb 6 to – Sat Feb 18 2017 Merville Galleries London
Jill McManners: Edging Around the Seas of Crises
The Lancastrian-born artist, Jill McManners (b. 1951), first visited the Shiant Isles, in the summer of 2003. She was inspired to do so after reading Adam Nicolson’s book ‘Sea Room’ which is a poetic, auto-biographical narrative on the small archipelago, written from the perspective of Nicolson’s ownership and stewardship of the islands.
The islands, situated in the Minch, between the north coast of Skye and the Isle of Lewis, were formed by the result of volcanic activity around 60 million years ago. The tectonic plates hosting Greenland and Scotland separated, in effect creating the Atlantic. They are a highly impactful and extraordinary spectacle, rising out of the sea with cliffs up to 500-feet-high – stark and strange basaltic columnar extrusions, pounded by the endless tides and Atlantic gales.
As Nicolson notes, ‘For three years after seeing these rocks, she [Jill McManners] could not bring herself to paint them.’ It’s clear that this gap was necessary because the process of absorption was a long one. McManners had previously dealt with Hebridean landscapes but these were a more traditional treatment. A different strategy was clearly necessary to deal with the emotional, physical and visual impact of these islands. The sheer phenomenal presence of the Shiants demanded a more considered and, ultimately, meticulous response.
The closest philosophical and aesthetic parallels that I can suggest are those proposed by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who coined the terms inscape and instress. The former relates to ‘…the distinctive design that constitutes individual identity…’ while the latter is defined as ‘…the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of energy toward it that enables one to realize specific distinctiveness.’ Leaving aside the theological aspects of Hopkins’ terminology, it is clear that McManners’ response was, in a sense, an epiphany – a revelatory experience, which altered her approach.
Between 1813 and 1823, the artist and printmaker, William Daniell, RA (1769 – 1837) undertook a series of journeys around the coast of the British Isles, making sketches and watercolours, which were published in a series of eight volumes, by Longmans, under the title A Voyage Round Great Britain, between 1814 and 1825. In all, the prints (specifically aquatints) numbered 308.
Daniell worked in situ, en plein air, making pencil sketches, which he annotated with details of colour and texture. In his studio in London, Daniell then combined this information into a finished aquatint. Like other etching techniques, the aquatint process is based on marking or scoring a metal plate, which holds ink. The plate is then passed through the printing press and the image is transferred to paper.
Near View of One of the Shiant Isles by William Daniell c. 1815
Daniell took many years to perfect this process, which is painstaking and requires a great degree of skill and technical knowledge. He was known as a ‘topographical’ and ‘marine’ artist, and his work was prized for its high competence and accuracy. In the summer of 1815, he visited the Shiant Isles, which lie in the Minch, between the north coast of Skye and the eastern seaboard of Harris. This section of his journey also included Raasay, Eigg, Rhum, Lewis, Harris and Skye, all of which are depicted in A Voyage Round Great Britain.
Daniell presents two views of the small archipelago, one entitled ‘Part of the Northern face of one of the Shiant Isles’ and the other, simply ‘Near View of one of the Shiant Isles’. The perspective of the first has been made from the shore, or very close to it, while the second, clearly, has been made from on board a vessel, from the sea. Both images present the grandeur, beauty and majesty of the huge basaltic extrusions, which form the geology of the islands; and while Daniell’s images conjure a sense of remoteness and the picturesque, they are, tellingly, peopled. This view accords with that of the present owner of the islands, Adam Nicolson:
They are not really a lonely place. That is a modern illusion. For the Shiants, the question of solitude figures only twice: once in the flowering of Columban monasticism between the seventh and tenth centuries, and once in the twentieth century. For most of their history, the Shiants were not, like some piece of Wagnerian stage scenery, lumps of rock in a hostile sea, beside which the solitary hero could exquisitely expire. They were profoundly related to the world in which they were set. Until 1901 they were almost continuously inhabited, perhaps for five thousand years.
Part of the Northern Face of One of the Shiant Isles by William Daniell c. 1815
‘Part of the Northern face of one of the Shiant Isles’ shows a number of small sailing vessels very near to the impossibly rocky coast line. Two figures are descending from the boulder strewn cliffs, laden with packs, and are making their way towards their tethered vessel. In the distance, towards the southerly horizon, a large sailing ship is anchored the Minch, surrounded by a number of smaller vessels.
In Daniell’s second print, nature is more prominent; the image is again dominated by the islands’ extraordinary geology, but large numbers of seabirds also punctuate the scene. Perhaps for scale, more than anything else, Daniell includes two or three sailing vessels, situated at the base of the 500-feet-high cliffs.
It is worth remembering that Daniell’s extraordinary topographical accuracy preceded the invention of photography by only a few years. It could be argued that such a detailed, mimetic approach anticipated the possibility of the true indices of reality that photography offered.
There is an inherent, and mysterious relationship between photography and time. Two centuries separate the imagery created by these two artists; two centuries in which an unparalleled transformation in every aspect of human thought, technological progress and scientific understanding has taken place. For example, in 1815, when Daniell first saw the islands, the theories of deep time and geological time, proposed by pioneering Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726 – 1797) had not gained universal acceptance. The idea of biblical time – the idea that the Earth was around 4,000 years old – was still widely held. The evidence regarding Daniell’s own beliefs and geological understanding is scant, but we can assume the way that he understood how the Shiant Isles were formed and their attendant age, must have differed enormously from a contemporary understanding.
The question is, how do such momentous changes in perspective and understanding manifest themselves in how Jill McManners approaches her subject? Despite the apparently ‘timeless’ quality of its subject matter, its context, genesis and perspective is exclusively contemporary.
The titles of these complex, generally large, works may give us one in-road into Jill McManners’ thinking. ‘Under the Edge’, ‘Edging in and Out’, ‘Cutting Edge’, ‘Edging Around’, ‘Keeping their Heads above the Water’, ‘Critical Mass’, ‘Critical Force’, ‘Critical Point’, ‘Blast Off’, ‘Crisis’ and ‘Blown Away’ differ markedly from Daniell’s bald, topographical nomenclature. These titles are deliberately suggestive, metaphorical, multi-layered, ambiguous. They have an equivalence to the imagery itself. For the majority of McManners’ images are, paradoxically, not located in any specific geography. These are not portraits of a series of islands; they are, rather, essays in complexity, abstraction, colour, form, tone, and texture. They marvel at time and recognise the temporal and physical scale of the processes that created the forms they depict.
Daniell’s work presents a place scaled and ‘understood’, confidently conquered and appropriated, as one might expect, given the then predominant Enlightenment attitude to nature. McManners’ imagery seems to define the mystery and depth of something both abstract and physical. McManners provides no objects such as human figures, boats, birds or other wildlife with which to scale her intensive, vibrant abstractions; there is no sky, no cloud and no weather, only the original tone of the heavy paper, which has left as ‘blank’, thereby signalling the artifice of her composition. The sea, where it appears, is depicted, mainly, as a thin, blue margin, at the bottom edge of her compositions.
Writing earlier about McManners’ I noted that “[she] shows how tides, climate and botany all affect these extraordinary sculptural forms, which soar and heave out of the Atlantic deep like cathedrals of time.”
I did not consider it then but I now realise how telling was the phrase ‘cathedrals of time,’ for there are parallels in McManners’ working methods and the processes involved in stained glass. An artist constructing a stained glass window will start with a sketch and template design which will indicate how individual pieces of painted glass are placed within an overall schema. A window, for example, is constructed using leaded profile which is fastened to a solid board. The window is built up using a predetermined process, where individual sections of painted glass are secured in the lead profile, within the overall structure. Each glass element is painted with several layers of paint and each layer is kiln-fired, so that the paint and glass are fused together. Although this is a carefully controlled process, there is room for a degree of unpredictability. It is, for example, not always possible to predict how, under different lighting conditions, the exact colour of the finished glass, once fired, will appear.
Jill McManners employs a similarly painstaking methodology. This usually starts with a photograph that is enlarged to the approximate size of the finished painting. The main compositional elements are then transferred, via sketching, by eye, to a sheet of thick tracing paper, which is marked one both sides with a pencil line. Working on one side of the tracing paper with a pencil, McManners then transfers the line to sheets brown paper tape (these sheets are made by joining three sections of tape together). Once the line is visible on the tape – chosen after a long process of trial and error because it is impermeable to water – various incisions are made along the pencil lines, using a scalpel, which makes a clean cut through the tape; the scalpel cut is then extended by hand-tearing. McManners terms these partially cut-out shapes as a ‘stencil’.
The section or ‘page’ is then placed on top of thick (600g/m2) esportazione grade Fabriano paper. At this point, McManners begins to apply paint.
She explains the process:
The great thing about painting is that if you just paint, things happen. And when you stretch your paper like this, with this brown sticky tape…when you take the paper off, if you can be bothered to look, you get all these amazing edges… So I cut a stencil with this paper. I draw that design…and I cut it out. Then I slip it along and I paint on top and it stencils through, so I get my lines. It’s a stencil on the paper. I use that stencil as a guide. I can mask it. I can go over it. It defines the area that I’m going to be in or not. When I’m painting I tip the board so the paint runs out of it or it stays in it, and that stencil is the guide for me on the paper. You can use all these edges while it’s still wet, you can tip it about and get the paint to run. 
Once an initial mark has been transferred via the stencil process, McManners then uses this as the basis for further painting. A careful examination of her paint marking reveals a highly detailed, layered construction, akin to the stained glass process. In contrast to the way watercolour has been used traditionally, in thin, translucent washes, here the paint is applied in such a way that a surface, with a discernible texture, is created. The repeated application of layers mirrors the stained glass process. In a further parallel, a close-up analysis of McManners work reveals that she has gone to great lengths to understand and depict the underlying structure of the geological formations she represents. Basalt is formed deep in the earth crust and the columnar crystalline structure is the result of slow cooling. Here McManners focuses of each columnar element in an effort to capture its nuanced and individual character. It is almost as if each angular component were itself a section of glass, placed within the overall holding structure, or window, of the painted composition. It is not difficult to imagine a talented stained-glass artist transferring, transposing, or interpreting, a McManners painting from the medium of watercolour to vitrage.
As mentioned previously, McManners’ work is neither necessarily topographical nor especially literal. These images can be taken as meditations on time itself. The time taken to produce one of these works (around 3 months) is a tribute to understanding the mystery of time and the vast geological timescales involved in the formation of these islands. A photograph may, initially, capture an indexical image, but a painting, formed over months, may capture something deeper and more complex, for it includes the particular sensibility of the artist.
It is then, perhaps best to leave the last words to Jill McManners herself:
I have been thinking about what you said. Your analogy between the quick flash of a photograph and the lava flow. The geological time to reveal the land as we see it now, and the length of time it takes me to paint the finished picture, was a great comparison. Something that I would never have come up with. I think if you put enough of yourself into the picture all sorts can be revealed to an observer that are not apparent to you. Those are the best ones.
Stephen Greenblatt et al., Ed. “Gerard Manley Hopkins.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. pg. 2159, quoted at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inscape_and_instress
A copy of Daniell’s publication was in the possession of Sir Compton Mackenzie OBE (1883-1972). Mackenzie was owner of the Shiant Isles from 1925 to 1937. With thanks to George Sutherland, who worked for Mackenzie, from 1957 to 1962.
Adam Nicolson, Sea Room: An Island Life, 2002, p.12
Giles Sutherland, ‘Emotion erupts from 60 million volcanic years on Shiant Isles’ The Times, 26 April, 2016
Giles Sutherland – Interview with Jill McManners, 9 October, 2016
Jill McManners, email to Giles Sutherland, 16 October, 2016
Publication: The Times.
James Morrison: Decades
The Scottish Gallery
UNTIL 23 JANUARY
STAR RATING: *** (THREE)
The painter, James Morrison, who was born in Glasgow 1932 and studied at the city’s School of Art, later joined the teaching staff at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee while in his early thirties. He held a position there until 1987, influencing generations of students.
Morrison has held a number of major exhibitions in recent years – these venues have included the Kinblethmont Gallery near Arbroath and The Fleming Collection in London. Much earlier, Richard Demarco was quick to spot his talent, mounting solo exhibitions of Morrison’s work in 1968 and 1969. His relationship with the present venue extends back to 1959 and the earliest days of the painter’s career.
Morrison has long been fascinated by landscape, in particular that of Scotland. But his range is greater than is often supposed. In 1995 he showed a major body of work devoted to the Arctic landscape and a show in Montrose in 2015 dealt with the artist’s response to his family’s connection with the First World War.
Over sixty years Morrison’s art has evolved, slowly, deliberately, eschewing fashion and trends. This aptly named show surveys his work, with examples from various points in Morrison’s career, beginning with Landscape, Angus from 1965. This small oil-on-board study is thickly painted in bold brush-strokes, which break down the landscape into a semi-abstract arrangement of form, tone and colour.
The countryside of Angus, around Montrose and Strathmore, has remained a constant in Morrison’s oeuvre. Some of the most recent work here, such as Dunes at Lunan, Strathmore, The Sheltering Sky and To the North, also dwell on the Angus landscape.
Although Morrison acknowledges the human impact on the land (there are the occasional steadings, telegraph poles, fences and, more frequently, arable land) this is never his focus. He has long specialised in what might be termed skyscape, because like John Constable, Morrison looks upward, wondering at the ever-constant play of wind, moisture, and light. His paintings, for a long time, developed en plein air, are essays in capturing the unobtainable, that fleeting moment of wonder, where beauty is before us and is what we wish to grasp, but cannot.
Morrison will often shift his horizon, from mid-point in his composition, to a much lower level, and, in some cases, it will almost disappear from the ‘frame’ of the artist’s eye. This clearly signifies the locus of Morrison’s interest. Whereas a nephrologist may be able to identify the clouds in question (as was the case with Constable), another reading may step into the realms of metaphor.
For Morrison there is something abstract, ineffable, soulful and ultimately transcendent about such imagery.
Publication: The Times.
VISUAL ART: GILES SUTHERLAND
New Contemporaries 2017
Until 15 March
STAR RATING: **** (FOUR)
New Contemporaries showcases the best of new talent from Scotland’s five art colleges and schools of architecture. This year, sixty-six emerging artists and architects have been chosen, respectively, by conveners Delia Baillie and Charlie Hussey.
Baillie, who was elected to the RSA in 2008, while in her early thirties, has chosen well. The number of artists representing each art school is proportionate to final class sizes. So, whereas as Glasgow School of Art has 19 artists, Moray School of Art has only 2 – Kirsty Wallace and Penny Rees. Wallace’s eye-catching installation, Shelter, is a re-imagining of a traditional travellers’ gellie or shelter, fashioned from hazel wood and covered in sheets of felted wool. Inside, a film, depicting the artist’s vision of a potential domestic scenes, is projected on a hearth-stone. Although the work is not unique, it does signal the upsurge in interest in traditional crafts, ethnography and culture among a younger generation.
The work here ranges across a wide variety of media and this breadth of making, and vision, is surely one of the great strengths of the current generation of artist-makers. Gone is the craft-art art dichotomy, to be replaced by an altogether more complex and open creative philosophy. An example of this is Elisavet Christodoulou’s paintings, and her ceramic installation, Heads of Noble Soldiers which shows, in timeless fashion, the real impact of conflict on the human body – maiming, mutilation and pain.
Alison Wright describes her photographic portraits as ‘capturing a pivotal moment between awareness and self-consciousness’, while describing herself as an artist who ‘experiments with the barriers of comfort between people. Here, Wright has concentrated on facial portraits of her contemporaries and, using a combination of lighting, exposure her lens, blurs the line between intrusion and observation. Wright is fascinated by freckled or pigmented skin and in her triptych Daphne, a highly enlarged close-up, the subject is presented with unflinching scrutiny. Each freckle, spot and pore is visible; yet what we see is neither ugliness nor ‘flaw’ but beauty in imperfection. Such imagery is a strong rebuttal of the current ‘selfie’ vogue, especially among the young, where the face reveals little, being nothing more that a cosmetic, homogenised mask.
As well as being the subject of Wright’s work, the sitter, her fellow Dundee graduate, Daphne Percy-Chorofa is also pre-occupied with a form of portraiture. The artist, whose mother is Greek, has taken that culture’s rich mythology as the starting point of her work, and has developed her imagery from the starting point of the icon. The work seems mature beyond the artist’s years, and is rich, layered and skilfully executed. A series of 6 small works, Ode to Eris, depicts a panoply of discord, including the children of the goddess of strife, Atë and Lethe.
The majority of works here are of a high quality, so much so that it seems almost iniquitous to single out examples. That said, Natalie Howlett’s sardonic but serious installations and interventions on the theme of healthcare, and its ever-increasing movement towards privatisation, are a valuable contribution to the current debate. Grace Woodcock, also from Edinburgh College of Art, takes as her starting point the invisible patterning creating by swipe- screen technology, and by making these marks explicit, she delivers complex abstract imagery in A mixed media format, which makes extensive use of print technologies.
Despite some of the unnecessarily obscure and convoluted language used to describe these artists’ ‘practices’ – and the over-crowded feel of this show (surely there’s a case for slimming down the numbers from 66 to around 40) – there’s no doubt that the next generation of artists is professional, and profound.
Publication: The Times.
Glasgow Print Studio, set up in 1972 as part of similar projects across Scotland’s cities, has worked with some of the country’s best-known artists, with a focus on the west.
The studio, which combines exhibition space, technical expertise and facilities, and a shop, has created an archive that includes examples by almost all of the artists who have worked there.
Sam Ainsley, David Harding and Sandy Moffat, all former teachers at Glasgow School of Art (who work collaboratively under the title AHM), were invited to select works from the GPS archive by its director, John MacKechnie. The result, which comprises work by more than 50 artists, proves the significance of the archive and the importance of GPS as a “go to” destination for artists of different generations and widely differing philosophies.
The fact that the work of stalwarts John Bellany, Philip Reeves and Elizabeth Blackadder can be found alongside that of a younger generation of artists, such as Hanneline Visnes, Ross Sinclair and Richard Wright, is significant. It shows the adaptability of the print medium and how successive generations have embraced new technologies without abandoning older ones. As one of the most gifted artists in the show, Jacki Parry, says: “If you can ink it you can print it.”
Parry’s delicate, black-and-white photo-polymer print, made in collaboration with Glasgow Women’s Library, shows the city remapped in honour of women — a powerful protest to the “city fathers”, past and present. One of those mentioned in Women in the City, Christine Borland, now a professor at Northumbria University, has explored some of the darker issues around medical and bio-ethics. Here, a relatively early work, The Quickening, a photographically derived screen print, shows a mirrored image of a female figure firing a gun. There is a real sense of conflict here, derived from deceptively simple subject matter.
Sam Ainsley’s screen-print Red Cocoon depicts folded and knotted fabric against a starkly contrasting blue background. The image hints at the domestic but suggests that there is strength, and darkness, within.
There’s little of the decorative, or serene, in this visually gripping show. The imagery is confrontational, imaginative and powerful. Ian McCulloch’s etching, an untitled triptych in typically expressionistic style, shows classical mythological figures in conflict — metaphors for contemporary violence and struggle.
The show’s timing is significant because the arts complex of which GPS forms a part, 103 Trongate, is under significant threat because of withdrawal of public funds.
Publication: The Times.
VISUAL ART: GILES SUTHERLAND
UNTIL 18 JUNE
STAR RATING **** (FOUR)
Although the term ‘artisan’ is much used – and abused – in a contemporary context, its roots can be traced back to a time when there were fewer conceptual and practical divisions between fine artists and crafts-people. It was a point made in the Victorian era by William Morris and John Ruskin of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
The invisibility and anonymity of masons, metal workers, cabinet makers, glass artists and a whole host of others is an historical and cultural scandal. In a small but deliberate way the current show by Collect Scotland – a textile design collective producing printed textile designs for industry, established in 2012 – aims to redress this. The show includes work produced over the past 4 or 5 years, as well as specially commissioned pieces by 15 designers.
The vibrant and individual work – an important and developing part of a Scotland-based creative economy – also counters stereotypical notions of textile design and use – there’s not a scrap of tartan to be seen.
“They influence almost everything you see around you, but you probably won’t know their names,” say Collect about members of their profession. Almost all aspects of the constructed environment have been designed in some way – seat coverings on trains, buses and cars, our domestic interiors from carpets to curtains, and much of the corporate world.
The curators, who include Marion Parola and Chloe Highmore, have conceived and designed a show that makes good use of the large rugged space in this former printing works. Expansive banners, several metres long, of individually printed textiles flow from wall to floor, like an unfolding sculptural narrative. They emphasise the notion that the end-use these printed motifs may be carpeting, curtains or, as Morris so ably demonstrated, wallpaper.
As is the norm in the fashion and textile industry, the curators identified a number of abstract putative ‘trends’ or themes – in this case Chiaroscuro, Earthly Paradise, Cut and Paste, Emotional Landscape and Remembered Dreams – and asked each invited designer to respond.
The result is a profuse outburst of creative imaginings, transformed through digital and traditional technologies as patterned motifs. Joanna Dixon with her design ‘Mountainscape’, forexample, has created an emotional landscape in bold rugged shapes, with violets, flame oranges and passionate yellows, which almost leap from the walls.
Susan Castillo, whose work, Ascend, is photographically derived, has used leafy plants as her central motif. Elsewhere, the same artist has created another plant-and-collage image, which compositionally resembles a painting.
An entire wall here is given over to a series of samples of the type textile designers routinely display at trade fairs. These are shown to prospective buyers and have been created often with the advice of professionals who advise on current trends. The array of available options, from bold colourful repeated motifs to quieter more intricate monochrome designs, is dazzling and baffling. Which would make the best curtains or sofa fabric for Ikea? It’s not a hypothetical question, as the collective have already sold their work to the Swedish furniture giant.
If there is a flaw in the way this show has been conceived, it lies in not fully explaining the technological processes behind these imaginative and spirited creations. A short display showing the process from initial idea, to the finished textile (wool, cotton, linen, silk etc.) would go a long way to redressing this knowledge gap.
That said, the show cannot be faulted for enthusiasm, innovation, drive and flair.
Publication: The Times.
Visual Art: GILES SUTHERLAND
Henry Jabbour: This Life to Me
Until 1 April
STAR RATING: *** (THREE)
Henry Jabbour, who was born in Beirut, worked as an eminent scientist in the field of animal physiology – latterly he was Honorary Professor in Veterinary Medicine at The University of Edinburgh
In 2005 he began evening classes at Leith School of Art, as a creative foil to a high pressure professional environment. Soon, he was gripped by the passion of painting and printmaking, and the study of art history, underpinned by the strong practical, academic but supportive ethos of the Leith school. In 2013 he completed a diploma there and went on to gain an MFA in New York, giving up his scientific career in what can only be described as a leap of faith, and began working as a full time painter.
The current body of work takes is name from the work of Jalal El-Din Rumi (1207 -1273) who wrote,’Who lifteth up the spirit, Say, who is he?’ ‘Who gave in the beginning This life to me.’ The Persian mystic, theologian and poet is a guiding light to Jabbour; he also cites the Russian painter Chaïm Soutine, as a major influence.
Here Jabbour’s paintings and prints bear all the hallmarks of deep academic study. But for all the attention to technique, composition and the use of colour, they are far from clinical exercises of rote learning. These are intensely felt, compassionate works, which speak of the human condition. Although based on actual persons, they are not portraiture but are, rather, both intimate and universal.
The oil, Morning Ritual (2016), painted in rich blues and greens, is typical. It shows a central, solitary unidentifiable, figure. Despite, or even because of, the subject’s apparent anonymity the painting conveys an understanding of the small acts that collectively make up our lives, giving them meaning – in this case, breakfast, pouring coffee. The fact that Jabbour has used language borrowed from religion is no co-incidence.
At some level, these paintings are spiritual, representing contemporary sacraments. As if to underline this, Jabbour has created a series depicting choir boys, in direct homage to Soutine. Again, these are compositional works, where the subject remains just out identifiable reach, so that the work dwells on the combination of paint and colour.
Jabbour’s work shows that in the right hands painting is not a static medium, but something alive and vibrant, with something new to say despite contemporary art’s pursuit of the novel and the technological.