Kate Downie & David Austen

October 2009


David Austen's images and objects range from large multi-coloured baubles which dangle from the ceiling to austere, enigmatic word-based prints. He also produces faux naif etchings in a somewhat modish, ironic idiom as well as making short films and adapting existing photographic images. At one moment he appears to celebrate colour but, in the next, to denounce it as frivolous and clumsy. 


Binding such disparate concerns into one cohesive vision represents a conceptual difficulty for the viewer, if not for the artist.  But there are thematic constants such as Film Noir, with all its tropes and conventions. 'Love, Cigarettes & Beer' —a suite of twenty-one photo-gravure prints consisting of photography and text —shows men smoking and a glamorous blonde from the 1930s alongside cryptic utterances such as 'Dreams Hotel' and 'Bone Digger'. Austen came across the photographs in a Berlin flee-market.


It's hard to position Austen's work amongst his panoply of allusion. Is he re-interpreting the Surrealist tradition in thrall to the moody, beguiling imagery of Man Ray? Do Austen's word images align him with the likes of Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner? While it's easy to dismiss some of Austen's etchings such as 'The Couple' as vaguely ridiculous, his work, seen en masse, reveals an untrammeled imagination which is also, frustratingly, impossible to define.



Kate Downie's project 'The Coast Road Diaries' began over two years ago with the aim of revisiting coastal areas of Scotland already familiar through the work of other artists and reinterpreting their vision. Downie visited the Catterline of Joan Eardley, the Orkney so beloved of Bet Low, Frances Walker and Sylvia Wishart and the Solway Estuary which was depicted so skillfully and delicately by Archie Sutter Watt. Downie's journey took her from Achmelvich in Sutherland to Gamrie (or Gardenstown) in Buchan  as well as the east coast where, developing her own vision, she also paid homage to artists as different as Muirhead Bone, Marian Leven and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.


The result is an extraordinarily powerful show, fresh and vital, augmented in its impact by the judicious display of the work of these artists alongside Downie's own. This approach allows connections to be made and patterns of influence to be traced.  The luminous orange sky in Barns-Graham's 'January Sea' finds an explicit echo in the ochre  of Downie's dramatic ink, pastel and watercolour drawing 'The Coal Coast, Kinghorn'. Elsewhere, the subtle juxtaposition of the late Frances Walker's ink drawing 'Shore Pool, Achmelvich' with Downie's 'The Wednesday Road' emphasizes just how much the latter artist is indebted to the former. Such influence extends not only to subject matter and technique but also to a disciplined way of looking at the world which goes beyond mere observation.


Similar observations can be made in respect of Eardley's influence on Downie (although, unlike Walker, Downie was not taught by the artist who made the tiny east coast fishing village of Catterline such a familiar part of Scottish painting). Indeed, before the present project Downie had avoided visiting Catterline for fear of being unable to add to what she believed was Eardley's definitive statement. The results of Downie's exploration dispel any doubts about a mere reiteration of Eardley's vision, for works such as 'The Watchie Path' and a series of monoprints of Catterline Bay (as seen from Downie's camper-van) carry the subject matter into exciting new territory which Downie herself terms 'edgescape'.


While Austen's approach is eclectic, Downie's is concentrated; and although stylistically their work differs enormously, the former could learn much from the latter about how to pursue a focused artistic goal.