Publication: The Times
Five years ago, the artist, Kate Downie, travelled to China as the recipient of a Royal Scottish Academy William Gillies scholarship. Since then she has returned on a number of occasions as well as, last year, visiting Japan.
Here she presents around 40 new works, including etching, ink and wash, as well as oil painting and a variety of mixed media. The show works well in the large, open space of the modernist Pathfoot Building at the University of Stirling, allowing the viewer to create a kind of travelogue by walking past the works, which record various places and journey in China, as well as the building of the new Forth Crossing in Scotland.
Downie’s working process is intense. As an artist she is never ‘off guard’; every experience, every landscape and townscape, every road and railway, every bridge and junction becomes assimilated into what she has rightly described as a ‘shared vision’ or a ‘democracy of seeing’.
In her various research trips and residencies Downie has worked assiduously to learn as much as possible about the calligraphic and pictorial traditions of China. She comments that “the first Chinese ink painted landscapes seen by European artists probably arrived in the 15th or 16th century via the Silk Road or by sea to Venice. It is probably the first time that landscape art for art’s sake, rather than for historical record or religious teaching had been seen.” A corollary of that observation is surely that the Chinese tradition had an inevitable impact of the way Europeans looked at and depicted landscape.
No tradition stands still. Each evolves in its own way, at its own pace. It is true, however, that as a general principle the art historical processes in China and other parts of south east Asia have followed their own course while following a set of rules and precedents. This can be seen in marked contrast to the way in which art has evolved in the west.
As part of the inevitable pattern of cultural cross-fertilisation that has taken place globally at all levels, Downie has assimilated aspects of the long Chinese pictorial tradition into her own unique vision. These works represent what the artist sees, but more importantly they present a vision of a country in transition, where ancient tradition and brash, intrusive modernity clash or, sometimes, marry harmoniously.
‘Shared Vision’ and ‘Pink Cap!’ (both large ink and wash pieces) for example, show the traditional themes of, respectively, trees in blossom, and bamboo. The images also include calligraphic text and even Downie’s own traditional Chinese signature stamps. However, the images are humorously and cleverly subverted by the addition of a tourist photographing the scene.
Downie’s ability to disrupt our expectations is one of her strategies. However, she has taken the trouble to situate herself within, if not a tradition, then at least a vanguard of Chinese artists who have worked in similarly ‘subversive’ ways. Downie mentions Cai Guagiang, Sun Xun, Zhang Hua, Ai Wei Wei, Zhu Daoping and Liu Bolin – artists, who, she says were at the “cutting edge but also referenced the past landscape of the imagination”.
This is an important point. Although there is a literal level to Downie’s imagery in that it records a kind of reality, there is a deeper, more spiritual element. They are after all, an expression of feeling, as well as observation.
Do these images of roads cutting through beautiful, forested rock outcrops or a massive cruise ship looming above the tranquil fisherman on a riverbank convey any sense of loss, or nostalgia? If they do, they do so with a sense that modernity is unstoppable and here to stay. But they also celebrate the way that such apparently opposing values and expressions can coexist in a form of visual and existential harmony.
· Shared Vision is part of ‘Reflections of the East’ – a series of solo exhibitions inspired by China. The other artists are Emma Scott-Smith, Fanny Lam Christie, Norman McLaren and Ding Fang.