What you see is where you're at

March 2010

Publication: The Times

Above the façade of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art a large neon sign reads 'EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT'. The work, by Martin Creed, is as enigmatic as it is incongruous. Across the road at the Dean Gallery a 'companion' piece, another illuminated sign, by fellow Glasgow School of Art graduate, Nathan Coley, proclaims 'There will be no miracles here'. It's an equally ironic, de-contextualised statement; both leave the viewer intrigued, wanting to learn more.


This is the second tranche of the SNGMA's 50th anniversary display – the first, which opened towards the end of last year - included these works by Coley and Creed. Central to the celebratory atmosphere is a radical rehanging of much of the gallery's collection coupled with  new work.  Callum Innes was invited to curate some of the work – as well as being given pride of place in his own right.  Although the idea of guest curation is laudable, it confirms the feeling that Innes' work is unjustifiably over-exposed.


The inclusion of work by emerging Scottish artists is a trend which has gathered momentum over recent years so it's now no longer a surprise to see the likes of Alex Dordoy. A series of four works, including 'Face the Past', show some originality.  Dordoy focuses on technology which is on the verge of obsolescence and here his mutilated, over-painted trouser-presses have been removed, as it were, from the anonymous hotel room and given the status of disquieting art object.


But these works are also firmly rooted in a long historical tradition represented by, for example, by Jannis Kounellis'  'Untitled (Sewing Machine)' from 2004 (shown in the first phase  of this rehang but still on view). Although this is a fairly recent work Kounellis was a leading exponent of the Arte Povera movement which turned discarded objects into art. 


Dordoy's aggressive posturing seems a million miles away from the series of rather delicate, small works by Peploe, Hunter, Cadell and Fergusson. But its worth remembering that in their own way, and in their day, the Scottish Colourists were as radical and innovative as anything that Dordoy or Coley can conceive today. 


The SNGMA's first Keeper, Douglas Hall, has been invited to present a small selection of works acquired under his charge. The group includes paintings by Joan Eardley, L.S. Lowry and the Belgian, Constant Permeke – the works, respectively, 'Catterline in Winter', 'Canal and Factories' and 'Winter in Flanders' are by artists whom Hall believes all share a quest for 'the truth'. All are more or less unembellished landscapes and all reflect the scenes which presented themselves to the artists.  Again, we are reminded of the debt these artists owe to the Great Masters and the incontestable idea that art is interconnected.


SNGMA began acquiring work by Ian Hamilton Finlay in the mid-'seventies -  the latest acquisition, 'Sailing Dinghy' which comprises a life-size boat and text. The words, painted in an exquisite Palatino typeface refer to numbered areas of the boat; “one bow curves/ two bow cleaves/ three sail powers/ four sail steadies/ five rudder steers/ six stern stitches.” The idea seems simple enough but the evocative power of the words combined with the beauty of the crafted object produces an elegiac, pastoral fragment of great intensity.


Notwithstanding the undoubted quality of the display here it inevitably begs the question – how representative is this collection of recent and contemporary art in Scotland? This answer is, not very. Whole swathes of high quality artists – many of them painters who graduated in the 1950s, '60s and '70s have been omitted or marginalised, suggesting curatorial indifference and a concomitant, contemporaneous lack of national confidence. This imbalance has not been redressed by the over-exposure of recent Glasgow graduates. There are other art schools producing very fine work.


Surely, it must now be a priority for the National Galleries to rectify these omissions?