Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Review of Norman McLaren Hand-made CInema in The Times


Norman McLaren
Hand-made Cinema
Talbot Rice Gallery


Until July 5

Animator, cinematic pioneer and visual artist Norman McLaren was born in Stirling 100 years ago. A major series of events in the UK and in his adopted country, Canada, celebrates one of Scotland’s most important cultural figures.

After studying at Glasgow School of Art, McLaren worked for the General Post Office Film Unit before moving to New York in the late 1930s. He joined the Animation Department of the National Film Board of Canada (under the documentary film-maker and fellow Scot, John Grierson) in 1941.

Although, McLaren won an Oscar in 1953 for his partially animated short, Neighbours, the fact that he spent most of his working life abroad goes some way to explaining why McLaren (who died in 1987), remains relatively unknown at home.  

This well-named show, which concentrates on his abstract animation, gives insightful information and commentary on a wide range of McLaren’s techniques, tools and tricks of the trade. It also poses, implicitly, a number of questions including the way McLaren may have worked given access to today’s digital technologies.

McLaren was clearly ahead of his time both as animator and conceptual artist. Among many other preoccupations, he was absorbed by the relationship between the musical and the visual.

A number of important films offer a kind of synaesthetic experience. McLaren collaborated extensively on Begone Dull Care (1949) with the Oscar Peterson Trio. This combination of jazz and image can best be described as an eight-minute abstract audio-visual collage.

Although each of the three sections of Peterson’s composition differ widely, McLaren perfectly captures the mood and rhythmic assemblage of piano, drums and bass.  In the first section each instrument is assigned a different abstract motif – the piano, for example, has a series of stripes and lines while the bass inspires vaguely organic forms against a saturated red background. All of the imagery is perfected synchronised with the musical rhythm.

McLaren’s techniques were also innovatory – many involved mark-making directly onto the surface of the film.  On making Beyond Dull Care, McLaren said: “we applied the dyes with big and little brushes, with stipple brushes, with sprayers, with finely crumpled paper and with cloths…we pressed dry fabrics into washes of still wet dye…Netting, mesh and fine lace were stretched out tightly in various ways against the celluloid..”

McLaren left maximum room for improvisation and rarely worked with  scripts, preferring the time-based ‘dope-sheets’ of animators. Much of his working material was low-tech, again often improvised. A curious angled wooden structure, rather like a technician’s drawing-board with a gap through which light is reflected, was used by McLaren to back-light the raw celluloid film on which he drew.  Indeed, seeing the various self-fashioned objects, often made of card-board and wood,  which McLaren used to create apparently hi-tech - but obviously analogue - animations, is certainly one of the highlights here.

Demonstrating the typically Scottish traits of frugality and invention McLaren was a firm believer in the paradoxical notion of artistic innovation through constraint, explaining, “A small budget, limited technical means, and an urgent deadline often act as a catalyst and help to impose the artistic consistency and unity which is an essential part of a well-made work.”

This well conceived show should go a long way to further enhancing McLaren’s deservedly high reputation.

·      A Dream of Stirling: Norman McLaren’s Scottish Dawn is at the Smith Art Gallery and Museum, Stirling until 22 June

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Anne Collier, Aleksandra Domanović, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz

Visual Art: Giles Sutherland

The Modern Institute
Anne Collier
Until  June 7

Aleksandra Domanović
Until June 1
*** (THREE)

Transmission Gallery
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
Until May 22
** (TWO)

Across Glasgow, the work of three artists makes particular use of photography, video and digital technology.

Berlin-based Aleksandra Domanović, born in Serbia in 1981, offers a critique of the way women are represented in science fiction films. This in turn opens out into a wider discussion of gender and technology. Once you have worked your way past the now common, but unnecessary, international art jargon, that introduces the work, it turns out to be fun, engaging and, at points, thought-provoking.

A series of huge transparent plastic banners, draped from the elegant Corinthian columns in the gallery’s ground-floor, depict various sci-fi images. These include a space-station (with a cargo of tumbling apples), a wheelchair complete with prosthetic arm, strange robotic creatures like giant insects, as well as a transparent diagnostic and surgical chamber.  Some seem vaguely familiar, as if gleaned from an amalgam of imagery seen in films such as Bladerunner.

But it’s only when another fiction appears -- a ‘letter’,  purporting to have been written in 1938, from a Walt Disney executive ¾ that some of Domanović’s other concerns become clear. “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen….” states the letter. Although the information seems inconsequential it forms part of a much bigger narrative where women’s roles were sub-ordinated to those of men.

US-artist Anne Collier, born in 1973, makes complex philosophical observations on the nature and history of photography. Her medium is limited edition, poster-sized photographic prints that often deal with the way women are depicted in photography. Collier’s work is layered, mature, considered and often includes images of women behind the lens. An example is ‘Woman With A Camera (Persona) 2013’, which takes it title from the Ingmar Bergman’s 1967 film starring Liv Ullmann. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the pre-eminent commentators on photography, Susan Sontag, apparently considered Persona as the best film ever made.

Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, born in 1972, has made the disused US naval base, Roosevelt Roads,  Ceiba in her native Puerto Rico the subject of her video works. These show how the forest has once again encroached on the military infrastructure that was abandoned in 2004. Muñoz has linked these images with the naval base at Faslane on the Clyde, via a recording on a vinyl  ‘lp’. The work is given greater currency because the of increasingly heated debate about the role of nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland. While Muñoz’s Post Military Cinema is potentially arresting, it rarely rises above the level of the pedestrian.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Visual Art: Giles Sutherland

Tatha Gallery
Until June 4


Toby Paterson
Fife Contemporary Art & Craft @ Kirkcaldy Galleries
Until June 22


The inaugural show of the Tatha Gallery directly opposite the site of the new V & A building in Dundee, is a promising start.  The gallery is a former hotel that once served ferry passengers to Dundee. A large, new window frames a startlingly composed view across the river Tay, while a model sailing ship dangles and spins in the kinetic winds of the estuary.

Painters Joyce Cairns and Alan Robb, and sculptor Doug Cocker, are three of Scotland’s most accomplished senior artists. All live locally and are members of the Royal Scottish Academy. The organisation boasts almost a score of members from the immediate vicinity.

Cairns paints passionately autobiographical narratives assembled around a collection of personal imagery and objects.   The Magic Gate is a typically vivid work. A portrait within a portrait, it shows an artist painting her younger self. A book, photograph and patterned plate are set on a table that is depicted on a flat, non-perspectival plane. The work alludes to the past, to memory  and to the pain of loss.

Robb’s work is detailed and assured, at one remove from the self, focussing on architecture, objects and landscape. Auchmithie Stone is a typically accomplished composition, depicting a sea-shaped sandstone agglomerate pebble, commonly found in the former fishing village. With ease, Robb imbues such apparently mundane objects with spiritual mystery.

Cocker’s favoured medium is wood. He uses this infinitely adaptable material with the deftness of the most accomplished landscape painter or nature poet. Geography ¾ a large wall piece, consisting of nine individual works, shows Cocker at his best. These small, stained and painted constructions are rooted in landscape. Each is divided in two, so that the series resembles a collection of open books, allowing a metaphorical ‘reading’ of landscape.

Toby Paterson came to prominence when he won the Beck’s Futures prize in 2002.  This show is part of the Generation project that aims to introduce the last 25 years of Scottish art to a new audience.

Paterson, who was born in 1974, became interested in modernist and ‘brutalist’ architecture through skate-boarding. The best places to skate were often the paved environs of concrete ‘carbuncles’ so often despised by their inhabitants and the public. It’s clear that Paterson is fascinated by these structures and retains a fondest for them.

This show, carefully conceived, elegantly presented and beautifully crafted, can be viewed as a whole.  The prints, paintings and photographs are punctuated by large sculptural pieces, aptly titled Remnants. These give the vague impression of blocks torn from the very buildings Paterson so compellingly depicts on aluminium sheets, perspex, paper and board using the varied media of print, photography and paint. They are, in fact, hollow structures with superimposed photographic images of brick and concrete surfaces.

Paterson finds beauty, elegance and aesthetic merit in the least-loved, neglected British architecture. He is clearly telling us something politically and socially important, part of which is that such structures are part of a heritage that should be celebrated, not decried. We should take notice.

* The Toby Paterson exhibition will tour to Inverness, Peebles and Dumfries

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Karen Strang: Arthur Rimbaud - Illuminations


Karen Strang
University of Stirling

Until 16 May


The poet Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854 - 1891) was, by any measure, a prodigious talent.  A child protégé, he excelled in classics and wrote his first poetry before his teenage years. A short, intense period of creativity saw the publication of a number of works including Le Bateau Ivre and Une Saison en Enfer. Illuminations, published when he was just 20, was his last, and arguably his most influential work.

Rimbaud’s poetic legacy is enduring and his reputation continues to grow ¾ augmented by his bohemian life-style, which included a brief, torrid and violent affair with the older poet, Paul Verlaine. Rimbaud has inspired writers, singers and film-makers. Agnieszka Holland’s film Total Eclipse, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud, captured the petulance, romance and destructiveness of the adolescent poet.

Enid Starkie’s biography of the poet, first published in 1938 and updated in 1961, dispelled rumour, replaced myth with fact and became the benchmark by which all other accounts have been judged. In her account, Starkie mentions the possibility of a visit by Rimbaud, in 1874, to Edinburgh, when the poet was based briefly in London.

The Alloa-based artist Karen Strang, who is of Polish descent, has long been fascinated by Rimbaud. She has taken the poet’s putative visit as the starting point of a collection of work which includes a miniature theatre, portraiture, poetry, ephemera and expert commentary (by Helen Beale  and Jennifer Faichney).

Strang comments, ‘Three years ago I revisited his [Rimbaud’s] writing and attempted to solve some of the mysteries of his life and work, including the question of his disappearance in the second half of 1874.  These artworks are my answer to the burning question ¾ where was he?’.

Following Starkie’s lead, Strang contends that Rimbaud not only visited Edinburgh but also worked there for some time working as a French language teacher.  She believes that Rimbaud may have been inspired to visit the Scottish capital by reading publications such as The Illustrated London News, which featured the craggy cityscape in its pages.

Such material provides the basis for several of Strang’s images. She cites Rimbaud’s writing, including parts of Illuminations, as further evidence of a Scottish sojourn: “The official acropolis outdoes the most colossal concept of modern barbarity. Impossible to describe the dull light produced by the immutable grey sky; the imperial glare of the masonry, and the eternal snow on the ground.”

Whether or not Rimbaud actually came north of the border is a moot point, but the possibility, which has fuelled such an imaginative response, is certainly intriguing.

An impressive series of paintings, following the chronology of Rimbaud’s life, show how the artist’s sense of the poet is all-pervasive. He is seen by turns as a querulous adolescent (in Depart) and as an oddly androgynous youth, his haloed head wreathed in flowers (First Communion).

Rimbaud wrote almost no poetry after the age of 20. The remainder of his days were spent in a peripatetic existence with spells in the Dutch Colonial Army and, finally, as an arms and coffee merchant in Ethiopia.  He died in France, of cancer, aged 37.

Strang’s contribution to the body of work about Rimbaud is welcome, not least because it adds a new dimension to the long history of visual imagery defining the poet.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Tim Stead: Object Maker and Seed Sower Lower Parks Museum Hamilton


Tim Stead: Object Maker and Seed Sower
Lower Parks Museum


Until 31 May

(Tour: Kingussie, Wick, Perth and West Kilbride)

Tim Stead, who died in 2000 at the age of forty-eight, was a sculptor, furniture-maker, tree-planter, educator and visionary. He has left a rich, enduring legacy.

His life and vision touched many, not only because of his wide range of interests, but also because his work broke down the conventional barriers between ‘art’ and ‘craft’.

His furniture, in particular, had a wide appeal. Even if owning a distinctive native elm or oak chair, table or sideboard was beyond the means of some, venues such as Café Gandolfi in Glasgow’s Merchant City, which Stead fitted out in an early commission in 1979, gave his work a wider audience. His Papal Throne, made for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Scotland in 1980 further enhanced his reputation.  The Memorial Chapel in the Kirk of St Nicholas, Aberdeen is a tender, much-loved tribute to all those who lost their lives in the Scottish oil industry.

This show, wide ranging, lovingly-curated and imaginatively displayed, gives a flavour of Stead’s enormous range ¾ as well as documenting and explaining how his thinking  and making evolved. As a student at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham in the early ‘70s, Stead rejected the prevalent ethos of conceptualism, striking out in a new, bold and imaginative direction.  He found his artistic path when he stopped taking himself seriously and began to ‘play’.

He made sculpture from any material that came to hand, such as stone, wood and fibreglass. An early work is a chess-board and table with integral chairs. Chess fascinated Stead and this theme was to emerge again and again throughout his short, prolific career. In Nottingham, Stead had access to the post-industrial detritus which littered the area. He was particularly drawn to the forms and substance of rotting hulks of boats and barges found on the canal. The worn, rounded timbers, resembling giant skeletons, held a particular fascination. Stead illuminated the innate, formal links between these made-made structures and those in the botanical and zoological worlds.

Stead consolidated his reputation with a large, complex show at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in 1993. An economic, critical and popular success the work ranged across conventional thinking and showed how furniture and sculpture -- often falsely compartmentalised -- had common origins in the once-living wood, revealed through Stead’s hand and mind. A huge, mature ash tree from the garden, felled because of disease, was transformed with a band-saw into enormous ‘trilobites’. These invited tactility and play. This was not just allowed but encouraged, reversing the traditional notion of art as a sanctified, purely visual experience.

Stead has inherited the mantel of artistic giants such as Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth and helped to maintain an alternative, formal, object-based course for sculpture.  His work, unique, but part of a tradition, will assume its rightful place among the most gifted sculptors of the 20th century.