Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Time Around Trees


A short video of the exhibition, Time Around Trees at St Margaret's House, 151 London Road, Edinburgh by Eoin Cox, Tansy Lee Moir and Catherine Lilley

The show ends on Sunday 22 March.

It looks great!

Further details:

Tansy Lee

Studio 6.20, St. Margaret's House
151 London Road
Edinburgh, EH7 6AE

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

New Contemporaries 2015 at the RSA, Edinburgh

Erin Fairley’s Orange Rope is one of several politically and socially engaged works by talented new artists and architects
Published in The Times 17 March 2015

Rated to 4 stars

Rated to 4 starsThis annual exhibition brings together work by 72 artists and architects, selected from last year’s art college degree shows. It is a highly privileged forum as well as an indicator of future success. The increasingly professional approach by even the youngest artists is evidenced by the serious price tags, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand pounds for an individual art work.
Because this exhibition is drawn from such a wide cross-section, it’s impossible to discern common concerns. However, it would be true to say that these emerging artists are politically and socially engaged. There’s also an air of ominous menace, offset by some colourful but complex work.
Moira Watson’s installation Control. Money. Power, for example, is a series of five bomb-shaped objects, suspended from the ceiling. The presence of such threatening symbols acts as a metaphor for the forces that seek to manipulate our lives.
At the front portico, Deb Marshall’s sound installation Kairos I floods the area with thunder. Its companion piece, Kairos II, includes a classical, headless cast of Venus Marina accompanied by Dido’s Lament, by Purcell, scored, recorded and performed in reverse. This is an immersive work, sensitively in tune with its surroundings, where “meaning” is somehow less important than sensory experience.
Although Erin Fairley and Emma Smith are from different colleges, Dundee and Edinburgh respectively, their works sit comfortably together. Fairley uses rope and thread — here a red web defines the cupola above the sculpture court. She also works outdoors, in wild landscapes, combining textiles with ceramics. Smith’s Transposition, a pair of inverted red velvet curtains that may have protected some precious, but invented, museum object, indicates a sense of loss and memory.
It’s good to see the notion of craft returning to the way artists make art. Dominic McIvor’s 168 incorporates drawing, embroidery and plaster while Robbie Hamilton’s wooden plinths and ramps explore the environment of skateboarding. Seamus Killick’s Premium Fingernails, a series of 83 paintings, is labour-intensive and minutely detailed. David Fleck’s constructions, carved and shaped from wood, are also inspiring. Catherine Ross’s vast oil diptych Passage depicts sea, ice and the vast rusting hulk of a ship.
One of the most affecting works is Richard Phillips-Kerr’s Avatar. The artist has projected a moving image of a talking head on to a life-size plaster-cast body. In Hindu mythology the avatar was the physical embodiment of a god but today the term denotes a digital presence. Kerr manages to combine both senses with what seems to be a message of caution from other worlds.
This highly impressive and professional show bodes well for the health of Scotland’s art schools and the artists who emerge from them.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Love of language reveals a lexicon of ambition

“Abstract” is a label that is often applied to the work of Raoul De Keyser, the Belgian painter who died in 2012 aged 82. Its use here doesn’t seem entirely helpful. Almost all of these 40 or so colourful paintings and objects, which date from the late Sixties until the year of De Keyser’s death, have some direct relationship to the observed world. At first glance, De Keyser’s work can seem slight, even simplistic. The paint, often in primary colours, has no depth and the paintings themselves have an air of the unfinished. But this was precisely De Keyser’s intention — to deny his work beauty (a term with which he struggled) in order not to distract from his true purpose.
So, what was De Keyser attempting to do? His work is full of conundrums. An early piece, Camping V, from 1971, consists of a painted canvas stretched over a wooden box. It’s a large work, about a metre high and wide, with a depth of 20cm. At the corners, large stitches join the canvas together. The link between the title and the work seems obvious but there’s more to this than first appears.
It’s part painting and part sculpture. As one looks at it there’s a temptation to visualise it hanging on a wall, its six sides reduced to one dimension. The flat, bold colours of green, blue and cream seem derived from grass, sky and tent canvas. But is De Keyser’s roguish sense of humour at play here? Do the stitched sides in some way mock the viewer struggling to “stitch” together “meaning”?
De Keyser loved language. However, he often struggled with the way words were used to describe and distort his work.
The term art historians give to work such as De Keyser’s is “abstract figuration”. It suggests that the basis of the painting lies in observation but emphasises the honing process and precision of the finished work.
De Keyser claimed that too much was read into his work while at the same time making clear that it was supported by a sturdy intellectual framework.
And so it is when we look at these paintings.
At the point when we grasp an apparent superficial meaning, a simultaneous notion of underlying complexity begins to take hold.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Nicola Sturgeon’s first official portrait unveiled at Bute House

Wow. It is probably not the most statesmanlike term she will ever utter, but it was the hugely expressive reaction of Nicola Sturgeon on clapping eyes on her first official portrait.
The first minister came face to face with the nearly life-size painting yesterday at Bute House, her official residence in Edinburgh, cupping her face in her hands as she regarded the painting with something like awe.
“It’s amazing, ” she whispered to no one in particular, although Gerard M Burns, the artist, was at her side.
“I’m glad you like it,” he responded with a smile. “To be confronted by an almost life-size image . . . ” Before he completed the thought, Ms Sturgeon had silenced him with her next crack. “Neil Gow looks amazing,” she said.
Subject and artist were standing in the drawing room where the work had been modelled just a few months ago. In the picture, Ms Sturgeon is shown standing by the sofa, in front of a famous portrait of Gow, the 18th-century fiddler, by Sir Henry Raeburn, which hangs on the wall.
“That’s a wee bit of swagger on my part, to place one of my portraits before the Raeburn, which was a bit naughty perhaps,” Burns conceded.
Ms Sturgeon admitted that she was pleased, saying: “It’s a bit strange to see myself on canvas but Gerard is such a talented artist and it’s a big honour. I’m very happy with it.”
The artist came to the attention of a wider public when he designed a Christmas card for Alex Salmond, Bute House’s recently departed resident. In that 2009 illustration, Burns chose to portray a sad child tramping through a snowy landscape, trailing a Saltire in her wake, as if waiting for the spring to raise her battle standard.
The moment of rebirth may have arrived. The SNP lost the independence referendum, but romping ahead in the opinion polls it appears to many observers to have won “the peace” that has followed.
For her part, after a matter of months as party leader, Ms Sturgeon is widely judged to be among the UK’s most complete politicians. That quality is reflected in her portrait, which depicts her in the red dress designed by the Edinburgh designers Totty Rocks for her inauguration as first minister.
Burns said he had reflected Ms Sturgeon’s best characteristics, “her youth, her femininity, her confidence”. He added: “It’s got a wee bit of swagger about it, a wee bit of gallus.”
The artist rejects an abstract approach, and uses photographs as the basis for his ultra-realistic paintings, which are created in his studio. Ms Sturgeon’s portrait was among 16 he completed over about five months for an exhibition in New York next month to celebrate Scotland week. He said: “The likeness should be a given. It shouldn’t be questioned. When you paint someone’s portrait it will look like them, it must look like them.”
Among the 15 other works are portraits of the actors Ewan McGregor, Brian Cox and Alan Cumming, and the comedian Billy Connolly. The journalist and broadcaster Kirsty Wark, Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, QC, and the actress Laura Fraser of Breaking Bad have also been painted, along with the composer Craig Armstrong, the author Denise Mina and the designer Iona Crawford.
A portrait of Elaine C Smith dressed in full pantomime costume features in the exhibition. The actress, a prominent Yes Scotland campaigner, was given the first glimpse of it alongside Ms Sturgeon at yesterday’s reception.
Smith said she was delighted with the picture, which portrays her as Dame Potty from Beauty and the Beast, a role she has performed for the past six years at His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen.
A portrait of parallels
At first sight, this seems to be a traditional take on the idea of portraiture by Gerard M Burns (Giles Sutherland writes). It shows Nicola Sturgeon at Bute House, posed in front of another portrait — Sir Henry Raeburn’s study of the fiddler Niel Gow — which was completed in 1787. Gow was considered one of Scotland’s finest contemporaneous musicians
The first minister is shown here with her right hand placed on the back of an elegant chair. In the background, details from the Georgian interior of the house include a panelled door and a classically derived frieze. By contrast, although her apparel is also stylish, Ms Sturgeon wears a half-sleeved, knee-length red dress.
The juxtaposition of diverse imagery is one of Burns’s visual tropes. His inclusion here of Raeburn’s portrait may be more than a recording of reality. It could suggest parallels between the accomplishments of the famous fiddler, who wooed his audience with music, and those of Ms Sturgeon, who has developed into an accomplished politician, who knows well how to use words and oratory.
The timing of the unveiling is interesting. Burns’s complimentary and sympathetic take contrasts with the recent representation of Ms Sturgeon and Alex Salmond in The Guardian by Steve Bell, the cartoonist. It shows the pair, satirised in Highland dress, accompanied by a less-than-kind text.
Images are important, and the timing of this one is, possibly, more than a coincidence.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Diane Arbus

Visual Art: Giles Sutherland
Diane Arbus
Kirkcaldy Museum
Until 31 May


Published in The Times

The work of American photographer Diane Arbus, who took her own life in 1971, aged 48, has famously divided popular and critical comment. While some view her large, square-format, black and white portraits of ‘outsiders’ ? such as giants, twins, mixed race couples ? as empathetic, others find the images obtrusive, exploitative and prurient.

Arbus was born in 1923 in New York city where her Russian Jewish parents  ran Russek’s, a famous department store in Fifth Avenue. Her brother Howard Nemerov went on to become Poet Laureate of the US, and her sister, Renée Nemerov Brown, carved out her own identity as artist. The siblings had a privileged upbringing, largely insulated from the effects of the great depression.

The writer Susan Sontag, who knew Arbus and was photographed by her, wrote: “ [Arbus’] work shows people who are pathetic, pitiable, as  well as repulsive, but it does not arouse any compassionate  feelings.”

Whether or not we agree with Sontag’s observations, it is obvious that Arbus’ arresting images continue to hold our interest.  The photographs surely force us to admit some uncomfortable truths, including the fact that we are fascinated by the sheer variety and oddity of others.

These portraits show their subjects head-on, allowing us to peruse, to stare and to scrutinise. Arbus is less interested in deformity than ‘otherness’.

‘A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, N.Y. 1970’ shows the 34-year-old circus performer Eddie Carmel dwarfing his parents, and their living space. Arbus has confined her subjects in the corner of the harshly-lit room. The cracks in the ceiling, the cheap décor and drawn curtains emphasise an air of subdued desperation. The giant stoops, his enormous frame supported by a stick, as if under the weight of his own condition,  while his mother stares up at him, in apparent incredulity.

In ‘Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. 1963’ three wizened faces return the stare of the lens. The two women are wearing aprons, thick socks and flat shoes while the bespectacled man is attired in slacks and open-necked shirt. His left hand proffers a card of some description. The expressions on the trio’s faces convey bemusement, as if puzzled as to why they are such compelling subject matter. They are, like so many of Arbus’ subjects, willing accomplices in their own entrapment by the camera.

Not all of Arbus work is focussed on apparent oddity, nor people.  ‘Xmas tree in a living room in Levittown 1963’ retains its status as portraiture while being notable for its absence of people. Levitttown was built in 1947 as a ‘racially segregated planned community’   to cater for the post-war demand for housing. The sterility of the cheap, rapidly built housing is echoed in the sparsely furnished room with giant tree crammed into one corner. The TV set and mound of presents seem to offer a critique of consumerism.

Like all of Arbus’ work, the title offers profound clues towards her thinking.  The specification of date, place, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, bodily form and social status is intensely directive, as well as descriptive. In other words, the titles somehow force a particular interpretation of the images.

An up-market suburban utopia appears to be the subject of ‘A family on their lawn one Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. 1968’.  A boy, playing in the background, is framed by his sunbathing parents. The father shields his face from the sun, or the camera or both, while the glamorous blond mother stares on inscrutably. Although outwardly there is nothing sinister, Arbus seems to imbue the scene with disquiet.

At the opening of the Arbus retrospective, Revelations, in New York, in 2005 covered by the Washington Post, the subjects of ‘Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey 1967’, Cathleen Mulcahy and Colleen Yorke, are shown alongside their portrait taken years earlier. The women are easily recognisable from the now iconic portrait in which Arbus eerily portrays the identically dressed girls, one half smiling the other half frowning, as if conjoined. 

This is Arbus’ special quality ? to imbue the ordinary with an air of otherness, and to point her lens in directions unremarked by others.