Thursday, 11 December 2014

Society of Scottish Artists 117th Annual Exhibition

Visual Art: Giles Sutherland
Society of Scottish Artists
117th Annual Exhibition
5-20 December

Historically, the Society of Scottish Artists has been seen as an upstart compared to its venerable, elder cousin, the Royal Scottish Academy (with which it shares exhibiting space). There are good reasons for this. The society was set up to represent the ‘more adventurous spirits in art.’ Its current strapline emphasises an open outlook: ‘international art in Scotland, Scottish art internationally.’

As if to underline this, there’s no shortage here of contributors from other countries. But this has always been the case, ever since the society invited the likes of Edvard Munch and Paul Klee in the 1930s, and, before them, the Futurists and post-Impressionists, to participate in their annual exhibition.

But there’s also plenty of home-grown talent here, such as Graham Fagan, a Scot, like many others, whose work is widely known elsewhere.

At the entrance visitors are greeted by a series of hovering, dark, skull-like images. At first glance, these appear to be X-rays of a badly damaged skeleton. Closer inspection reveals pencil, enamel paint and Indian ink. Fagan has explored ideas of perception and reality -- in this case, sensing his own teeth with his tongue, and sketching the results, in what might be called ‘synaesthetic drawing’.

This feeling of the quirkily macabre extends to Marina Burt’s installation comprising living (and dead) silk moths, amid tiny ceramic jars and containers, which fill the drawers of an antique dresser. The moths’ entire life cycle is contained here in this intensely paradoxical, morbid -- yet delicate -- microcosm. The work finds a strange and compelling echo in Jo McDonald’s The Story Kist, which consists of a textured serpentine form, apparently emerging from an antique coffer.

Burt is one of a number of recent graduates from Scotland’s art colleges whose work, in a long-standing and visionary policy, is included here. All of the work by these up-and-coming artists has something of value to offer, including Morgan Cahn’s Nail Soup, a celebration of the Dundee arts community.

By design or happenstance the catalogue uses the term ‘cocooned’ in relation to Nicole Heidtke’s and Stefan Baumberger’s exhilarating work, ‘ink,’ which celebrates five-hundred years of printing in Scotland. Inscriptions from texts spanning these centuries have been etched inside five glass spheres, which rotate on approach, causing an intense blue ink to move inside the bulbs. This becomes a pale lilac stain as they slow to a stop. The faded inscriptions include excerpts from the Bible and the Arabian Nights. Another, from Holland’s 1603 translation of Plutarch’s Moralia, reads: “With one sole pen I writ this book, / Made of a grey goose quill ; / A pen it was when it I took, / And a pen I leave it still.‎”

‘ink’ is part of a section of the show, assembled by guest curators Sarah Cook and Mark Daniels, under the auspices of the ‘Alt-w Fund,’ which promotes artistic and technological collaboration. Other elements include the fantastical and transparent ‘Palace’ by Gina Czarnecki. In a curious echo of Fagan’s piece, Czarnecki has used human milk teeth as a ‘decorative’ addition. The work evolves through time as visitors ‘donate’ teeth at successive venues.

The exhibits in Gallery IV give the room a dark, dystopian feel. Ross Andrew Spencer’s installation is a topography of war contained in a model landscape. This is augmented by a pair of relief paper prints, Bleeding Brain, by Ingrid Bell and Ade Adesina’s dark narratives, Contradiction and Adaptation.

Thoughtfully assembled and democratically chosen, this lean, uncluttered show brims with fresh energy, ingenuity and intellect.

[With thanks to Rose Strang and SSA staff for help with research]

Saturday, 22 November 2014

ABSENT VOICES: SUGAR ARCHIVE McLean Museum & Art Gallery, 15 Kelly St, Greenock PA16 8JX 01475 715624 22nd November – 20th December, 2014 Monday – Saturday, 10am-5pm

Absent Voices

A west of Scotland community is set to receive an unusual gift from a group of artists, musicians and filmmakers.

Greenock is to be given a ‘living archive’ of songs, visual art, music, poetry and glasswork from the artists’ group Absent Voices. The project was set up by glass artist Alec Galloway to explore the town’s  300-year-old sugar industry, which closed in the late 1990s. Galloway’s family has deep connections with the town’s sugar industry, long associated with brand Tate & Lyle.

Absent Voices brings together a number of creative workers including the film-maker Alastair Cook, singer-songwriter Yvonne Lyon and painter Anne McKay.

The archive will be donated to the town’s McLean Museum and Art Gallery, following an exhibition there next month.

Sugar and shipbuilding dominated the industrial landscape of Inverclyde for centuries but in recent decades these traditional industries have been in decline. Absent Voices has attracted funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and signals a major shift toward creative and cultural investment in the area.

Inverclyde Council are backing the initiative Inverclyde Place Partnership which is tasked with attracting inward investment through creative industries. The George Wyllie Foundation, set up in 2012 after the death of the popular artist, who lived in Gourock, aims to set up a permanent museum in the area. Creative Scotland, the publicly–funded body that supports the arts in Scotland, has also invested in the area.

Absent Voices has focussed on the Sugar Sheds at Greenock’s James Watt dock. The vast complex of A-listed Victorian refineries and warehouses, sited near the Titan crane, has not been used for sugar manufacturing since the 1960s.

The artists, many of whom live in the area, have worked in different ways but with a focus on community engagement and the creation of long-term social benefits.

Yvonne Lyon and Anne McKay worked with pupils at Whinhill Primary where they led classes in song-writing and painting. Both artists used the physical presence of the sheds as a starting point for exploring history and heritage through creativity.

“The pupils, who initially viewed the sheds as an eyesore, had little recognition of their own human creative potential,” says Lyon. “ We worked with the children over a period of weeks creating a series of fictional characters. The characters then appeared in song and paint. This was truly inspiring for the children and for us.”

Lyon also led adult song writing classes in the town, with similarly inspiring results. “The project has in a very real sense helped to give the children and adults of Greenock a voice that has been unheard until now,” she adds.

Alastair Cook combines photographic imagery, spoken verse and music in an experimental medium he calls Filmpoem. Cook invited the poets  John Glenday, Jane McKie, Brian Johnstone, Sheree Mack, GĂ©rard Rudolf and Vicki Feaver to compose work relating to the sugar sheds. Cook provided them with archival photographs and documents and encouraged them to visit the area.

McKie’s poem, Revenant, has been combined with blurred, semi-abstract photography and evocative clarsach music. The poem has resonances from the past and present

Here come the guisers / looking for sweeties/ None to be found/ Save the eye of sugar/ Oozing dark rum/ The fingers of sugar/ Dusting ankle and legs/ The spent heart of sugar/ Syrupy in warehouse drains…”

Sheree Mack’s ‘Every Memory’ links sugar to its  Caribbean origins and the slave trade. “Here I stand on cobbles running into dark sheds/ sheds once alive with raw energy/ I wonder what it looked like to the white man/ leaning over the ship’s rail with a silence in his eyes /and a canker upon his tongue/ after the taste of black skin.”

Alec Galloway’s glass and collage explores his familial connections to the industry as well as wider historical perspectives.

He says, “Absent Voices has been an incredibly emotional experience as well as a hugely rewarding one creatively and the group are already planning phase two into next year.”


McLean Museum & Art Gallery, 15 Kelly St, Greenock PA16 8JX
01475 715624
22nd November – 20th December, 2014
Monday – Saturday, 10am-5pm

Tuesday, 18 November 2014


1-10 MAY, 1989

The Jewish Cemetery, Kazimierz, Krakow 1989 Photograph by Giles Sutherland

Any understanding of Post-war Europe would be impossible without a knowledge of the recent history of Poland. To understand this history not only intellectually but also emotionally it is necessary to come to Poland and to experience the legacy of this history at first hand, and above all, through art. These are points which Richard Demarco continually stresses and why, since 1968, he has made twenty-eight visits to Poland.

This year the May Day celebrations in Poland differed markedly from previous years in that their organisation lay in the hands of Polish citizens rather than the State. The new mood in Poland under Gorbachev's reforms comprises a mixture of defiance and deep mistrust towards any far-reaching changes in the economic and political structure of the country - perhaps the inevitable result of Polish history. May Day celebration tu
rned to demonstration: in Wroclaw, the arrival of the police was greeted by stone-throwing youths; the police in turn responded by donning riot-gear and using water-cannon. For the Poles it was a familiar and predictable scenario.

It was against this background that Richard Demarco visited this country with a miscellaneous group of thirty-five people, most of whom were involved in the arts. In Wroclaw's National Museum whose Modern Collection has been compared favourably to that of the Tate Gallery in London some of the essential differences between Polish and British art began to emerge. Briefly put, the former can be said to possess a greater historical awareness, a more acute response to suffering and to be almost lacking in the purely decorative.

From Wroclaw the group travelled to Auschwitz. At first sight it appeared as any other tourist attraction, surrounded by ice-cream stalls and coaches, as well as a cafe and restaurant. The trees were green; birds sang: little seemed amiss. An initial shock was seeing the main gateway to the camp above which was written "Arbeit macht frei" (work creates freedom) - the Nazi motto. It was the first written German encountered in three months of my living in Poland - perhaps surprising considering the whole western part of the country had been German for centuries until 1945.
Perhaps it was the scale and volume of the "exhibits11 which ultimately drove home the depravity of events there: a room of human hair turned green by cyanide gas; rolls of cloth made from this hair; other rooms full of shoes, brushes, suitcases - each of the last bearing the name of its owner. Our "tour" lasted three hours leaving the group emotionally and physically drained. 

In Cracow we visited the Cricot 2 Theatre, base of the internationally celebrated artist Tadeusz Kantor. Typically, Demarco had invited Kantor to the Edinburgh Festival as early as 1972 when he was still relatively unknown outside Poland. It was here that we were able to see some of the many links between the Polish experience embodied by Auschwitz and the national art, revealed in a documentary film. Kantor lived through the wartime occupation of Poland, mainly in Cracow, and operated his theatre, quite literally, underground as he moved from one basement venue to another to avoid discovery by the Nazis. Kantor's Dead Class directly reflects his experience of the death of most of his classmates in the concentration camps. In Let the Artists Die Kantor remembers Wit Stwosz whose magnificent medieval alterpiece is found in St. Mary's Cathedral in Cracow. Because Stwosz was unable to repay a small debt he was punished by having a nail driven through his cheeks by the city authorities. It is not difficult to see why Kantor found this such an enduring symbol for the treatment of artists throughout the ages.

Another member of Kantor's wartime theatre was Tadeusz Brzozowski whose recent death represented the loss of one of Poland's best artists. Demarco met Brzozowski on his first visit here and as recently as December 1988 exhibited his work in Edinburgh. Brzozowski's art is the inevitable result of his experience of a country destroyed by war: images of cruxifiction, coffins, hangings and insects are common in his paintings which are found in major art collections throughout the world.
Leaving Cracow we passed the giant Lenin Steel Works at Nowa Huta which has recently aroused great concern over its environmental effects. Cracow, a city rich in architectural treasures, is dissolving faster than it can be restored. A recent Greenpeace report described Upper Silesia as holding the "uncontested world record for all kinds of pollution" with about 30% of the population of Poland living in officially recognised "ecological disaster areas". Only recently have these immense problems begun to be recognised and addressed. In 1980 PKE (Polski Klub Ekologiczny) was founded in Cracow; it is hoped that the present political reforms will allow for a more concerted and effective response to a major ecological crisis.

It is one of the hallmarks of any event involving Richard Demarco that anything can, and probably will, happen. So it was that an impromptu poetry evening was organised in the lobby of an anonymous state-run hotel in Zakopane. The resonances of the Polish experience which the group were so briefly encountering were heard in the words of Wislawa Szymborska whose poem 'Children of this Age' adopted an even greater poignancy: "You need not even be a human being/ to acquire political importance./ It is enough just to be oil/ fodder or recyclable material.

It is debatable how balanced an impression of Poland can be gained in ten days, especially when one is living in comparatively luxurious hotels and travelling by express coach. What was not in question was the diversity and quality of art that was seen, the unfailing enthusiasm and vision of Demarco himself and the richness of the experience which was gained by all those who participated.


Sunday, 9 November 2014

Chagall Before the Fall

Chagall Before the Fall

(for C.J.B.)

The artist half-floats on dreamt air,
holding aloft a three-prong candelabrum;
an autumnal ash, lit from within, points heaven-ward.

The bride and her groom soar, too, as in dreams,
her white train like a comet's tail -
a long cloud anchoring her to firm earth.

A peacock-fiddler and cockerel silhouette the blue sky;
below, a domed-and-crossed-church;
the tree holds a red carpet, high in its branches.

Did Chagall dream such a scene, or is this serene
structure for us to live his visions, through painted life?
The artist lives in dreams of couples, marriage, trees;

the animals of field and farm, his spirit heirs; soaring -
love and colour, his palette bright, soft, clear...
Vitebsk, from far-off Paris, painted with such vision...

Yet, for all its softness, its delicacy, its lightness of touch,
a threnodic note sounds like a bell through distant woods.
His wife, dead these four years, mourned, floats skyward,

slipping through his fingers as surely as any comet around the sun.
What melancholy could he not express, if he painted parody,
no longer aspiring to prayer, or the highs and lows of loss?

Chagall, bereft, outlived Bella by forty summers;  each year
her wraith spins aloft like mist burning in the sun.
No revolutions left, only memory - the thick padding of painted oil.

November 2014

Marc Chagall - The Tree of Life, 1948.

The author is indebted to Kay Larsen's review in The New York Magazine, 27 May 1985, for the title of this poem.

The images below are of All Saints Church, Tudeley, in Kent. Chagall designed all 12 windows, which were installed between 1967 and 1985.

Photographs by Giles Sutherland, September, 2014

Friday, 5 September 2014

Kate Downie – Zero to Fifty: The Road Bridge Diaries


Kate Downie – Zero to Fifty: The Road Bridge Diaries
Hopetoun House
South Queensferry
Until Sept 13

Artist Kate Downie is no stranger to depicting large structures. In the past, she has worked on a visual record of the Forth Rail Bridge; in 2011 a project in China involved her in making images of the Yangtze River Bridge. Here, she turns her attention to the Forth Road Bridge in a series of drawings, prints, paintings – and a sound installation – celebrating the famous crossing’s first half-century.

Downie has worked from a small temporary studio situated under the bridge’s north tower. But her adventurous nature and enquiring spirit have meant that she has looked at the structure from all angles and viewpoints, including its highest point, and from below, by boat. Like most of us, Downie has traversed the bridge by car but she has also cycled and walked across it, as well as spending time below, looking and listening.

Some of the statistics surrounding the road bridge are mind-boggling. The span is more 2.5 km and, at its highest point, is 150 metres above the river. At the time of its construction it was the largest structure of its kind outside the United States.  The main supporting cables contain almost 50,000 kilometres  of high tensile wire, while the total weight of steel in the bridge is around 40,000 tonnes. In 2013, the bridge carried around 23 million vehicles. 

Such statistics obscure many of the human elements around the bridge’s construction and use. Downie, in characteristic fashion has managed to capture both the technological and personal sides of this justifiably celebrated structure.  

Painting the Clarsach shows workers, suspended like flies, as they labour on the complex task of coating the vertical cables. A series of eight photographically-derived monoprints, entitled The Winter Commute, creates varying mood and atmosphere. As the sun sets,  traffic, dwarfed by the enormous edifice, is silhouetted against a series of changing skies. 

Downie has used more traditional methods to create a commemorative limited edition etching. The Art of Crossing shows the enormous span of the road bridge, with the rail bridge in the background.  The view is that seen from the south shore of the river, to the west  of the existing bridges. It is from this point that the new, third crossing, already well underway, will span the Forth.

Manoeuvres with Concrete, a big, bold, exciting work in charcoal and pastel, captures the intense activity around the construction of one of the new towers. This is echoed by the smaller ink study, A View into the Future, which reveals the new road bridge as it grows daily, framed by the structure of the old.

Downie’s work owes a debt of gratitude to others, such as the Scottish artist Muirhead Bone, as well as Monet, Turner, Whistler and Edward Burra.  But her approach might be summed best up by the words of the American writer, Hart Crane, in his evocative poem To Brooklyn Bridge, published in 1933: “Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift/Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,/Beading thy path—condense eternity:/And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.”