Monday, 2 March 2015

Diane Arbus

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

STAR RATING: **** (FOUR)

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.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Patricia Niemann - Where the Bones of the Earth Show Through

Patricia Niemann - Where the Bones of the Earth Show Through


Timespan
Helmsdale
Until October 25, 2009
Published in Northings




Patricia Niemann originally trained and worked as a goldsmith and ran her own free-lance design studio in Vilshofen, Bavaria before relocating to Scotland where she became ‘hooked’ on glass, firstly as a post-graduate student at Edinburgh College of Art and later at North Lands Creative Glass in Lybster, Caithness.

Her present show, which takes its title from the author Neil Gaiman’s description of the north of Scotland, brings together a number of Niemann’s artistic concerns and presents them in an eclectic range of media. However, for all their apparent diversity, these works coalesce around the core themes of sarcophagal ritual (including the artefacts and architecture of human burial); the human body itself; and the idea of decay, not as a degenerative process, but rather as a regenerative, cyclical one.

Central to Niemann’s practice and training is life drawing and here this discipline finds expression in a number of vigorously worked, expressive studies of the male and female figure. While the female figure appears fully fleshed and somewhat passive, the male figure is angular, taut and wiry — with a clearly defined bone structure. These life drawings can be read as a metaphor for Niemann’s wider concerns — in particular, archaeology and how this can reveal what lies underneath the ‘skin’ of the landscape, especially in Caithness, where she lives and works.

A number of the works here relate to the Achavanich stone setting, a horseshoe-shaped, Neolithic site adjacent to the Loch of Stemster. As well as the carefully constructed arrangement of stones the site also contains a burial chamber which predates these by around 1000 years. Achavanich itself clearly held a religious significance for the early Gaels, who named it (millennia after it had been built) ‘field of the monk’. Archaeological evidence has included charred bone fragments suggesting that the site was linked with the rituals of death, cremation and burial. Niemann created a number of conical, brightly-coloured glass ‘flames’ which she placed alongside these remarkable stones, thus evoking the fire and ritual which are associated with the site. A number of these elegant, spiky sculptural forms can be seen here, as well photographs of them in situ.


Niemann has clearly developed a strong connection with Caithness and professes a fascination with its elemental geology and climate. The sparsity of population and the preponderance of archaeological sites have allowed her to foster a relationship to a distinct past which she views not as a separation by as a continuity. The ancient rituals surrounding death in the north of Scotland, Niemann seems to suggest, form relationships which cross time and space and allow us to understand our common humanity.

Such ideas extend across Niemann’s diverse media – stone and glass sculpture, jewellery, drawing and textiles. In series of jewellery-cum-sculpture ‘Achavanich Standing Stone Pins’, Niemann shows her deftness as both metalsmith and artist. On each felted ‘stone’ she has attached a minutely detailed, bone-shaped piece of jewellery such as a broach or earring. This motif extends to other larger scale works such as an installation of life-size, but stylised, femurs made from coloured glass and Caithness stone. The conceit is replicated elsewhere in a series of dramatic, over-the-top jewellery fashioned from chunky, silver, bone-shaped hoops, which form a chain from which hang, in turn, large glass ‘bones’.

Although many of these objects are bold and striking, they are also, nevertheless, delicate and finely made emphasising the careful craftsmanship which underpins all of Niemann’s work.






Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Ruth Nicol: Three Rivers Meet

Visual Art: Giles Sutherland

Ruth Nicol: Three Rivers Meet
Park Gallery, Falkirk
Until April 18

STAR RATING: **** (FOUR)

Published in The Times



When the Scottish Parliament reconvened, in July, 1999, Iain Crichton Smith’s poem, The Beginning of a New Song, was read aloud:

Let our three-voiced country
sing in a new world
joining the other rivers without dogma,
but with friendliness to all around her.

Crichton Smith is one of seven poets celebrated by Ruth Nicol in an ambitious series of large paintings of Scottish landscape, poetically entitled Three Rivers Meet. 

The show’s title refers to a real place, as well as acting a convenient metaphor. Hugh MacDiarmid, the father of the Scottish literary renaissance, who grew up in Langholm, claimed he could identify each of the town’s rivers (the Wauchope, the Ewes and the Esk) by sound alone.

Crichton Smith’s reference to the linguistic and cultural  riches of Scotland is clearly part of Nicol’s frame of reference. But the artist reveals other aspects of the elegant metaphor: her family memories and the influential role of painter and teacher Sandy Moffat.

Moffat taught at Glasgow School of Art where he was most recently Head of Painting and Printmaking. He has been widely credited with responsibility for the resurgence of figurative painting there.

His painting, Poet’s Pub (1980), is a composite group portrait of some of Scotland’s most celebrated modern writers. As well as Crichton Smith and MacDiarmid, the painting also depicts  Robert Garioch, George Mackay Brown, Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Sorley MacLean.

Nicol describes ‘Poet’s Pub’ as the ‘driver’ of her current project. She travelled extensively throughout Scotland, visiting the places most associated with each of the writers, where she absorbed the light, colours, landscape and genus loci through sketching and photography.

These powerful, immersive paintings are compelling because of their scale, their crafted assuredness and the way they convincingly convey the essence of place.  

Norman MacCaig famously spent his summers in Assynt, in the north-west Highlands. Nicol’s response is not to paint Suilven, the area’s most distinctive mountain. Instead she offers a panorama seen from the small fishing port of Lochinver. Human habitation intrudes but the majority of the canvas is dominated by sea and sky. 

Water, in the form of cloud, river and sea, is an important element in all of these works. In ‘Strathclyde Distillery, Edwin Morgan’ it takes the form of  the river Clyde as seen from Glasgow Green.  In ‘Holyrood, Robert Garioch’ it can be seen in the banks of cloud above Salisbury Crags and Arthur’s Seat. In ‘Stromness, George Mackay Brown’, it is the town’s harbour and the Hoy Sound beyond.

Nicol’s approach is tangential , with unexpected, nuanced detail. Paradoxically, despite being a form of portraiture, these paintings are entirely devoid of people. They are, however, full of human presence - from the patchwork of roads and crofts in ‘Bayble, Lewis, Iain Crichton Smith’ to the terraced rows of whitewashed cottages in ‘Plockton, Sorley MacLean’.

These paintings form a fitting tribute to a prominent teacher and a generation of leading writers. They show, that in the right hands, the medium of paint is as valid and vibrant a form of expression as it ever was.





Monday, 2 February 2015

Eigg Island Exhibition Launch and Event


 Eigg Island Exhibition Launch and Event. 

26th March 7pm, Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh.

New paintings by Rose Strang, crafts by Eigg-based artists Libby Galli, Catherine Davies and Jenny Robertson, photography by Simon Nicholas White.  Debut performances by poet J.L. Williams (Nominated for the 2014 Saltire Society Poetry Book of the Year Award ) and Cellist/Composer Atzi Muramatsu (whose music score features in BAFTA award-winning short film - ‘The Making of Long Bird’).

Tickets for the launch event/performance £6 (£4 )can be booked on this link: http://www.tracscotland.org/scottish-storytelling-centre/centre-events/2293/eigg-island-launch-event

Background to the project..
The Eigg Island project began in April 2014 when Rose Strang visited the Isle of Eigg, to paint landscape and explore possibilities for future collaborative projects. While there, she met with Lucy Conway, the founder of Eigg Box which promotes and supports the work of Eigg-based artists, also creative projects by artists who visit the island, for example The Bothy Project, set up by Alec Finlay.

The launch event of Eigg Island presents the culmination of creative collaborations throughout 2014 between JL Williams (Poet), Atzi Muramatsu (Composer/Cellist) and Rose Strang,  on the theme of Eigg’s landscape, also following on from a recent trip to Eigg in September 2014 where Rose Strang and Atzi Muramatsu developed ideas for new work for the project.

The interplay of music, poetry and painting for the launch event offers an atmospheric, layered experience for viewers or listeners, drawing out imaginative or emotional associations between each of the works.

(This video shows a recent smaller collaboration between Rose Strang and Jennifer Williams in response to the Isle of Lindisfarne - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yFOkSDtygI )

Artists Libby Galli, Catherine Davies and Jenny Robertson, who live on Eigg, include the use of natural materials found on the island in their work, such as sheep wool and willow. Edinburgh-based photographer Simon Nicholas White, whose work captures complex geology and rock formations of the Hebrides, visited Eigg in 1998, while the community were celebrating their buyout of the island, and has since returned many times to photograph its landscape.
















The exhibition continues until April 21st.
Eigg Island is supported and sponsored by Eigg Box http://www.eiggbox.com/