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.”


Sunday, 17 August 2014

Dunbar Pottery

Ceramic Review
Feature Article on Dunbar Pottery & Anagama Kiln
January 2014
Main Article: 1209 Words

Philip Revell is a man of multiple talents. As a research student of engineering (a profession that he went on to work in for a number of years ) at Warwick University in the ‘80s, he met David Jones.  Jones,  who now lectures at Wolverhampton University and is author a number of works on raku and firing techniques, had set up a pottery studio on a farm on the edge of the Warwick campus. It was here that Revell got his first taste of potting:  I found working with my hands and with clay to be an intensely therapeutic antidote to academic research and became hooked,” he says.

Philip came to engineering through an interest in the ‘Small is Beautiful’ philosophy as espoused by E.F. Schumacher. After returning from working with peasant farmers in Zimbabwe, Philip worked at the Centre for Alternative Technology in mid-Wales. It was here that he set up his first pottery workshop.

Since 1990 Philip has operated his pottery from the basement of an elegant Georgian townhouse in Dunbar, near Edinburgh. The flagstone floor, range, pantries and other original fittings somehow seem an appropriate place for such a venture. The sprays of elemental clay, the kick-wheels and kiln, chime with the simplicity, harmony and solidity of the surroundings.

Near the beginning of the new millennium, Philip began organising a number of projects at Pishwanton Wood , an experimental bio-dynamic land management centre based on Goethean principles - that nature is a seamless whole, that our inner life is part of the outer world -  in the Lammermuir Hills.  These included the building of a wood-fired, two-chamber, noborigama stepclimbing  kiln, so-called because they are traditionally built on slopes with each chamber higher than the one before.  After leaving Pishwanton to set up the environmental organisation Sustaining Dunbar, Philip began to develop the idea of building a kiln nearer to his pottery. Eventually he found a site at the wonderfully-named Phantassie, an organic farm, ideally placed only a few miles away  -  and with a ready supply of firewood from the farm.

Philip used the recycled materials from his Pishwanton kiln to construct a simpler anagama kiln. The term comes from the Japanese “” meaning ‘cave kiln’ and probably alludes to how the first types of the structure were created.  In this instance, because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate, Philip began by building a simple, open wooden shelter under which the anagama kiln was assembled. Starting with cement slabs on a hard-core base, Philip used high alumina firebrick, HTI (insulating brick) and a mixture of locally dug clay, sand and sawdust for insulation to complete the elongated, curving structure.

Philip’s kiln, which he built in his spare time in the evenings and at weekends, took about a year to complete. It was built to his own design with a firebox in the front, and extra stoke holes along its 3-metre length, which allow for the creation of additional fly-ash.  Inspiration for the design came from photographs and drawings of other kilns, especially those of potters John Butler, Svend Bayer and the late Patrick Sargent.  Philip explains, “I was getting a little bored …. and was keen to build a new kiln with the potential for more 'extreme' wood-fire effects on the fired pots, i.e. a design that encouraged more ash to fly through the kiln during firing.”

To date the kiln has yielded some impressive results. Philip’s pots have clean lines and a no-nonsense, functional aesthetic. His mugs often curve inward from the base and then outward towards the rim. The handles are broad and roomy, allowing the thumb to rest comfortably and afford easy tipping while drinking.  These are complemented by capacious, but elegant teapots, which are balanced and pour well with the aid of handles that have space for three fingers while allowing the thumb to sit on top.  Philip’s plates have a similar, well-made solidity with broad bases and a shallow lip.  He also makes jugs, bowls, pitchers and larger garden pottery, such as plant-holders.

“As a largely self-taught potter, I find the attempt to master the many facets of this exacting and technical craft to be an ongoing challenge, which is what keeps me at it. Apart from the physical challenge of throwing and manipulating clay, there is also the need to develop an appreciation of form, to understand the raw materials that can make up a clay body or create a glaze, to experience how these materials interact and are transformed by fire,” he comments.

The process of loading the kiln is, in itself, a time-consuming and skillful business. Space is at premium and care must be taken to allow the flames to seek out all areas of the kiln, unimpeded. Philip uses a series of spyholes through which he can check on a series of cones which indicate appropriate temperatures. The optimum firing temperature for the kiln, stoked with softwood, is around 1340°c.  The entire process of loading, firing, cooling and unloading takes several days and the potter must be present for much of this.

Philip fires his kiln based on the reduction principle. This means that the oxygen supply is restricted, by blocking up the intakes with bricks resulting in a saturation of ‘free carbons’ in the atmosphere, mostly in the form of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Because the fire needs oxygen to burn, the flames seek oxygen within the clay and glaze. Reduction firing can bring out some wonderful colours - ‘shino’ and ‘copper red’ are typical of high-fire glazes.

The fire-box is situated at the front end of the kiln with the chimney at the far end. The forced draught from the chimney  creates a current, of hot gases which move between the pots, carrying a quantity of fly ash from the wood-fire with them.   It is the current of burning gases and fly ash, heated to full temperature and settling on the pots, which forms the patterning on the pottery.

Philip uses glazes on the areas that are least likely to be affected by fly-ash and ‘flashing’ or flare-ups. He uses ‘celadon’ and ‘nuka’ wood-ash glazes -  the former comprises wood-ash, felspar and clay in a 4:2:1 ratio. The 'nuka' mimics a straw-ash glaze by adding quartz to a wood-ash/felspar glaze, with clay, in a 3:3:3:1 ratio. The ‘nuka’ gives a glossy white glaze - with a tinge of blue where it works well. Philip also uses a simple 'shino' glaze, made up of ten parts nepheline syenite to four parts clay.

Perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of any potter’s business is the process of opening and unloading the kiln. With Philip’s anagama kiln, the anticipation is augmented by the experimental nature of the undertaking.  As the bricks are removed to reveal the firebox, the first pieces are removed, still very hot and with the use of gloves. On one of the first pots removed from the front of the kiln there is clearly a line of blue-ish glaze along the rim of the bowl. On the left area there are clear signs of 'burning' caused by the current of flame, smoke and gases - one of the effects of reduction. The bowl is therefore a witness not only to the potter’s hand and eye, but also to the complex chemistry and physics within the kiln itself.  Flames and gases have created patterning and tonality, dictated by their passage around the contours of the vessel.  An ancient technology is still able to provide unpredictable, beautiful and unexpected results while still keeping some of its secrets intact.

Firing schedule for the Phantassie Anagama Kiln:
· pre-heat, 10 hours or so, to get the front of the kiln up to about 300 °c and ensure everything thoroughly dry.
· gently raise the temperature to about 900°c at the front over the next 12 hours, then start side-stoking to raise the temperature at the back of the kiln
· gradually raise the temperature to about 1000°c over the next 3 to 4 hours
· start stoking more frequently and restrict the air inlets as necessary to ensure heavy reduction as the temperature is gradually raised to 1340°c over the next 12 hours, side-stoking at intervals to bring the back of the kiln up to temperature (in practice the kiln will move in and out of reduction continuously each time wood is stoked and the pyrometer readings are not a particularly accurate indication of actual temperature)
· continue stoking and side-stoking to maintain the kiln at this temperature for 14 hours or so, maintaining a light reduction for as much of the time as possible and aiming for cone 11 to be completely over at all five spy holes top, bottom, front and back.
· start reduction cooling  - close the chimney damper and air inlets completely and occasionally stoke with very green wood and spray water into the firebox as necessary to maintain reduction as the kiln cools to about 1050°c. This takes about four hours. (The water reacts with the charcoal in the firebox in the water gas reaction to create carbon monoxide and hydrogen, creating a strongly reducing atmosphere).
· open the chimney damper slightly and crash cool in oxidation to about 900°c
· close damper and all air inlets and leave to cool naturally

Ceramic Review Małgorzata ET BER Warlikowska Mycie Twarzy & Jedząc Marilyn Monroe BWA Wrocław, Poland Galeria Szkła i Ceramiki / Galeria Awangarda

Ceramic Review
Małgorzata ET BER Warlikowska
Mycie Twarzy & Jedząc Marilyn Monroe
BWA Wrocław, Poland
Galeria Szkła i Ceramiki / Galeria Awangarda
24 January to 2 March, 2014

Review: 566 words

Małgorzata  Et Ber Warlikowska’s wonderful, puzzling and eccentric ceramics, prints, paintings and sculpture are matched by her personality. Characterful, direct,  emotional and colourful, ‘Etber’ or ‘Beret’ as she is universally known, wears a cardboard face mask at the wernisaż of her two concurrent exhibitions Mycie Twarzy  (‘Face Washing’) and Jedząc Marilyn Monroe (‘Eating Marilyn Monroe’), apparently to shield her from the cameras’ gaze. Suddenly one is plunged into her world - fantastical, confrontational, vibrant and, occasionally, shocking.

Several themes run through this extraordinarily diverse and powerful body of work, clearly the product of a prodigiously fecund imagination. Money, corruption, the mother and child, the body, scatology -and much else besides - are all there, underpinned by a strong graphical element. Tangentially these works offer a critique of, and challenge to, the patriarchal hegemony which continues to thrive in Polish society. (Warlikowska is one of the small, if growing, number of female teachers in Wrocław’s prestigious Academy of Fine Art).

One work depicts some kind of genealogical structure. A question about its relationship to Warlikowska’s family background provokes a charged response. It would be easy to infer from Beret’s reaction that her emotional relationship to her family is the engine which drives her imagination.

Warlikowska assimilates written text into her ceramics. These fragments, in a variety of languages, have often been transferred as graphical facsimiles from their original sources in newspapers and other printed media. They offer inroads and tantalising insights into Warlikowska’s concerns.  

One striking installation consists of nine hands (each about 1 metre in height) with palms displayed outwards.  Each is covered in a different set of imagery and text.  One refers to the Republic of Cayman (a well-know tax haven), while another prominently displays the symbol ‘15%’. A third shows the universal sign for female ( ), sandwiched between a knife and fork.

The title of this part of the show is Mycie Twarzy - literally, ‘face washing’. Fake banknotes, in a bewildering array of currencies, festoon the walls and floor. It is carnival weekend in Poland, the traditional celebration before Lent, and the preview assumes a party atmosphere. Women in colourful feather boas toss balloons and notes in the air.

The levity belies the sinister and tragi-comedic quality of some of the exhibits.  An array of white glazed ceramic masks are mounted on one wall, like the trophy heads of hunted deer. Several have sets of faecal-looking antlers,  while the scatological theme continues with slogans such as ‘Girls Do Not Do Poo’. Elsewhere, a series of large ceramic turds are covered in images of banknotes and Monroe.

It is not easy to tease out Warlikowska’s exact relationship with her ceramic medium.  Her clay and porcelain is always glazed and then painted or otherwise changed by graphical means.   A series of ceramic male torsos (from the thigh to the navel) are typically covered with imagery and slogans. These are modelled at least in part from life. Each male member is a different size and shape, while real grass grows from the top of the truncated abdomens. Sexualised female imagery pervades this culture (as elsewhere) but what are we to make of this use of the male anatomy? These are not explicitly sexual, although many will impose this meaning.

The range and complexity of Warlikowska’s oeuvre is impressive, enigmatic and complex. It provokes a visceral and intellectual reaction, which is ultimately highly rewarding.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Continue Without Losing Consciousness

Continue Without Losing Consciousness
Dundee Contemporary Arts

Until  24 August

As part of the country-wide Generation programme - showcasing over 100 artists in 60 venues from Orkney to Dumfries - the work of the all-male trio Rob Churm, Raydale Dower and Tony Swain can be seen under one roof at DCA.

This is an oddly cohesive show, with common elements and sub-texts  linking the artists’ work.

The project revisits a previous collaboration by the same artists, in Glasgow, in 2010, entitled Le Drapeau Noir. The original venue, then a disused and derelict space, paid homage to the avant-garde European café culture, where alternative music and life-styles have long flourished. Such spaces saw the beginnings of the Dada and Surrealist movements, which marked important developments in the political and artistic landscape.

Originally, Le Drapeau Noir (The Black Flag) was associated with the Anarchist movement in France, and dates from the mid-19th Century. It also forms the title of a famous work by René Magritte, from 1937, which is believed to have been inspired by the German bombing of the small Basque town of Guernica.

Magritte’s painting shows steely, stylised, ‘sculptural’ flying machines against a cold grey sky. The tone of the work is dark and threatening; it can be assumed that Magritte’s chosen title conflated the threat of political and social disorder with the Anarchist flag.

It’s fitting that at the entrance to this show is an re-interpretation of Magritte’s work by Churm and Dower. This collaboration is complemented by Dower’s black flag (again titled Le Drapeau Noir) containing a large gaping hole at its centre. These motifs are found in various guises such as an accompanying catalogue with removable circular centre; a white rectangle with a black circle above a small cabaret stage; and a large, spherical balloon positioned at the centre of a room.

Dower’s posters use typography that recalls early Dada publications. One presents a section of Les Champs Magnétiques, the first published Surrealist poem, by André Breton and Phillip Soupault:  “Beware of pictures and drawings/ a reek of poetry which famishes / a frightening, obscene nakedness / a chance rhyme in each corner / …this blank space …./ and the table is going to fall over.../  Boom smack !/ So musical discord / such sweet thunder/.”

Dower’s homage to Dada is found in other works too, such as the small fragments and splinters of wood taken from a piano which the artist dropped to the floor as part of an ‘action’ or ‘happening’ at Glasgow’s Tramway.  The destructive forces which tore Europe apart during WWI found an echo in the mayhem of Dada.

Tony Swain’s work - landscapes over newspaper (in this case, The Guardian)  - somehow fits into this context. Part collage and part painted landscape, they show a constructed world of hotels, islands, and seascape, wholly at odds, one imagines with the reportage and commentary they partially obscure. The idea of dissonance was, after all, a common Dada theme.

Rob Churm’s intricate drawings of plants and other imagined organic forms seem to elide successfully with the over-all aesthetic of the show.

All three of the artists are well-known and accomplished musicians. All of this work finds its complement, in true Dadaist style, in a series of performances and events which take place throughout the duration of the show.

Friday, 25 July 2014


National Galleries of Scotland
Until 25 Jan 2015


The aptly named Generation ¾ an ambitious series of exhibitions at sixty venues from Stromness to Kirkcudbright ¾ celebrates the work of over 100 artists in Scotland who have come to prominence in the past 25 years.

Among the artists to be found at this ‘flagship’ group show are host of international names including winners and nominees of the Turner Prize such as Martin Boyce, Christine Borland, David Shrigley, Douglas Gordon and Ross Sinclair.

Here, if you wish, it’s possible to watch Gordon’s ‘24 Hour Psycho’ in its entirety. The work won Gordon the Turner in 1996 and consists of Hitchcock’s 1960 film slowed down to around 2 frames per second. The work introduced Gordon to an international audience as well as establishing many of the themes for which he became known in his later work, such as repetition, appropriation, time and memory.

Gordon trained at Glasgow School of Art and was the first in a string of graduates from the Environmental Art course who went on to establish highly successful careers. The course was devised and taught by David Harding and Sam Ainsley and stemmed from Harding’s highly successful career as the first Town Artist in Glenrothes in the late 60s and early 70s. One of the central tenets of this progressive teaching was that the lives of artists ¾ their family, town and culture ¾ were all valid material for art.

Roddy Buchanan’s work is directly linked to his own community. His large scale photographic installations explore the religious and cultural links with football.  He has also looked at the cultural values of flute bands on either side of the religious divide in west central Scotland. Buchanan’s technique is patient and meticulous. By gaining trust and respect, through dialogue, rather than relying solely on observation, he has been able to make a large group portrait of Greengairs Thistle Flute Band, near Airdrie.  There’s no irony here and no metaphor, which is why the art work is so successful.

Painting is particularly well represented by Julie Roberts, Callum Innes, Alison Watt, Victoria Morton, Toby Paterson, Richard Wright and the late Steven Campbell. Campbell’s large ensemble of acrylic paintings, ink drawings, music and bench seating, On Form and Fiction, was first show at Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre in 1990, where it’s impact was significant, confirming Campbell’s justified international reputation. Campbell’s dreamlike, figurative narratives derive as much from the history of performance art as they do from painting, although these are often set in what is a recognisably Scottish landscape.
David Shrigley’s suite of woodcut prints and installation of over-scaled ceramic boots will please followers of this quirky, whimsical artist.

Christine Borland’s work  has had a long-held fascination with medical science. Borland invited a number of sculptors to make traditional clay busts of  Josef Mengele, the physician notorious for his experiments on the inmates of Aucshwitz. Borland supplied the artists with the same blurred photographic images and descriptive texts of Mengele, from which they fashioned their likenesses.  The results, although disparate, have some chilling similarities. Chief among these is Mengele’s rather handsome open features, apparently at odds with his heinous crimes.

Taken together, this grouping, rich in ideas across diverse media, shows how the Scottish art world presented a significant challenge to the hegemony of larger centres in Berlin and London.