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.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Kathrin Sonntag: I see you seeing me see you Cooper Gallery Dundee

Visual Art: Giles Sutherland
Kathrin Sonntag: I see you seeing me see you
Cooper Gallery
Until April 5


German artist Kathrin Sonntag’s first show in Scotland is perplexing, mischievous, clever ¾ and, ultimately, intensely rewarding.  Sonntag’s philosophical conundrums, aesthetic investigations and visual conjuring take as their starting point the history of the prosthetic glass eye in relation to the German town of Lauscha. It was here, in 1832, that the glass-blower Ludwig Müller-Uri developed the prosthesis in the town’s glass-factory, already well-known for producing dolls’ eyes.

Sonntag’s fascination stems from the idea, inherent in the show’s title, of the human eye looking at its simulacrum.  Tellingly, she refers to Ridley Scott’s film, Bladerunner, in which eyes are a leitmotif, where the ‘replicant’ Roy Batty meets one of his genetic engineers, an eye specialist, and tells him: “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes…”

Prosthetic eyes are created individually using a variety of established techniques, including blowing, which employs glass rods. In one part of Sonntag’s installation, which occupies the entire gallery space, a large, framed colour transparency, taken in a Lauscha workshop, includes a group of glass eyes, on rods, protruding from a glass jar.  Sonntag sets up an uneasy visual echo with the careful juxtaposition of a vase of yellow tulips. A large area  of green placed on a nearby wall sets up a further visual parallel. By such means, Sonntag’s work also explores the nature and meaning of composition. 

Elsewhere in the installation, another framed transparency shows a transparent figurine, filled with more ocular prostheses, resembling a mildly gruesome version of a sweet-jar. To the right, in another of Sonntag’s disquieting juxtapositions, is the small, partially obscured figure of a doll, or perhaps even a child. However, the fact that majority of the glass eyes here are dolls’ leads one to the former conclusion. (The glass works in Lauscha, founded in the 16th century,  were famous for making toys’ eyes, long before Muller-Uri’s work.) A vivid pumpkin-orange scarf on the figurine is echoed by an equally bold rectangle of a similar colour on adjacent wall. A broom leans askew against the same wall. Has it been left here inadvertently by the cleaners? A similar form in Sonntag’s photograph confirms its intentional status, as well as her playful sense of humour.

Walking around this this show is an immersive experience and it quickly becomes apparent that it is a large, continuous gesamkunstwerk, which can be viewed from an almost infinite number of literal perspectives.

To underline the theme of sight and vision, as well as the anatomical fascination with the eye as an organ and extension of the brain, Sonntag has included numerous references to lenses, such as a slide projector and a book about photographic optics, Das Auge Meiner Kamera (The Eye of my Camera). The identification and classification of colour is a major trope in Sonntag’s work.

Sonntag questions the nature of perception and, remarkably,  succeeds in providing some convincing alternative answers.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Monday, 10 February 2014

Naiza Khan: Disrupting the Alignment Cooper Gallery Dundee

Naiza Khan: Disrupting the Alignment
Cooper Gallery

Until 15 Feb


NAIZA Khan, who was born in 1968, lives in the Pakistani port of Karachi where she works as an artist in various media including drawing, watercolour, sculpture and film. In 2013 she received a Prince Klaus Award, from the Netherlands, when she joined a small group of international laureates recognised for outstanding contributions to culture.

Khan is one of her country’s few contemporary artists whose work challenges existing structures in relation to gender, religion and ethnicity. As a child she lived in Lebanon and England and, as well as speaking Urdu and English, she is also fluent in Spanish and French. This international perspective has allowed her to view her own culture through the prism of nuanced experience.

In an intensely patriarchal culture, which tends towards the subjugation of women, she is able, paradoxically, to create work which slips under the radar of a censorious establishment.

In 2003 Khan created Henna Hands, composite images of women made using a repeated stencilled image based on a female hand. These quietly subversive works were made on the walls near one of Karachi’s railway stations.

In her 2008 exhibition ‘The Skin She Wears’ Khan made a series of disconcerting drawings and metal sculptures which combined the apparently opposing ideas of femininity and aggression. These armoured skirts and under-garments suggested a critique on the control of female sexuality.

Here Khan explores the culture and history of Manora island, which stands at the strategically important entrance to Karachi’s harbour, in a series of beautiful ink-and-watercolour drawings, as well as film.  Manora has been at the crossroads of history since the time of Alexander the Great. Here are a Hindu temple, a 19th century lighthouse built by the British, a meteorological observatory and the more recent debris of demolished government school.  In the cleared rubble Khan came across a pile of broken classroom furniture. Her film, Homage, documents how she created an impromptu memorial to children who were buried and killed here by a collapsing wall.

The island is a microcosm of a city and society; Khan has followed the well-worn credo that artists are often well advised to work with material which is familiar. Working closely with such material allows Khan to create an intimate portrait, which never descends into bathos or sentimentality. Her film of the derelict meteorological station is overlaid with readings from a weather log, which includes numbers of  deaths caused by natural disasters. This allows her to offer an oblique commentary on the daily litany of death, fuelled by ethnic and political conflict.

Khan’s drawings are precise and architectural; her structures are combined with pools and patterns of delicate, multi-hued watercolour. Her films are projected into large screens on the gallery floor and walls. Together, these become sculptural and monumental, which, when seen together, offer new perspectives, both literal and conceptual.

Khan’s voice is intelligent, brave and consistently challenging. Her achievements seem all the more impressive given the obvious constraints within which she operates.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Philip Braham Keeping Time

Philip Braham
Keeping Time
The Scottish Gallery
Until 1st February


It would be easy to label Philip Braham as ‘landscape painter’ but this is  only a partial description.

A cursory glance reveals landscape elements such as forests, fields, rivers, mountains and skies. The titles, too, often match these initial impressions. 'Rapefield with Crows', 'Corstorphine Hill' and 'The Black Woods of Rannoch' are among a number of works which seem to be direct representations of place. But dig a little deeper and you find a world full of metaphor, philosophical enquiry and literary allusion.

Braham studied under Alberto Morrocco at Dundee in the ‘80s. Morrocco, in turn, was a student of James Cowie in Aberdeen a generation earlier. Both senior painters were assured masters of composition, of colour and had a deft handling of paint. Although their works might be described as lyrical, they were also literal.  Braham acknowledges another set of important influences in 'The Wanderer', a tribute to the German Romantic painter Casper David Friedrich and in particular his famous 1817 work, 'The Wanderer Above the Sea of Clouds'.

The title of the show, Keeping Time, is another indication of the depth of Braham’s concern.  This a common enough expression in relation to the accuracy of a clock, or in music, but the phrase also refers to the image as a moment in time, preserved.

Metaphors for Braham are deeply personal and each painting holds layered meaning as in Between Worlds which shows sky and branches reflected on the surface of water, while below are plants and leaves. A photograph floats on the surface;  in it, through the shadows and reflections, it’s possible to discern a couple standing. Braham reveals that this was painted shortly after the death of his father and thus holds a particular elegiac significance.

Another theme relates to Ophelia, whose puzzling death in Hamlet is reported but never shown. The image of the beautiful, doomed maid floating down the stream decked in flowers was rendered unforgettably by Sir John Everett Millais around 1851. Following this lead Braham has created a series of images which are by turns innocent, beautiful and discomfiting.  'Ophelia Waiting', for example, shows a young women in white Edwardian underwear standing at the convergence of two tracks in a forest. Her inquisitive, inviting gaze looks back directly at the viewer.

It is impossible to see this as a wholly innocent image because it can only be seen through a prism of experience which includes current media preoccupations with paedophilia, prostitution and other forms of exploitation. The innocent girl becomes the coquettish Lolita and the foul-mouthed Ophelia. Braham offers a critique of the Victorian falsifiers such as Millais on the one hand and the exploiters of  innocence on the other. The truth is always somewhere between and to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

It’s rewarding to see the work of this gifted painter mature. He transforms everyday experience into layered, beautiful metaphysical poetry.