New Art: Clusterbomb @ Patriothall Gallery, Stockbridge

This is my review of Clusterbomb at Patriothall Gallery WASPS for The Skinny. 3 Stars!

Notwithstanding the occasional guidebook erroneously, and rather hilariously, describing Stockbridge as ‘bohemian’, it’s probably fair to say that the area’s art scene is bland and commercially focused. That’s why this independent exhibition of drawings and paintings by Edinburgh College of Art graduates should be particularly welcomed.

The unifying concern – ‘the excessive clustering of imagery’ – is simple and there is no burdening the visitor with spoon-fed textual reflection. This decision has worked out well for Clusterbomb: many of the paintings are so replete with lively symbolism and tackle such thoroughly contemporary referents, from kebabs to Lego, that formal explanation is unnecessary.

Emergent themes are food supply, violence, fear and waste culture. Matt Swan’s Anonymous Dorito Henchman with a Green Cape showcases the inventive mix of fast food, vanity and pure fantasy that makes up his bizarre and intriguing work. Jamie Kinroy tackles the stress and breakdown of social life in the face of consumerist capitalism, and in the likes of Hard Times 2 his use of colour and logo echoes multinational corporations.

Bobby Nixon’s Black Paintings convey the growing sense of fear in the contemporary urban environment, again referencing the logos and junk food that are staples in the big city. John Brown’s playful deconstruction of bodily parts in Twitland complements the more serious contributions.

Contrasting with all this detritus and dysfunction is Alex Gibbs’ lonely Suburban Living, With Trees, whose clinical, manipulated landscape still hints that we are looking at the other side of the same coin of human agency.

There is more that can be done here in terms of refining the concept and honing the various responses, but this is nevertheless a good, low-budget exhibition from promising new artists. Clusterbomb’s inventiveness and critical engagement with contemporary themes is admirable and the show is certainly worth seeing.

Turner in January: some thoughts on the Vaughan Bequest exhibition, Edinburgh

Odd things happen artwise in Edinburgh (and I suppose in Dublin and London) in January.

Some years it’s difficult to decide whether the Vaughan bequest of 38 of Turner’s watercolours and sketches is a blessing or a curse for the National Galleries.  On the one hand, surely this is perfect, conservationist ‘Cream Egg Syndrome’: once a year, strictly exclusive to January, and for the rest of the time we’re supposedly left wanting.  On the other hand, despite its mandatory brevity, this exhibition has a perennial tendency to be repetitive and incentive to do anything interesting with it is potentially lacking.

2011’s Turner is in the exhibition space downstairs by the Scottish collection.  This soporific bunker doesn’t lend itself favourably to the appreciation of art at the best of times and the Turners are exhibited in vaguely chronological order without significant curatorial invention.  However, one of the twists of the bequest itself is that Vaughan collected the works with the intention of representing all the main periods of Turner’s artistic development, and he passed these pieces on to Edinburgh with the same thought.  What results is a coherent collection of sketches and paintings which makes sense as a set, so we may forgive the National Galleries’ staff for keeping their interpretation largely in the background.

Best known among the collection are probably the energetic, lightening-emblazoned watercolour The Piazzetta, Venice (pictured) and the endlessly absorbing, ethereal Heidelberg.  But other highlights include the study of colour relationships in Harbour View and the breathtaking little watercolour Loch Coruisk, and among his blue and grey wash sketches, Lake Albano.

You can’t help but feel for the curators having to roll these works out year upon year in January, and a certain fatigue seems evident.  But this doesn’t stop Turner in January from being one of the quirkily fabulous treats of the Edinburgh calendar.

You have until 31st January (or you’ll have to wait 11 months!)

Childish Things at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

The theme of this second collaboration between The Fruitmarket Gallery and curator and scholar David Hopkins is undoubtedly seasonally appropriate.  Just as the joy of a childhood Christmas can have a dark underside, so Childish Things scrutinises the process of children’s play through its artefacts and reveals a disturbing picture indeed.

Rooted in Dada and Surrealism, this powerful exhibition explores its theme through several media, drawing on the physicality of play, whether the interactive play of a puppet show, the artist’s ‘playing’ with the medium of film, or toys themselves.  But crucially, Childish Things acknowledges the embeddedness of play in our social and psychological worlds, to complex and disturbing effect.

The toy-like pieces exhibited range from found objects such as Paul McCarthy’s Children’s Anatomical Educational Figure to stitched doll-like figures in Louise Bourgeois’s narrative piece Oedipus.  Jeff Koons’s Bear and Policeman is striking in its reproduction of a junk shop knick-knack in exquisite, monumental scale.  Decontextualized, the piece is imbued with a garish menace and the original impressions of friendship and cooperation are lost to ambiguity and threat.  Susan Hiller’s An Entertainment, a large-scale, four-screen projection of recordings of Punch and Judy shows, places the viewer within the frightening, abusive world of the show with terrifying results.

If Childish Things has the propensity to draw out the uncertainty, darkness and even violence of childhood, then there is redemption of sorts in Helen Chadwick’s Ego Geometrica Sum.  Chadwick’s work harmonises the artist’s body with objects and shapes from her life in a consciously geometric fashion, rationalising and ordering seminal personal experiences. 

It would be wrong to say that Childish Things is predominantly dark.  As appropriate to its subject matter, there is a great sense of energetic fun.  Don’t be afraid to see it; just be prepared to scratch the surface a little.

Review of Edinburgh Art Fair

This piece was first published on The Skinny‘s website, 1st December 2010.  There are lots more art previews, features and reviews there.

The dilemma with the likes of the Louvre, MoMA and the Vatican is that one is so bombarded with masterpieces that perspective is easily lost. How many Caravaggios or Warhols is it possible to meaningfully digest in an afternoon’s ramble? Like listening to ten great operas simultaneously, it’s fabulous white noise.

Edinburgh Art Fair also overloads, but lacks masterpieces. The fair is a chance for commercial galleries to showcase their collections and ideally make a few sales. But it’s easy to see how the commercial focus hinders meaningful engagement with art.

With an impressive sixty-five galleries exhibiting the work of over a thousand artists, most galleries have brought the optimum mix of works for commercial purposes. There is often little coherence within a single gallery’s stand, never mind throughout the event as a whole. Lack of context tends to drown individual pieces and an unfortunate result of the aesthetic overload is a tendency for more garish, ridiculous works to stand out.

Conversely, Glasgow School of Art graduate Ryan Mutter’s three paintings grab attention precisely because of their paucity of colour. Exhibited by the Contemporary Fine Art Gallery Eton, War Machine (pictures) shows a darker side to Mutter’s interest in Glasgow’s industrial past. The same gallery also brings us several of Peter Howson’s paintings, similarly interested in industrial society but on an individual, idiosyncratic level, contrasting with the impersonal gigantism of Mutter’s featured works.

The near-ubiquitous Ronnie Wood’s nostalgic rock scenes make an appearance, and at Peebles’ Breeze Gallery Bob Harper isn’t far behind with more intimate celebrity visages.

Overall, the fair leaves you feeling aesthetically starved. Perhaps this is the overload effect. It’s surely also due to the fact that events like this often seem less about art and more about interior design, business talk and Chelsea boots.

Edinburgh’s mysterious leaf people

art,Edinburgh — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — comelybankingcrisis @ 12:14 pm

Local Edinburgh news has been alive with curiosity and speculation over the appearance of a number of leaf sculptures along the Water of Leith.  The artist remains unknown, but clearly is playing with our fascination with the 6 Times series of sculptures erected in June by Antony Gormley.  The figures appear to be interacting with Gormley’s sculptures, mirroring the behaviour of hundreds of city walkers since the summer.

The individuals below – the Parent and Child and the Student/Teenager/Homeless Man(?) – all appeared in Stockbridge recently.  People by and large have been charmed by them, but you have to admit there’s something horrifyingly creepy about them too, or at least there will be when they come alive!  Or maybe they used to be alive and they have since been horrifyingly transformed into a mute, leafy prison.

Leaf figures inspecting Gormley in Stockbridge, Edinburgh

Okay, I’ve clearly been watching too many horror films to go with the standard ‘happy families’ interpretation.  On a serious note though, this is a welcome addition to the art of the area since Gormley’s contribution.  The honeymoon period with the latter has passed and we’re getting bored.  The leaf figures are the most interesting intervention to date, and there have been several, from bikinis to “I Love Leith” T-shirts.

And, quite frankly, this latest feature is more interesting than Gormley anyway.

Leaf figure by the Water of Leith in Stockbridge, Edinburgh

Unearthing the Bethonged Bond

Wow!  The Scotsman has a treat for us today.  For those of you out there who don’t read it, I can’t possibly pass up the opportunity to share this raunchy ne’er before displayed portrait of a be-thonged, pre-Bond Sean Connery, painted by Rab Webster in the 1950s.  During this period, Connery was a struggling actor who apparently posed to help pay the bills.  Webster, who died last month, was an art teacher at Selkirk High School, where Connery was an occasional life model for students.  If you don’t mind me saying so, that must have been one exciting high school!

It’s interesting to notice (to say the least) Connery’s fine musculature, and it’s striking from this that even by today’s personal-trainer-induced Daniel Craig-ish chunky standards, this Connery would evidently still breeze into the role of Bond.  I wonder how long it took Craig to work his body up to the standard set by Connery for the role.

The impressive physique is apparently due to Connery’s taking up body building as a hobby around the time when he was posing for this portrait.

Needless to say, Robert Fairbairn’s piece on the painting in today’s Scotsman is littered with hilarious Bond-themed double entendre.  Allow me to add my own honest contribution:

The Thong is not Enough!

(Please insert your own Bond/Thong response below)

The Ghoulish Week that Was in Edinburgh

Last week was an exhilarating and alarming week in Edinburgh.  Most of the politicos and journos were over in Glasgow for the Scottish Labour Party conference for the second half of it.  This exodus of supposed leftists and vigilant political commentators seems to have left the place unguarded for a number of deleterious developments in Auld Reekie’s cultural life.

No less than three Edinburgh institutions now look set to fall by the wayside in the wake of the bankruptcy of the charity Edinburgh University Settlement.  The charity’s demise has resulted in the forced sale of the premises of The Forest Cafe (pictured), The Roxy Art House and the GRV.  These are surely three venues that will be sorely missed.

The Forest, on Bristo Place, looks set to run for a few more weeks due to a mandatory notice period in their lease, so now’s the time to drop in.  Over the years Forest has provided a multi-function space which houses a café, whole-foods restaurant, venue and the TotalKunst gallery.  I must admit I was never a regular, but it did warm the heart that they were there in the background, staffed only with volunteers, providing free shows, art, and cheap, healthy food.  If you feel strongly about this you should get on to their website, where they’ve launched an earnest campaign to raise a daunting £500K.  If you’re not sure, drop in and have a look at what they do.  This may be your last chance.

The GRV on Guthrie Street was a good old fashioned ‘dive’ in the trendiest sense of the word, and was by no means as idealistic or as well organised as Forest.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this place ended up being opened again along similar lines under different ownership, as I really can’t see many options for the site.  The Roxy, on the other hand, was a fantastic organisation which put on great events in the spirit of supporting new arts and providing cheap nights out.  Sadly, the Roxy’s doors were closed abruptly and permanently last week and there’s no chance of a last hurrah.

On the plus side, I had the pleasure on Halloween night of attending the Wee Folk club, downstairs in the Royal Oak, where Duncan Drever played a wonderful hour and a half of quality music for an audience which seemed to consist of female German students, two old men, and me.  Duncan’s brother is the well-known Scottish folk musician Kris Drever, but Kris shouldn’t rest on his laurels: Duncan is a great up-and-coming act and you can hear a couple of his songs here.

Donate to help the Forest survive here.

The Lewis Chessmen Winter North

This month saw the arrival in Aberdeen Art Gallery of The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked exhibition

“Probably made in Norway…Found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland”

So the British Museum’s website prosaically introduces us to the Lewis Chessmen, or Uig Chessmen, a collection of 93 chess pieces intricately carved out of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth by three Vikings between 1150 and 1200 AD.  (Yes: three!)  The BM owns 82 of the 93 pieces which form this beautiful collection.  The other eleven are normally housed in the National Museum in Edinburgh, and a selection of just over 30 pieces from both museums is currently touring Scotland as part of the Unmasked exhibition. 

Unmasked began in Edinburgh in May 2010 and will travel to Shetland in January 2011 and before completing its Scottish tour in Stornoway from April to September of that year.

I’ve been walking around Edinburgh for the last six months or so with a notebook bearing the furtive coffee- (or maybe pint-) induced note-to-self: “Write something on the Lewis Chessmen”.  It didn’t happen; the exhibition came to Edinburgh, and then went, and the devil won the day.  Fortunately, I have intermittent occasion to travel to Aberdeen (well…), and when my girlfriend’s father asked me if I’d heard about this new Chessmen exhibition I couldn’t in good conscience say no.

In my ignorance I had expected a Mona Lisa-type scenario, an unsatisfying huddle around a single glass cabinet searing the eyes out of my head from all the reflected camera flashes.  Far from it, The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is a beautifully curated experience.  In a darkened wing with standing room aplenty, visitors can move easily through the space.  The chessmen are displayed in numerous cabinets, occasionally contextualised beside other artefacts from the same period in Lewis such as broaches, swords, and tools – all grim pieces beside the curious beauty of the collection, but adding depth of visual understanding for the visitor.  There are even gaming boards where visitors can play chess, drafts and another Norse board game whose name escapes me.

The chessmen themselves are not high art by any means, but they do exhibit a mysterious gravitas and a window into the ideology of the age that clearly fascinates.  Faces stare out at their game with expressions ranging from furtive suspicion to deep contemplation, investing the offices of bishop, queen and king with unquestionable wisdom, seriousness and a degree of serenity.  Soldiers, on the other hand, tend to look cautiously out over shields, clutching their spears and swords tightly with what would be whitened knuckles of only the whole surfaces of the pieces weren’t the same tone.

The real appeal of the Lewis Chessmen seems to be their ability to civilise the past.  The soldiers’ mysterious Dark Age faces contrast with the sense of education, reason and patience which emanates from those of the civic and religious authorities.  And the function of this set (or three sets) – to entertain, pass time, socialise – contrasts with a storybook image of a dark, barbaric north.  This more civilised picture is added to by the broader context of artistry, trade and communication which the exhibition presents well.

But let’s not pretend that this is all about the Dark Age past.  For a start, a major element of the story concerns the discovery of the pieces in Lewis in the nineteenth century and their journey which ended in various museum collections.  Strikingly, the exhibition’s concern with the Lewis discovery story has resulted in the use of Gaelic throughout with English translation, including during the audio-visual presentation.  The sight of the written words, the occasional broad backdrops of the stone and green Lewis landscape on the walls, and the sound of the Gaelic language film leaves you with little doubt: this is a Gaelic, Scottish experience.

The sounds and sights of the Gaelic Western Isles are charming indeed, but their deployment here in this exhibition’s tour of Scotland does tend to make one question their purpose, particularly when it is freely admitted that Lewis at the time of the chessmen’s creation was, culturally speaking, Scandinavian.  It can’t be denied that this is viewed to a large extent as a homecoming tour and that conversely those pieces which normally reside in the British Museum are not at home there, as such.

Furthermore, the Lewis Chessmen Unmasked, supported by the Scottish Government, has a thing or two to say about contemporary Scotland.  This is a Scotland which embraces its past and its cultural diversity.  It says ‘anyone in Scotland can be Scottish’, but it also suggests positive discrimination towards the Gaelic world or an ideal of it.  It even looks north to Norway, the last-man-standing in Alex Salmond’s ‘Arc of Success’.

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is in Aberdeen until 8th January 2011.  This blog commends it to you.

How many times can I get drunk in the same suit?

I haven’t blogged for ages, I know.  If you want to know what I’ve been up to: weddings, weddings, and more weddings!  Two of them conincided with holidays, so I suppose I’ve been on holidays as well.

Apart from that I went to see the Glasgow Boys exhibition in the National Gallery on the Mound in Edinburgh.  I love the Glasgow Boys but I have to be brutally honest: this is a mediocre exhibition.  Nothing wrong with the works on display here, but they could have done a lot better with curation.  The soporific dungeon below the gallery is challenging at the best of times and when an exhibition is added to this space with minimal expense or effort, it’s not going to be good.  And despite the fact that they are attempting to show us an almost ‘behind the scenes’ picture of the movement in question, it’s amazing how poor an assemblage of works this is for a Scottish Gallery doing an exhibition on Scottish artists.

But it’s the explanation that I find completely perplexing: the fact this is running concurrently with a far superior Glasgow Boys exhibition in the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow!  Why two?!  Well, the Edinburgh one would seem to claim that it’s complementary, showing us the Boys’ inspiration and the cultural and artistic context in which they worked, but I have to say I am only aware of this from subsequent research, not from the exhibition itself, and one could fairly easily walk in and out of the Edinburgh exhibition and remain unaware of the main event in Glasgow (and feeling a little short-changed, despite the fact that this is FREE!).

If you like the contemporary painting then check out John Squire’s Nefertiti exhibition in Edinburgh’s Henderson Gallery.  Several paintings generally around the same concept are for sale here.  The idea is Miles Davis translated to canvas by a Stone Rose. It’s free – do it!

PS – pictured: Spring, by Thomas Millie Dow (a Glasgow Boy).

Johan Grimonprez at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Johan Grimonprez at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery is running an exhibition of films by the Belgian artist and filmmaker Johan Grimonprez.  It runs until 11th July so there’s still plenty of time to see it.  It’s well worth a visit but you have to be prepared to sit down for a while as the two highlights last in excess of an hour each.  There are a number of items to see here, the main draw being Double Take, Grimonprez’s newest work written by Tom McCarthy and featuring Alfred Hitchcock meeting his double.

However, most visitors will likely end up remebering the 1997 production dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, a somewhat gruelling film about plane hijackings and subsequent media coverage that will certainly cause you significant stress.  If you’re about to fly in a plane somewhere, I strongly advise you not to watch this!  It’s a powerful and frightening take on a subject that has only grown in our collective consciousness since the film was previewed in the late 90s.  The only solace is that this is an experiment of sorts which demonstrates the shock factor that the media has in reporting terrorist attacks.  That is, when you leave the room at the end, that feeling of pure sickness at the bottom of your stomach is your own little piece of proof that the media do engender fear; your own fear is the evidence.  Why was this solace for me?  Because I realised at that point that Grimonprez is right: this manipulated series of media clips with a voice-over which features extracts from novelist Don DeLillo’s Mao II and White Noise, is put together to show you how horrified the media can make you feel.  In this respect I realised after watching it that this feeling doesn’t necessarily come from terrorists or the threat of terrorist attacks, but from the news, so panic over… for now.

For some light relief, Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter (1992) is a good follow-up.  In this shorter film, Grimonprez draws on his experience as a graduate Anthropology student to show how ethnographers have become cultural commodities and status symbols for many Papua New Guineans.  The profound effect that ethnoographers have had in certain villages and especially regarding village rivalries is troubling for the discipline but the symptoms of it evident in this exhibition are quite frankly hilarious.

The time factor is a little demanding for some of these films, especially Double Take and dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, but think of it this way: you’d probably go to see one of these in the cinema at the drop of a hat – they’re so compelling and affecting.  You can see them here for free (but only until the 11th July).

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