The Long Look, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The Long Look at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a small but focused show that turns portraiture on its head in a conceptually intriguing and visually satisfying way. The exhibition is the result of a two-year project in which Norman McBeath (photographer, printmaker) sat for painter Audrey Grant as she created two portraits of him in charcoal.

The portraits of McBeath do feature, but they are really only a side story to this show. The main body of work is by McBeath: his photographic impressions of Grant’s studio, documenting her presence by the trails of creative detritus she leaves in her wake. These ‘portraits’ show the traces of Grant everywhere: fingerprints in the paint that has dried on the back on her easel; highly detailed close-ups of her charcoal-blackened apron that seem transformed into vast monochrome sand dunes; the bars of soap on the counter, misshapen by the hands they help to clean after every session.

Hands series, a sequence of close up and super-high-definition photographs is at the centre of the display. Each minute detail is made more striking by the charcoal dust embedded in the creases of Grant’s skin. We rarely get much of a glimpse of the artist in standard portraiture, a genre that can feel fairly prosaic and transactional. Here, the photographs by McBeath document her creative space, the studio, and present its contents as a lens through which we ‘see’ the artist.

Imperial Leather by Norman McBeath

It seems that the sense of fascination with the artist’s studio now seems more prevalent than ever. The most unique and (the more I reflect on it) bizarre example I encountered was at Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane. There, in the centre of the gallery, is Francis Bacon’s studio. Its contents – even the dust – painstakingly reassembled having been documented and meticulously transferred from London to Dublin in 1998. Though it is undeniably a fascinating sight, and totally worth visiting, there is something voyeuristic about the practice of preserving and reassembling the artist’s studio within the Gallery space (closer to home, Paolozzi’s studio is on display at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until next year). These kind of displays continue to assert the narratives of the ‘artist genius’, elevating and shrouding his or her workplace in magic and mystique, ways of thinking that contemporary art history has sought to move away from.

The Long Look, though it has elements of this tendency to give the artist’s studio too much auratic power (including the unnecessary inclusion of the chair that McBeath sat in while his portrait was created) for the most part manages to circumvent these more troubling tendencies of artist/studio worship. Particularly when presented in the context of a national collection of portraiture, where wall labels normally the list the sitter’s name and details of their life far more prominently than the artist’s, this reversal of the gaze subverts the traditions of portraiture in a refreshing way.

Hands series by Norman McBeath

For me, the examination of the psychological intensity of two people observing one another over time, and the resulting sense of intimacy between McBeath and Grant was one of the other most successful outcomes of the show. For this reason, I would argue that the inclusion of two portraits of Val McDermind were a kind of ‘third wheel’, an unnecessary curatorial appendage to an otherwise tightly-focused exhibition.

Through the simple switch between observer/observed, The Long Look empowers the usually passive sitter with the gift of re-observation, and extends this to the observer in a way that offers a fresh perspective. When encountering subsequent portraits, we might ask ourselves: how did it look from the other side? 

Oor Wullie’s Big Bucket Trail, #OWBBT

About a week ago I came across a strange sight. There was a huge lorry parked up on a quiet side street in Edinburgh with its sides open, no one was around, but inside the lorry there were about 20 bright sculptures.

Lots of Oor Wullies in a row

I was pretty baffled, especially because there is a certain creepiness in seeing all these laughing characters en masse, but since then have discovered that the sculptures are part of Oor Wullie’s Big Bucket Trail. The trail is happening across Scotland in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness, to raise money for children’s hospitals in each of those cities.

I am not Scottish, so don’t know much about Oor Wullie and his escapades (he is something of a national treasure, especially for the baby boomer generation) but from the statues he seems like a cheeky lad who loves to laugh. Seeing them scattered across the city, they are definitely eye-catching and intriguing, most are painted in bright colours and shiny, glossy paint. Artists were commissioned to paint their designs on each statue, so every single one is unique.

Oor Wullies in transit

If you’re not convinced, I recommend getting a bit closer, and taking some time to read the plinths, where the artist has a space to explain the inspirations behind their designs. For example, this design by Wee Lainey which is just outside Haymarket is covered in painted bricks to echo the designs of Scotland’s tenement buildings, and the statue has famous Scottish inventions and sayings on him too, along with one of my favourites, ‘haud yer wheesht’.

Wee Lainey’s design, near Haymarket

Even though stylistically they are probably not to everyone’s taste, to me they are kitsch and camp in all the best ways. Public art is always going to divide opinions, but that’s what makes it interesting. At its heart, the scheme is there to raise money for a good cause, and along the way it is supporting artists by commissioning them to make new works. Hopefully the trail will get more people, especially kids and families, talking about art. To me, that can only be a good thing.

If you agree, you can donate to the campaign online.

ECA degree show

Last week it was Edinburgh College of Art’s degree show, and while it is already over and those who haven’t seen it have unfortunately missed out already, it keeps popping up in my head as something important to write about. There was such a huge variety of things to see across the campus, from design informatics and illustration, to performance costume and interior design, it was a great celebration of the immense creativity of people starting out on their artistic journeys. Going there and exploring all these disciplines was an exciting, inspiring experience.

The performance costume installation from above

My main focus was on the painting and sculpture section, which was housed in some of the prime spaces in ECA’s main building studios. These are noteworthy rooms in themselves, with huge north-facing widows looking out on to Edinburgh Castle. One of my favourite things about the rooms were the paint-spattered sinks in each corner, a reminder of the previous generations of students who have worked in these spaces and left messy traces behind.

One of the prevailing things I noticed about the show is the recurring theme of everyday items that had been ‘made strange’ by the artists’ interventions. There were mobility aids weighed down by large crystal growths, a disorientating corridor leading to a storeroom where everything was painted in a sickly lilac paint, deconstructed spirit levels, and a creepy room inhabited by mutilated ornaments: Bambi’s severed head looking particularly macabre.

Abbie Mcgunnigle’s uncanny Bambi

As someone who has been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the ‘uncanny’ in art, things once familiar, perhaps from childhood, that have re-manifested themselves as something that makes us feel uneasy, it was fascinating to see these strategies at work at the degree show (though perhaps I was looking for it in the way that whenever something is on your mind, it seems to come up everywhere). There was one installation by Chell Young called Fragile Realities which produced highly detailed dolls house-esque dioramas of interiors that the viewer/voyeur looked at through a peep hole door or window. The recreation was so exact, photographs of these miniature rooms could have been advertising a place to rent.

Another series of sculptures that caught my eye were figurative works by Hugo Harris. Made from wax, the outer skin of the sculpture was smooth and highly realistic. But the inside of the bodies were also exposed, the torn flesh a messy tangled web clinging to the metal structures that gave them their shape. The work was highly visceral, acting in dialogue with the photographs behind, but the presence of the metal also alerted the viewer to the robotic falseness of the bodies themselves: the boundaries of truth, fiction and sci-fi becoming blurred.

There were lots of fascinating and interesting pieces, and many more I could have written about, that served to enchant and unsettle the viewer simultaneously. I had hoped to get across to Glasgow and see what the Glasgow School of Art students had presented. I wondered whether there would be a marked difference between the approaches taken by the students and the resulting artworks. Sadly I didn’t make it, but it’s on my agenda for next year.

What you can be sure of with art school degree shows is that there is always something to make you think, and also to feel reassured that the next group of emerging artists have lots of interesting experiments they are yet to make.

NOW, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

This morning I went to the Modern gallery to see their new exhibition, NOW, which is a presentation of work by contemporary artists, with the main focus on the work of Paisley-born artist Anya Gallaccio.

I’d heard about the exhibition through Instagram, as the Gallery had been posting some eye-catching close up photos of the key work in the show, Red on Green. The work is made up of 10,000 red roses which are arranged like a big red carpet in the centre of the room.

Though I imagine some viewers might find the carpet of roses a little gimmicky (it’s perfect art for Instagram, after all), I really enjoyed it. It’s fascinating seeing how the work unfolds as you approach it, looking at the individual roses shows they are all slightly different shades, shapes and sizes, at once both unique and uniform.

Red on Green will stay there for the duration of the exhibition (until September), but the flowers won’t be replenished, so as they decay the work will change. I wanted to see it at the start of its life, when it’s still looking and smelling great, and I’ll be back again a few more times to see how it changes. The more morbid side of me is really looking forward to seeing 10,000 dead roses. I don’t imagine they’ll be quite as Instagram-perfect as they are now.

In a really clever curatorial decision, immediately following the room with the roses is another beautiful and delicate Gallaccio sculpture of a tree. It looked so convincingly real but a quick check of the label revealed it was actually made of steel, bronze and silver. This kind of blurring the lines between real/fake, and the interplay between the different materials, encouraging you question what you see, was for me the biggest achievement of the exhibition.

If you do visit the Modern before the end of September, make sure you don’t just head straight for the roses. The first part of the exhibition features works by other contemporary artists which form an interesting dialogue with Gallaccio’s work. My favourite piece was Zimeb Sedira’s Sugar Routes, a propellor and an anchor cast in sugar making them look like sinister pieces of weaponry, alluding to the dark realities of the sugar trade. I also loved the installation Flat Moods by Peles Empire, which completely papered the corridor and created the illusion of being surrounded by the detritus of the artist’s studio.

In other news, Antony Gormley’s 6 times has returned to the Water of Leith. Here’s one of them taking the morning air.

Edinburgh Printmakers

Edinburgh Printmakers has moved to my side of town. Which is great news for me, and I think it will be for them too. They now have a lot more space and are in a beautifully renovated old factory which used to make rubber and rubber products, (wellies, hot water bottles, etc.). 

The new building is stunning, and the current exhibition in the main front room is really worth seeing: a new commission by German artist Thomas Kilpper called The Politics of Hertiage vs. The Heritage of Politics. The floor is a giant rubber carving that acts as a linocut plate, the ceiling and walls are imprints of the plate. There’s a wonderful tactility in being able to walk right over the plate, to reach down and feel the different grooves where the ink hasn’t quite reached. Within the room, there are images all around and above you, demonstrating the reversible and mirror-image effect of printmaking and completely immersing the visitor in the artwork.

The image itself is a vast roll call of different characters, some of whom are local to Fountainbridge, others are national political or cultural figures. It has that special quality of being site specific, and rooted in history but also very much of our times, with references to recent occurrences in the media (complete with Theresa May dancing – the awkwardness is perfectly captured and still cringeworthy). Yet there’s also a humorous note to it that slightly plays with history, mixing fact, fiction, fake news and narrative. A banner unfurls from Donald Trump’s mouth declaring: ‘Printmaking is a hoax invented by the Chinese’ – paraphrasing his statements on climate change and wryly nodding to the actual origins of printmaking, in China.

It’s an artwork you need time to appreciate, and I’ve visited twice already to take more time to discover the different members of the cast (the leaflet in the corner is really helpful for this). I got talking to a couple who have lived in Edinburgh for most of their lives, who told me that Sean Connery, who features in the nude as he apparently used to do life modelling for students at Edinburgh College of Art, used to do the milk round in Fountainbridge when he was a boy. We talked about the area, how it has changed, and they mentioned more local characters they had known over the years. This is one of the things I love about good art – it can encourage encounters with strangers, and spark dialogue that can enhance your experience of a place, adding more elements to your own patchwork quilt of knowledge, much like the one Kilpper has created for this space.

However, it’s such a dominant artwork that it won’t be there for long. The exhibition is up until 13 July, after which it will travel to Germany. It would be so amazing if this artwork could stay in Edinburgh: it’s site specific and mainly informed by local history, after all. Perhaps it could be acquired by the NGS for their collection? Or maybe a wealthy local could purchase it for the Edinburgh Printmakers, so they could keep it in their beautiful new home. Sean Connery, are you listening?

The gates of the Printmakers were a special commission by Rachel Duckhouse

Senga Nengudi, Fruitmarket Gallery

Walking into the Senga Nengudi exhibition at Fruitmarket Gallery, I was struck again by how weird art is. Immediately visible were two pieces that looked so utterly different, you would never think they were by the same artist. One was a large section of the gallery floor covered in sand, with what looked like little mole hills spattered with colour. The other was like three giant ice pops that had melted in their plastic sheaths, with bubbles that had formed where the garish colours met the surface of the clear plastic. This work was wholly artificial where the other was primarily natural. My first urge was to reach out and touch these kitsch water features, to poke the plastic and watch the bubbles move and see the tube take a different shape. However, being a natural rule-abider, I didn’t. Didn’t want to be told off.

I often feel that by being a postgrad History of Art student, I ought to know what’s happening with ALL artworks. What are they about? Could I explain them to someone else, who maybe wasn’t as keen on art as I am? But at this stage of the exhibition, I was quite lost and I couldn’t really get my head around the artist’s aesthetic choices. Perhaps the invigilator noticed I looked baffled and handed me the Gallery guide, which was helpful. This has happened to me a couple of times at the Fruitmarket and I always think how great it is that the invigilators are encouraged to interact with the public.

The guide explained that the giant melted ice pops were part of a series of early works known as Untitled Water Compositions.

“When they were first made and shown for short periods of time, they were designed to be activated by the audience, to be pliable and responsive to touch as flesh might be, challenging the static, intransigent nature of much minimalist sculpture of the 1960s. The works we are showing have been recreated for this exhibition. We ask you not to touch them as they become extremely fragile over the longer time of the exhibition.”

This really irks me. What’s the point of something which was conceived by the artist as kinetic, which is now static? The meaning and substance of the work is completely altered. For artists like Nengudi who work with performance, the fragility of the piece is surely essential to its conception? Plus, on a practical note, these aren’t even the ‘original’ pieces, so that plastic can’t be that fragile. It is sometimes difficult to know who makes these decisions. Is it the host gallery, the external curator, the gallery representing the artist, or the artist herself? The whole thing reminded me, in a bad way, of one of my most frustrating exhibition experiences at the Alexander Calder exhibition at Tate. There was a key piece of sculpture which took up an entire room. The conceit of the work was a pendulum that swung and hit the different objects in its path, thus creating different patterns of sounds and a unique journey through the space each time it was set off. The sculpture was not permitted to move because the estate of Alexander Calder didn’t want it to be damaged: the ultimate example of how monetary value can totally eraticate the aesthetic value of a work.

I made my way upstairs feeling a bit pissed off about the whole thing. But the upstairs was where the exhibition really started to come together, the R.S.V.P sculptures Nengudi has created with tights/stockings having the biggest impact. These were first created in the mid-1970s, way before Sarah Lucas created her tortured forms using stockings (I’m thinking of Tate’s Pauline Bunny, 1997). The tension between the stretched nylon and the stones/sandbags weighing them down was palpable. Particularly striking and important was the use of dark brown tights, depicting black skin. It brought to mind the difficulties women of colour can face when trying to do a simple thing like buying tights: “flesh coloured” is a loaded term, and many beauty products still haven’t caught up. These seemingly simple works allude to absent female bodies which are simultaneously weak and fragile, powerful and tenacious, able to withstand their own tortured forms. They say a lot even though their forms are simple, their materials part of the everyday. That was the part of the exhibition that will stay with me and helped me to better understand the other works I had almost dismissed.