‘Cut and paste: 400 years of collage’, National Galleries Scotland

There’s so much packed into this exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which connects radically different works of art by artists as diverse as Pietro da Cortona (Italian Baroque painter and architect, 1596-1669) and Linder (British radical feminist artist, b.1954) it’s difficult to know where to begin.

The exhibition is a chronological survey of just about everything connected to the act of cutting one thing and sticking/stitching it on to another, including the digital techniques used today by brilliant artists like Cold War Steve. So there’s a lot to get through.

It might sound as a though the whole concept is a bit broad (it’s true that the exhibition has so many works it almost falls into the ‘overwhelming’ category), but in the very act of broadening out the understanding of collage as art, the show opens up the narrative possibilities around the medium. By including works by amateur and anonymous artists, we see the informal side of collage, which became hugely popular in the nineteenth century, particularly among women. I’m glad of that because it exposes some of the many weird and wonderful constructions that resulted from the pastime of sticking one thing to another, one of my favourites being this monstrously ugly baby from 1890.

Anonymous, Baby, (about 1890)

By placing objects like this one alongside Picasso’s Old Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper (1913), the exhibition stressed some of the continuities of collage throughout the centuries. Yet though the wall text explained how the meanings of collage changed in the twentieth century, I still feel that more could have been made of how utterly radical it was when avant garde artists started to incorporate fragments of newspaper and other ephemera on to the canvas. It was a gesture that intended to break the mould and redefine painting altogether, which had huge repercussions on what later constituted art. It was for this reason that collage went on to be one of the go-to visual languages of satire, protest and activism.

Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Old Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913

For me, the political artworks were some of the best in the show. John Heartfield’s series of satirical photomontages for the left-wing German publication AIZ really fascinated me. One, depicting a Hitler with coins for a skeleton alongside the caption “Adolf the Superman: swallows gold and spouts rubbish” (1932) felt particularly apt to our current political climate. I just wish the series was placed somewhere more prominent, rather than in a walkway. The exhibition has so much to say, but there wasn’t enough space to say it. Better to cut down on the numbers of works and give ones like this the position they deserve.

John Heartfield, rotogravure, published in AIZ 17 July 1932

It seems that with works in collage, there’s a strong urge towards the uncanny, things that disturb and make the viewer take a second look. That was true of the works exploring the body by feminist artists of the 1960s and 70s, in one of the best rooms of the exhibition. I hadn’t heard of Annegret Soltau (b.1946) before, and her works made with black thread suturing together different photographs of her naked body were really striking.

Annegret Soltau, Schwanger II (Pregnant II), 1978

There are so many fascinating things to see at this exhibition and it throws a light on some of the challenges of dealing with such a broad theme. It is said too often, Qbut there really is something for everyone here, and I would really recommend you go and see it before it closes on 27 October.

‘My Own Private Bauhaus’, David Batchelor at Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh

I first encountered David Batchelor’s work about a year ago, and I was so happy when I heard he had a show in Edinburgh, at Ingleby Gallery (free, ending 28 September). It’s not a place I’m familiar with, and being a commercial gallery, I wondered whether the space would feel welcoming. Though I had to ring a bell to be let in, there was no need to fear – I was welcomed by a friendly member of staff who introduced me to the gallery and some of the ideas behind the exhibition.

The building itself dates from 1834 and is settled in the heart of Edinburgh’s austere but beautiful New Town. It was originally built as a religious meeting house for the Glasites, a break-away group of worshippers from the Church of Scotland, who heartily disapproved of embellishment, decoration (or, it seems, joyfulness of any kind) in their places of worship. So it is with a delicious sense of irony that such a space has been transformed into a gallery, a dynamic that I’m sure Batchelor would have revelled in when planning the exhibition.

The ceiling of the main exhibition space

One of my favourite things about Batchelor’s work is that it is characterised by a sense of playfulness. It doesn’t seem to take itself to seriously: art is boiled down to its essentials – colours and shapes – reminding us that all of us begin interacting with the world through these two key sensory building blocks. Through his explorations, Batchelor invites us become children again, to see with fresh eyes and wonderment that art can exist within the banal and the everyday. He’s there to show us where and how to look.

Installation view, the piece on the floor in the centre is Dogdays, 2008-2011

The exhibition is full of all sorts of mundane objects made fascinating, mounted on their concrete plinths and transformed into abstract sculptures. There are tape measures, huge spheres made of electrical wires and cable ties, sheets of intricate mesh, plastic circles that look like bottle tops, all celebrating the vibrancy of artificial colour. There’s not much suggesting the natural world in here, though shards of glass stuck in concrete look remarkably like window boxes. Rather, it’s the things we have invented that take precedence, repurposed and reframed by Batchelor, the magpie-esque collector of all things shiny, bright and saturated.

Geo-Concreto 06, 2018 (left) and Geo-Concreto 02, 2018 (right)

Yet for all of their man-made qualities, the show is not about looking at the pristine perfection of these objects, but rather their imperfections. The paintings on the walls are made using spray paint, giving them a mechanical shine that seems totally devoid of the artist’s hand, yet the circles themselves are misshapen and pleasingly wobbly, with the occasional splodge of paint that may not have been intended, but remains present on the canvas nonetheless.

Part of the Concreto 1.0h series

Much more tactile than the paintings, however, are their partner sculptures, made by precariously stacking the lids of paint pots on to of one another, the paint crusty, wrinkled and stippled, crying out to be prodded and poked. Some sculptures are framed by fluorescent fabric backdrops, and the much maligned plastic bottle is transformed the ultimate 21st century chandelier.

It’s art that’s fun, accessible, and shows us the possibility of finding beauty in the most basic of everyday things, a skill we need more than ever at the moment.

Candela, 2016

Bridget Riley, National Galleries Scotland

This week, I finally got round to seeing the Bridget Riley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery. A couple of friends had been telling me how great the show was, and the critics had been raving about it, so I knew I had to catch it before it closes (Sunday 22nd September), and moves to the Hayward Gallery in London for its second leg.

Riley was a key figure in the Op Art movement, which developed in the 1960s and used abstract patterns and geometric shapes to create optical illusions in art. You can see that straight away, with Cataract 3, in Room 1. The whole painting is pulsating and vibrating with energy, in a way that makes you want to reach out and check that the canvas itself isn’t undulating. It’s a dizzying experience and quite a shock to the system.

Detail of Cataract 3 (1967)

Some of Riley’s most famous works are the black and white pieces (Room 2), which seem, paradoxically, to be alive with colour. As your eyes scan the canvas, it flickers with pink and green, like looking at a TV screen when the channel isn’t tuned in, the visual equivalent of white noise.

I was familiar with the concept of Riley’s work and was vaguely interested in seeing it, but hadn’t been prepared for just how convincing it is when experienced in person. As the exhibition continued, I realised I had expected it to be fairly simplistic and one-note, but her work is a much more in-depth exploration of perception and sensation. It shows us how what we see is deeply connected to how we feel, not just emotionally, but physically as well.

Current (1964)

As your body moves closer to and further away from the paintings, or your eyes refocus as they try to figure out the mechanics of the brushstrokes, what you see shifts and morphs. It made me want to take off my glasses and lie down, to let the colours wash over me, the paintings becoming hallucinogenics and bringing a kind of playful blurring to the gallery space. It’s not surprising that Op Art was born in the 1960s.

My favourite room was at the heart of the exhibition, and displayed a number of Riley’s brightly-coloured monumental striped canvases. The way the pairings of colours create different effects, and can trick the eye, made me wonder how colour really works. In Paean (1973), stripes of red, white, blue and green seem to create flashes of pink. Riley’s work must be underpinned by a proper understanding of the physics of colour theory, and the fascinating room packed full of her sketches and studies show how meticulously worked out each composition is.

Detail of Paean (1973)

In 2017, Riley said that ‘the movement is created by looking’, which to me, is the key to her work. It suggests that it is the viewer, as a participant, who plays a pivotal role in ‘activating’ the compositions. As we move around the paintings and allow our eyes to drift over them, we help to bring them to life. It’s an experience everyone will react to differently, but one I would recommend trying.

Night Walk for Edinburgh, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

On Sunday night I took part in an art experience that had been intriguing me since I first saw it advertised as part of Edinburgh International Festival several weeks ago. It fell into the category of “must go” because it sounded unique (commissioned especially by the Fruitmarket Gallery), immersive and slightly odd, making the perfect cocktail for someone who likes thinking, writing and talking about art.

Starting at the bottom of Cockburn St near the Royal Mile, the Fruitmarket staff gave me a short briefing (which made me ever more intrigued and slightly trepidatious about what was coming), armed me with a pair of headphones and a small screen, and away I went. What followed was a cross between virtual gaming, crime drama, ghost tour and art piece.

Edinburgh’s Old Town is the stage set for this discombobulating drama

Janet Cardiff’s voice whispers in your ear, half talking to you, half musing to herself. The walk winds through the backstreets, closes and alleys surrounding the Royal Mile, strangely empty, dusty and damp compared to the garish, touristy brightness of the Mile itself. Arrows on the ground sometimes indicate the way, but mostly you are guided by Cardiff’s instructions, enhancing the sense that you are taking part in a game in which your own agency is reduced to zero.

The narrative weaves in and out of fiction and reality, with the film element of the walk emphasising the idea that the city is a canvas or a stage, and we as its residents, its visitors, its participants, are part of the multiple layerings that make up its history, and its identity. Marks on the canvas are left behind by former inhabitants: chewing gum pressed into the crevice of a wall, string delicately tied around a lamppost, pieces of scattered clothing lost, left behind. The work delves into Edinburgh’s macabre history, but is also rooted in the banal fabric of the city itself, drawing attention to air vents, street signs and shop windows.

The walk draws your attention to all sorts of details, making the banal into something noticeable

The sound effects, with snatches of conversations, song, sirens, and the noises of city life unfolding around you make the stories of the walk all the more convincing. I can’t count the number of times I turned around to check whether the footsteps approaching me were part of the fake cinematic narrative I was immersed in, or belonging to life itself. The artists play with the uneasy gesture of looking over one’s shoulder, the sound of footsteps is inherently creepy and unnerving and puts the participant/viewer on edge throughout the walk, in a way that is both thrilling and memorable.

Weaving their way through the city, Cardiff and Bures Miller have made a fascinating and haunting piece that interweaves history, the digital, magic, reality, memory and storytelling. If you’re interested in any of the above, this is something you won’t want to miss.

Grayson Perry, Dovecot Studios

Grayson Perry, with his numerous books, TV documentaries and lectures, is probably one of the few genuinely famous contemporary artists in Britain today. He is perhaps better known for talking about art than for the art he produces, though the bright colours and recurring cast of characters in his ceramics, tapestries and prints, once seen, are not easily forgotten. He is a chronicler, a satirist, a kind of psychedelic William Hogarth of our times, chewing up the world and spitting it back out at us in a way that both gloriously kitsch and raucously ugly.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane, 1751

Perry is fundamentally a storyteller artist. He creates narratives in his artworks which help us to think about the world around us, and our multiple identities as individuals within society. That is what he has done for this show at Dovecot Studios, Julie Cope’s Grand Tour: The Story of a Life by Grayson Perry. The exhibition follows his fictional character Julie through what Perry calls ‘the trails, tribulations, celebrations and mistakes of an average life’, using a series of brightly-coloured Jacquard tapestries.

Don’t be fooled by the bright colours, though. The story behind the works is one that is full of tragedy, examining the mundane reality of life, the pervasive banality even of its most dramatic moments. Alongside the tapestries, The Ballad of Julie Cope, a poem written by Perry bleakly sets the context for Julie’s life. I sometimes find looped audio tracks in exhibition spaces quite distracting, but here, the poem read aloud by Perry in his slight Essex accent gave the tale of Julie Cope, an Essex girl, a kind of timeless authenticity.

Detail from the first tapestry in the series, A Perfect Match

The tapestries themselves are immense and impressive. Packed with details, they are a fascinating maze of signs and symbols, clashing colours and patterns for the viewer to decipher. Clever tricks are used that are barely noticeable at first, but make the images all the more convincing, like the shadows used around the feet in the picture above, giving the work a sense of depth and the cartoon-esque characters more solidity.

As with much of Grayson Perry’s work, class is the central theme underlying the show, and his observations about life in modern Britain are as bittersweet and tinged with nostalgia as they are acerbic. The tapestries, when they are not on tour, usually decorate another of Perry’s fascinating projects, A House For Essex, a whacky Wendy house construction which is part folly, part shrine, to Julie Cope. Seen divorced from this context, in the exhibition space, I think the works have probably lost some of their whimsical quality, and we are left with a documentation of the sad predictability of life. For me, the overriding feeling of the exhibition was not uplifting, but in that way, Perry, the Bard, creates a perfect mirror of the country in turmoil around us.

A House For Essex

Edinburgh Art Festival is here

It’s been a bit quiet on the blog recently while I’m trying to knuckle down and get my dissertation done. Apologies! However, Edinburgh Art Festival has just opened and I’m going to try and see as many of the exhibitions as I can and write about them on here over the next couple of weeks, so watch this space.

So far, the only things I’ve booked are both related to the same work, Night Walk for Edinburgh by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. My slot for the walk is next Sunday, and it sounds like an unusual and immersive experience. From what I can gather, the artists have created a site specific work which you carry with you on a walk around the streets of central Edinburgh, using a tablet and headphones. They become your tour guides in an experience which mixes reality and fiction. The artists are delivering the keynote lecture at the National Gallery of Scotland this evening, which will cover what it was like to make the work in Edinburgh, and will touch on their art practices more generally.

I’ll be back with more updates as and when I get to more Art Festival exhibitions and events. In the meantime, here’s a photo of some excellent curation I noticed recently at the National Gallery in London, pairing two recent works by Sean Scully, Landline Star and Landline Pool (both 2017) with the work that inspired them, The Evening Star (1830) by J. M. W. Turner.