Art Pilgrimage: Glasgow and Edinburgh

Pilgrimage to Scotland (2009). Art Review, London, Issue 30 (March).  Pp. 98-105.

‘The Map Is Not the Territory’

Artist-run spaces and a do-it-yourself mentality have had crucial positions in the development of Scottish art during the last two decades (for an introductory overview, see Sarah Lowndes’s Social Sculpture, 2003). One of the most interesting developments resulting from this situation was the emergence, in the late 1990s, of a complex, esoteric and even exclusive type of art generated by and for small clusters and communities of artists. Edinburgh-based critic Neil Mulholland argued (in 2002) that the aesthetics of this art, rather than appealing to internationally accepted postmodern discourses, satisfied a much more autochthonous series of rules often invisible to the uninitiated viewer or critic. In this way, the then-emergent praxis seemed more reflective of the decentralised (ie, artist- rather than institution-led) development of Scottish art and marked a departure from the now-established artists of the ‘Scotia Nostra’ – a term referring to the neoconceptualist generation of Scottish artists emerging in the late 1980s (including, among others, Ross Sinclair, Christine Borland and Douglas Gordon). Art historian Susannah Thompson, reflecting upon Mulholland’s argument, deploys the term ‘critical regionalism’ to describe this emergent praxis. She writes, ‘Critical regionalism for a new generation of artists and critics is less a case of asserting national identity and more an issue of maintaining a particularly “local” cultural consciousness as regards art practice and critical discourse.’

Resistant Forms

What is interesting is that, in the four years since Thompson wrote this text, a number of the artists under discussion have gone on to become very successful outside Scotland (including 2008 Turner Prize nominee Cathy Wilkes). Concomitantly, in Glasgow, a number of small commercial galleries have developed that tend to present a type of art that seems to share an aesthetic sensibility with critical regionalism, while paradoxically, successfully promoting their artists internationally. The oldest of these spaces is the Modern Institute (established in 1998), whose first show of the new year was the work of Glasgow-based artist Gregor Wright. Like Jim Lambie (also represented by the Modern Institute), Wright brings together kitsch objects (colourful dice, for example) and playful sculptural forms with the ‘serious’ endeavour of exploring and confounding different modes of interpretation. Likewise, his drawings and paintings conflate genres of ‘high-art’, bringing together abstract surfaces and expressively depicted objects in the colourful scribbles and motifs of carefully staged, childlike compositions. In the anonymous quote prefacing the gallery’s text, ‘Things only really become interesting when they start to stop making sense’, there seems to be a promotion of the thick reticence we have discussed; its drive tactile and intuitive rather than driven by a defined ‘idea’.

Nearby, Mary Mary represents (and at the time of writing was showing the work of) Karla Black. Like Wright, who was on the committee of the much-mythologised Transmission Gallery (having had his first solo show there), Black was part of the grassroots scene: showing at Intermedia Gallery, the former artist-run mobile gallery Switchspace (set up by Sorcha Dallas and Marianne Greated) and the Changing Room (an important space for contemporary art in Stirling). Using materials like petroleum jelly, moisturising creams, chalk and Sellotape, Black leaves behind fingerprints and footprints – thick layers of hand-combed Vaseline – in a contingent fashion that some have linked to performance. The use of cosmetics, and the indexical marks left in them – with the accompanying smells – allows the work to slip and slide salaciously against postmodern notions of gender and the body. Indeed, I think it’s fairly easy to see how such work, whether a product of parochial connections or not, could be recapitulated by postmodern rhetoric. Black is showing in Milan, Zurich, Andratx(Mallorca) and Oxford in the coming year.

The Sorcha Dallas gallery is another of the more recent commercial galleries to have developed in Glasgow, its recent exhibition rep’e.t’tion reflecting the more eclectic range of artists represented by the gallery: one room decorated and furnished with geometric, photocopied wallpaper (Claudia Wieser) and bright ‘punky’ chairs by Franz West; another room reserved as a more typically white cube space, with Bridget Riley prints and John Wesley acrylics, among others.

Claire Barclay currently has a solo show at the Fruitmarket Gallery, a publicly funded space in Edinburgh. Based in Glasgow, Barclay also had her first solo show at the Transmission, in 1994. She uses fabrics, leather, handmade or manufactured wooden or steel forms, varying in degrees of intricacy and scale, to create suggestive but indefinable forms; and seems to have exerted an influence on a number of the younger artists exhibiting at Mary Mary (such as Sara Barker or Aleana Egan). Perhaps a difference comes in the meticulous way that some of Barclay’s objects are created, but there is sufficient ambiguity in the relationship it bears to the younger artists’ work to suggest that it falls aesthetically, as it falls chronologically, between neoconceptualism and the more visceral critical regionalism. As she says in an interview with Francis McKee in 2000: ‘I tend to show with, or am in close contact with… predominantly conceptual artists. More and more, though, I’m realizing that I don’t really have that sort of conceptual practice. There is a certain amount of research … [but] it is very much about making – about getting materials, doing things with them and the surprises that occur.’

Incidentally, artist-led initiatives continue to actively fuel and displace institutional activities. Washington Garcia, who appropriate different spaces where possible, presented Barclay’s work last year in ‘the Old Barn’, in Dumbreck Riding School – in itself a wonderfully nuanced space, reflective of a grassroots approach.

Audience Development and Participation

Though the Fruitmarket Gallery might be criticised for failing to reflect more upon the substrata of artist-led activity, its role in raising public awareness of contemporary art and bringing internationally renowned artists to Edinburgh has been substantial. When the market for contemporary art in Scotland has seemed reluctant, this raising of public awareness is an interest closely shared by commercial galleries.

In Edinburgh there is Doggerfisher, which promotes a slightly older generation of contemporary artists than do counterparts in Glasgow, and Ingleby Gallery. Since reopening in new premises in August, the latter is apparently the largest commercial space outside London. This has effectively allowed Ingleby to diversify, while increasing its profile. The range of Ellsworth Kelly lithographs displayed at the beginning of the year in Ingleby’s Gallery 1 seemed to encapsulate current objectives for this space, bringing in a high-profile artist with a clean, simple and elegant body of work. Meanwhile, Gallery 2 is used to promote more local artists, such as Susan Collis. Additionally they have invited artists from London, such as Mark Wallinger and Rachael Whiteread, to create works for their Billboard for Edinburgh initiative.  This initiative is considered to be a public art project, and it simply allows artists to present their work for a three month period on the side of the gallery.  Wallinger’s billboard poster in November, for example, read ‘Mark Wallinger is Innocent’: an equivocal statement resonant with his broader practice.  Given that the backdrop for the billboard is Waverley Train Station (and behind that the Scottish Parliament), the fact that all the artists currently selected for this initiative are based in London creates a strange series of vexed questions relating to location.

Other important publicly funded spaces include Inverleith House and Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, the CCA in Glasgow and the DCA in Dundee. The DCA celebrates its tenth anniversary this year and will curate the Scottish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Their emphasis will be on Martin Boyce – whose work was recently acquired by Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art. Meanwhile the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh is home to a large and impressive exhibition by Charles Avery. Committed to developing his ongoing Islanders project (2004–) through a range of text, drawing and sculptural pieces, Avery has the capacity to please specialist and nonspecialist audiences alike.

Bad Bad Boys and Things Out of the Blue:

The majority of what I’ve had to squeeze into this survey has related to the relatively sedentary galleries and institutions around Scotland – though I’ve still neglected so much. In Edinburgh the temporary absence of the artist-run Embassy Gallery, which really helped define the identity of a strong peer group of artists, has left a great void, though this year it will return in a new space, at St Margaret’s House, Meadowbank.

The Collective Gallery, also in Edinburgh, runs the New Work Scotland Programme every year. This initiative helps to promote recent arts graduates and a small number of young art writers from around Scotland. As an outgrowth of this initiative, they launched an event called Artists DIY Soapbox in 2007, which aimed to raise awareness about the activities of young groups of artists around the country. In fact, it’s because of the Collective Gallery’s fantastic endeavours that there exists an assessable list of such groups.

In Edinburgh the shortage of space has meant that Sierra Metro, a warehouse turned arts venue, has met with much enthusiasm. Artist’s publications such as Paper X and Fools in Print have offered alternative publishing outlets, while the Pedal Panopticon and Mobile Picture Salon – both portable cinema spaces – present fresh alternatives for artists. In Glasgow Alhena Katsof, under the pseudonym A. Vermin, invites artists to exhibit in her flat. Lowsalt and the Market Gallery are small artist-run spaces that aim to extend the opportunities lesser-known artists might have to exhibit. In Dundee there is the mysterious Bad Bad Boys Club, Ganghut and Generator Projects. In Aberdeen are the Foyer Restaurant + Gallery, Limousine Bull and Project Slogan.

My thanks to Kirsten Body, whose work towards DIY Soapbox is invaluable. Additional thanks to Deborah Jackson and Caroline Broadhirst.

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