KEN CURRIE: Portrait of THOMAS MUIR at the Auld Kirk, Kirkintilloch, Oct 10th-31st.
"I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause. It shall ultimately prevail," so said THOMAS MUIR at his show trial for sedition in 1793.
His chief sin was talking & writing about parliamentary reform so that people in general had a vote, not just the landed gentry.Muir was 28 and already famous as a campaigner for democracy in both politics and the church. The jury was rigged so Muir was sentenced to 14 years transportation to Botany Bay, Australia. He escaped & after an epic journey across the Pacific, America & the Atlantic, reached France, weak & half blind, horrifically wounded across his face by the loss of his left cheekbone. He died there in 1799, the conclusion of many trials, physical & moral, for Scotland's first political martyr. He was only 33.
How to capture all this in a single portrait? This was KEN CURRIE's challenge when he was commissioned by the Lillie Gallery & East Dunbartonshire Culture & Leisure Trust to make Muir's portrait to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth.
"I read a lot. Did a lot of research. His is a complex, long involved story. He endured harsh & brutal treatment. I didn't want to re-tell it all like I did years ago for the People'sPalace Murals.
Currie working on the Calton Weavers murals in 1987.
I wanted to capture his many trials; show him suffering in the cause of parliamentary reform. Eventually I hit on a solution."
Currie's solution is stark, minimal, moving. Very effective. The portrait is sober,sombre, spell-binding. Surrounded byCurrie'scharacteristic dense, intenseblack, the bandaged youngMuirlooks out at us, one side of his injured face entirely shrouded by a black cloth tied around by a black band across his forehead.
"When I learned that his face was so badly damaged that he had to keep it hidden, the whole composition fell into place. Just as soldiers in World War 1 had leather masks made for the benefit of their family & the public, Seeing a man minus his leg was OK but horrific facial injuries led to stigmatisation."
Currie has used the black linen 'mask' to get us to focus on Muir's look - direct, fearless, committed, determined, expressive of his firm beliefs & resolve. While Muir's face is in focus, his body has a ghostly spectral air, as tho' receding, dying away.
"I painted several versions but this was the first. And I came back to it as the best," saysCurrie. "The body is very lightly painted, only a few glazes. But it works." A young guy in Currie's studio posed for the body - young agile, like Muir, all his life before him - before tragedy struck.
I guess we will never know exactly what Muir looked like after his brutal experiences -old engravings sometimes romantically hint at his youth, others at his classical stoicism.
Currie says, "Contemporary descriptions of him after he arrived in France toward the end of his life suggest that he was gaunt, pale and clearly considerably weakened and debilitated by his injuries. Despite this he continued to work for reform."
"Ken's portrait is persuasive of martyrdom," commented my husband, "There is that element of resignation to his look."
Currie's work has always been gripping. He produces pictures that can be uncomfortable but that reach for something deep. His Edinburgh Festival exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery 2 years ago was by far the best show in town. He is after all a seriously important painter.
The John CHAMBERLAIN exhibition at Inverleith House in Edinburgh's BOTANIC GARDENS is a pleasant surprise. The first time this famous US sculptor has been shown in the UK, he is best known for using pieces of rusty old crushed car metal to create monumental works. How would that look amid the verdant Botanics?
In fact this show of 19 sculptures includes much more than the crumpled car parts, & gives an idea of Chamberlain's entire career. The sculptures range from 1965 to 2010, (a year before he died,) & include work made from sparkly coloured aluminium, painted squashed coffee cans, beautiful polymer resin & questionable Urethane foam. Add in a film featuring Warhol superstars!
In 1957 aged 30 JOHN CHAMBERLAIN moved to New York & began creating his sculpture from car scrap metal welded together. Like all young artists he had little money for materials. He had been fleetingly at the Chicago Art Institute. In NYC Abstract Expressionism was then flavour of the year with painters like De Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline & Larry Rivers. Chamberlain was to bring the Abstract Expressionist style of painting into 3D.
Says Inverleith director, Paul Nesbitt, "Chamberlain represents a unique link between the viviid colour palettes & frenetic energy of Abstract Expressionist painting & the truthfulness to material found in Minimalist sculpture."
The entire exhibition is superbly displayed. One silver, white & grey metal sculpture, BishopBudd from 2009 sits in one room alone in solitary splendour, well worth the visit by itself. Luna Luna, 1970, made from synthetic polymer, is so very elegant . Made me think of Larry Bell's plexiglas sculptures of the same period.
However I found most of the 6 small foam pieces really ugly. Foam usually used in cheap chairs or student sofas, is pretty ugly in itself. Tied with cord round its middle into various bulging shapes does not improve it. Some, like Stuffed Dog have the appearance of a left-over donut. However one piece, cut & shaved into something reminiscent of a Greek urn, was surprisingly elegant. Were these pieces to be cast in bronze perhaps?
The show contains tiny maquettes for the large pieces outside. Twisted & tied metallic string or foil cord is translated a thousand times bigger into circular tinsel bows named Ritzfrolic or Naughtynightcap. Coloured in bright green, pink or bronze, these aluminium public art pieces look as silly as the titles.
Ritzfloric at 15 ft high is a bit big for a noose or a bow, tho' it's glitzy shiny like a Jeff Koons baloon piece. In 2011Chamberlain's Nutcracker (1958) sold for $4.7 million, a record price for the artist at auction.
Chamberlain was a larger than life character. A big man, very tall, 4 times married, he drank a good deal & was known as a hell-raiser. He began life as a hairdresser, (so that he could meet lots of women, he said) & having had little training, worked by instinct, In 1957 while staying with painter Larry Rivers in the Hamptons, & looking for cheap, accessible materials, he pulled 2 fenders from a rusting 1929 Ford & made a sculpture by running over the pieces repeatedly with a truck to bend them the way he wanted, then he fitted them together almost like jigsaw puzzle.
A self-described collagist, he explained, “When a sculpture is nearly done, you can put things on and you take them off and it doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “Stopping is the key; you have to know when to stop. If I feel so glad that a sculpture is here, and I don’t care who did it, then I figure it’s a good piece.”
Chamberlain used these jagged edges & curved surfaces of scrap yardcarwings, fins, boots & bumpers in a spontaneous, instinctual process, often building monumental pieces. But he was annoyed by the public's frequent response. “For 25 years I’ve been using coloured metal to make sculpture, yet all they can think of is, ‘What the hell car did that come from?’
Latterly he said: “I think of my art materials not as junk but as garbage. Manure, actually; it goes from being the waste material of one being to the life-source of another." The show runs till Oct 4th.
By coincidence a few days before I saw CHARLES AVERY's show we were in Mull. I had no idea that Avery comes from Oban & has a place on the Isle of Mull, (To get to Mull u take the ferry from Oban.) but I recognised the quay .. right away.
And that explains the eels, fish, quays, & of course the fact that his work revolves around an island and its Islanders. Avery's island is called Onamatopoeia - what else? -
The most beautiful work on show is this single slithery eel - gorgeous!
But then there are the inhabitants with their Eastern head-dresses. What to make of them?? Sometimes they provide the only colour among the pencil.
Having your own imaginary country is a convenient way to comment on politics, culture, - skinny adolescents up to no good; stout older men ditto. The females are all young n' sexy. We await his comment on immigration to his island. Will the dark skinned immigrants snap up all the women?? Who knows.
I first saw Avery's impressive large work at GMA - such a relief these days to find an artist who can draw! I had no idea he was pretty well self taught.
Now he has added design objects and furniture to his arsenal. Some work better than others. And the display is too sparse to really get an idea of his skills in this area.
He has made a large "tree" from one of the drawings, & the 'tree' is now installed in Waverly Station. As far as public art goes, it's weak. So back to the drawings -
With their harbour steps, buoys, eels, long legged birds & sea creatures, it's back to Mull - or Onamatopoeia as Avery calls it.
ESCHER 1898-1972 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, EDINBURGH
Escherwas a pop star artist. In the 1960s & 70s the public clamoured for his work. MickJaggerwanted him for an LP cover. His woodcuts - printed by hand with a small egg spoon made of bone - sold in hundreds. America loved him, as did teenagers worldwide.
Like Darboven, he led an orderly life. Equally obsessive, he tried for an order underlaying the chaos of everyday but allied to a sense of humour & playful approach.
"I cannot help mocking all our certainties. It is, for eg, great fun deliberately to confuse 2 and 3 dimensions, the plane & space, or to poke fun at gravity.
Are u sure that a floor cannot also be a ceiling? Are u certain that you go up when u walk up a staircase? Can u be definite that it's impossible to have your cake & eat it? I ask these crazy questions of myself, and then other."
Escher loved to amaze. His images deal with time or eternity; infinity and space. The main subject is WONDER.
His fabulous technical ability has to be seen in the flesh. Reproductions on posters or T shirts are no good. I believe this is the first Escher show in Scotland, it is certainly the largest ever held in the UK - 100 drawings & prints which demonstrate just why mathematicians admired him for his grasp of geometry & hippies for his 'psychedelic' art.
If u only see one Festival show, see this. Take yr time, examine. Escher trained as an architect and this shows. His early buildings, castles, pavilions & staircases, cities & streets are immaculate in their definition - even if mirror images upside down or downside up. He moved to Italy from his native Holland in 1920s.
This is printmaking as you will never see it again! Masterpieces of graphic design made from 20 blocks where birds metamorphose into fish; cubes become houses; towers make for chess pieces and each blends seamlessly into the other.
HANNE DARBOVEN at the TALBOT RICE Gallery, Edinburgh University.
I am always happy to see women artists given their due. Edinbro Uni's Talbot Rice Gallery is doing a sterling job here with its committment to showing important artists like Paula Rego, Jenny Holzer, Rosemarie Trockel, Jane and Louise Wilson and now, the under recognized German conceptualist, HANNE DARBOVEN, (1941 – 2009)
Not an easy artist & she seems to have made things even more difficult for herself via a solitary, reclusive life - despite the fact that her life is her art & she recorded & indexed every day in painstaking, obsessive detail via a code all her own.
The results are stark minimalism taken to the nth degree. Here 754 framed works, a chapter from a total 2,782 sheets, runs round all the walls: a geometric grid of what the artist called ‘mathematical prose’; listing every date from 1900 to 1999 via a code of typewritten pages (2nd January 1901 becomes 2 + 1 + 01 = 4 `& so on... and on & on ... )
As curator Pat Fisher explains, "Darboven is under recognised in relation to her male peers and friends – such Le Witt, Kosuth and Weiner. I hope this first showing of her fascinating work in Scotland help redress this."
The initial impact of all these 100s of what look like identical pages is confounded by the inclusion of 2 dolls houses, full of tiny lamps, chintz armchairs, kitchen appliances - bourgeois in the extreme. Could the same artist possibly be responsible for both? It seems so. But puzzling all the same.
Upstairs photos of a Xmas gathering for family & friends are again offered without any form of interpretation,
while downstairs a table full of objects from her cluttered Hamburg studio - a veritable cabinet of curiosities, or incredible encyclopaedic collection, has been borrowed to give us some idea of Darboven’s personal cosmology. A German documentary may - or may not - shed light on this uniquely mysterious & obsessive artist whose work is at once impersonal, yet a heart-wrenching if idiosyncratic record of her lifetime's intellectual exercise trying to address the impossible complexity of anything & everything in this world. An experience shared by us all.