Nairn Book & Arts Festival Contemporary Art Exhibition

6 Sep 2011 in Moray, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

Nairn Courthouse, 31 August- 4 September 2011

IT IS regrettable that after two years the Nairn Book and Art Festival’s Open Art Competition is no longer part of the local art scene, at least while a lack of funding in the current climate prevails.

WHILE selection is always a contentious issue in an area where professional, semi-professional and amateur interests compete for what little public wall space exists, there has always been a need for selected shows to compliment the work of private galleries and more open arenas such as local art society shows.

Shaped by the competition and selection process, the last two exhibitions in the Nairn Courthouse were much tighter in terms of quality and more representational of diversity within the limitations of the space.

Ruth Nicol - Leith in Winter, Albert Docks Tug

Ruth Nicol - Leith in Winter, Albert Docks Tug

The competition, which offered prize money and a solo exhibiting opportunity to the winner in the following year, was designed to attract emerging talent from all over Scotland, providing a wider frame of reference for local artists.

With this competitive element gone invited submissions, presumably from an organising committee, have replaced the open call selection process. In consequence the student element is conspicuous by its absence this year, and there are less discoveries in store for the audience.

Painting and landscape are ever dominant, with a lack of the sculpture, printmaking, photography or mixed media work seen in previous years. While there are many pleasing scenes on display this is largely a pedestrian show rather than an aspirational one.

Named artists meet expectation but aren’t encouraged to exceed it in such an arena, and the sense of delight in seeing the evolution in 2009 Nairn Open Art Competition winner Ruth Nicol’s work this year is somewhat quashed by the thought that emerging artists – unless known to the organisers – will not be given the opportunity to submit their work.

Perhaps a lack of prize money could have been replaced by sponsorship from a major art supplier for equipment, development of a local residency/studio opportunity and exhibition opportunities, retaining selection and keeping the momentum of the competition alive, rather than taking a collectively retrograde step.

Among the thirty eight exhibiting artists including Eugenia Vronskaya, Kirstie Cohen, Sam Cartman, Cyril Reed, Linda Smith, Evelyn Pottie, Jannis Mennie, Nicola MacDonell and Fiona Jappy there are, however, a number of works which encourage contemplation.

A small watercolour by James Kail entitled Blue Print invites closer inspection with its fluid and accomplished use of the medium. The chair with half a coat visibly hanging upon it is quietly poignant, the faded sepia and aged fabric suggest residual memory of a human presence, absent from the image.

The delicacy of the paint handling is sensitively wrought and the arrangement of still life objects is imaginative rather than descriptive in the mind of the viewer, adding potential layers of interpretation to the scene.

Sam Cartman - Lamppost, Stirling

Sam Cartman - Lamppost, Stirling

Sam Cartman’s paintings in oils present a dynamic combination of semi-industrial architecture and abstraction. Cartman retains the drawn line whilst exploring variation of mark and paint handling, giving the two dimensional surface unexpected texture and subtlety.

Lamppost, Stirling, with its carefully drafted ornamental lamppost juxtaposed with bold accents of colour and simplified form succeeds in creating a balanced formal design in naples yellow, ochre, cerulean blue, moss green and vibrant orange. The combination of detail and abstraction, urban context and rural landforms sets up an interesting dialogue in the work.

Similarly in Mains of Usan the artist delivers variation of texture and density of pigment, ranging from the minimal block of sky to pastel-like softness in the foreground and an almost incised feel to the pitched pattern of the rooftop. Colour is carefully deliberated so that out of a palette that feels derived from everyday industrial functionality accents and variations when they occur are rendered more noticeable for their restraint.

Ruth Nicol’s work has continued to develop, and her two works in acrylic and pencil, Leith in Winter, The Docks and Leith In Winter, Albert Dock Tug, are stylistically assured, with a combination of fluid paint handling in the sky and water coupled with graphic draughtsmanship in the rendering of buildings and colourful linear dynamics in the fore- and mid- ground.

Ruth Nicol - Leith in Winter, The Docks

Ruth Nicol - Leith in Winter, The Docks

The natural and man-made converge in the choice of palette and manipulation of the painterly surface, particularly in the elemental separation of pigment in contrast with sharply defined areas of graphic colour.

Bette McArdle’s socially engaged figurative works are a refreshing highlight of an exhibition largely preoccupied with land-based mythologies. The inversion of beauty and classical subject matter in The Three Disgraces as a contemporary comment on the feminine begs further stylistic exploration and development.

The artist’s treatment of the figure as flesh reveals its morality and in this way is reminiscent of the satire of Albert Tucker during the blackout period in 1940’s Australia. Whilst this work doesn’t exhibit the same brand of savagery unleashed by the New Objectivity in Weimar Germany in response to social and economic conditions, the central concern here, like the work of Dix or Grosz, is truth rather than beauty.

In our age as in any other this is a function of art practice which is absolutely necessary. There is always a place for art concerned with wider issues than itself, and McArdle’s adjacent work, He’s Not Worth It Babe(Oil), is a good example.

In this image before an illuminated shop front a group of figures surround a fallen human figure on the ground. Details are indistinct – what we see is largely in silhouette with broken outlines of alizarin and ultramarine animating the movements of two men and two women. There is ambiguity in their actions; some have raised sticks, others from their stance appear to be shouting, in encouragement or protest we cannot be sure, with a woman seemingly trying to hold a man back from stomping on the fallen figure.

Like the mute suggestion of mannequins in the window we witness a moment of violence unfolding, unsure of what will happen next. This uncertainty coupled with the framed reference of the shop window and the actual canvas feels both extremely timely and nationally relevant.

On display upstairs in the Nairn Community & Arts Centre the winner of last year’s Open Art Prize, student Karen Howitt has since graduated with an Honours Degree in Painting from Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen.

Karen Howitt - Hatching A Plan

Karen Howitt - Hatching A Plan

This Solo show features charcoal and conte drawings by the artist including the intriguing large scale figurative work What Remains. Set within a woodland glade at night, the play of light on a moonlit pond in the distance, illuminating the faces of two female figures together with the firelight in the foreground, draw the viewer’s eye into the shadowy scene.

Tonal layers of charcoal are overlaid with linear marks creating a compelling density in the depiction of night as a physical and psychological space. The evasion of one figure by another and the implied blindness of the main seated protagonist creates an imaginatively open narrative for the viewer.

Drawings such as Hatching A Plan or Don’t Just Sit There are more illustrative and cartoon-like in their linear definition, whilst works such as Fly or Fry and Now I am King recall the work of Joe Davie in their use of pattern, design and the masculine figure.

Hopefully ways can be found in light of reduced funding to still facilitate the showing of emerging and student work on an ongoing basis, together with a range of work from professional, semi professional and amateur artists as part of Nairn’s annual community art festival.

© Georgina Coburn, 2011