At the Foot o’ Yon Excellin’ Brae
An Lanntair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, until 29 September 2012
AN LANNTAIR have just installed a summer exhibition which presents images of Scottish landscapes along with a complex, puzzling series of allusions to Scottish culture, expressed in English Gaelic and Scots.
HELEN MacAlister was commissioned to make the exhibition, which will move on to a commercial gallery in London. This helps re-establish a pattern where work originated or gathered by Scottish island arts centres then travels to the mainland as an export. It’s clear that the artist has been given scope and time to follow through areas of research and experiment. The art has been allowed to find its own form.
The process allows a measure of risk but gives the chance of producing something innovative. The evidence here is that MacAlister has responded to the trust with a thorough and diligent investigation and a sustained series of experimentations with the aim of arriving at an exhibition which will be challenging but rewarding. Both the artist and an Lanntair are to be commended on permitting this journey. Care has been taken in the presentation of the results. The L-shaped gallery and the foyer which is a continuum of the exhibition are are fully used and the works are well-spaced. Framing and presentation standards are high.
The accompanying notes are absolutely essential – and even on the first day of a preview, everything was in place. Laminated files list the references and notes. A print-out of the well-designed on-line catalogue is to hand. The impression is of a determined effort to provide a contemporary exhibition with access by way of landscape icons and resonant phrases.
If the claims and expectations are well nigh impossible to live up to – that’s no bad thing. Better to aim for a wide range and fall short than limit the scale to an easy competence. Take Roddy Murray’s introduction: “This exhibition penetrates deep into language. In so doing, it creates a new medium of itself that leaps gaps and generations, fuses ideas and influences and transcends, resolves and reconciles them.”
Let’s go out and meet the work as displayed now, in the light of this background.
The landscapes are painted in monochrome on an off-white linen. There is a group of large scale paintings. Three of them have a smaller canvas, in the same format, hung close, presenting a short text. But several of the same body of images are also presented again in a line of framed drawings, pencil on paper. It is possible that photographs of the landscapes have been projected and made new in paint and pencil respectively.
Whatever the method, the visual presentation already accepts deliberate restrictions – a bit like a poet accepting the discipline of schemes of rhyme or metre. Both the paintings and the drawings remind me of some of the work of Donald Urquhart, where moving branches or grasses become fixed for observation. This is not an immediate, personal response to landscape. The selected scenes are viewed through complex prisms of previous responses. Thus, this body of work seems to me more about culture than landscape. I was reminded of the exhibition Turner And His Contemporaries, in Tate Britain, a couple of years ago. The arrangement of work revealed how Turner made no attempt to hide his way of building on arrangements or viewpoints taken in previous paintings. Similarly, later artist’s borrowed from Turner’s own interventions, without guile.
This classicism is of course a main aspect of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s body of work, exploring many fields from the French Revolution to the culture of the Scottish Fishing vessel. MacAlister’s way of selecting short phrases which suggest huge landscapes of thought behind them, follows on from Finlay. But it also nods to multiple layers of Scottish discourse. It’s not simply a quote from Hamish Henderson but a context where the editor Alec Finlay’s approach to Henderson is also referenced.
Thomas A Clark’s practice of recalling walks and expressing the experience, in spare language, is also in the index. There is an echo of Marvell’s use of language, borrowed knowingly by Clark’s nod to that. In the same way, Macdiarmid’s translation of Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill by Alasdair Macmhaighistir Alasdair is alluded to. In this case, there is a sense that a bilingual commentator sees the version as looking at the stained-glass windows of a cathedral from the outside in. Macalister’s visual expression of such propositions, in the form of engraved glass postcards, is witty but again multi-layered.
You have to keep your own wits about you and be prepared to spend time, chasing the riddles. For me it was time well spent and I’m resolved to return. It seems to me as much an exploration of Scottish philosophical propositions as much as a visual art exhibition. I don’t see anything wrong with that. I am however going to raise some questions.
Let’s accept that any exhibition, outside production of work for a known market, is a measure of exploration and a measure of exposition. This show is very far along the exploration line. But could the artist give the audience a bit more help? If you set up a proposition like a line of postcard-sized glassworks, all on a named type of dimpled glass, then there is already some sense of pattern and a framework. So you can look for the particular detail of the proposition in each. But the last two are a different size and one of these also has a reference to the use of the panatone blue recently approved as the saltire colour. Is there not a risk of just too much going on?
There are already variations within the series, in size and style of typefaces and one clever little work juxtaposes red and white to emphasise that the Gaelic words have another layer of meaning from a previous use.
This is a lot to take in and it would be easier to give it the time and focus it needs if there were a few less puzzling visual variations. Why is the font size of the title quote, “At the Foot o’ Yon Excellin’ Brae” so much larger than that used in the two similar works presented in the same format? It might be that it is exactly because it is the title or that the quote from Hamish Henderson is indeed the driving force of the whole exhibition. But a little more apparent logic in the patterns made by the hung works would have allowed me to sit and ponder the layers.
In the same way a long line of similar frames give the expectation that this is really one work. But it seems to me that the pencil versions of the scenes can’t be tied too closely to the separate text works which follow them.
Is it possible that this is exactly the type of exhibition which calls for a trusting but two-sided relationship between artist and curator? My own conclusion is that this is a brave and braw show. Well done the artist for taking us deep into her journey.
© Ian Stephen, 2012