An Lanntair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, until 9 March 2013
THE NAME ‘six degrees west’ fixes a group to a measured distance from the prime meridium which goes right through Greenwich but it gives you quite a bit of latitude.
SIMILARLY, this group exhibition, INCH KENNETH, curated by Alicia Hendrick, stems from limiting the scope to one particular island, west of Mull. There’s no shortage of islands that way, from the iconic line of the Dutchman’s Cap in the Treshnish islands to the basalt of Staffa or the sickening jagged nature of the Torran Rocks. But the more pastoral Inch Kenneth has a significant history in its own right, layered over centuries.
If you take Murdo Macdonald’s approach that ancient artifacts can’t simply be sidelined as historical objects but can be seen simply as made things, just older ones, then the carved stones I witnessed, reclining on Inch Kenneth some thirty years ago, are important works of art. There was a tradition of burying the noble dead here if conditions prevented reaching Iona. Equally iconic now is the layer of history linked to the once grand house on Inch Kenneth where the residency actually took place.
The house was owned by the Mitford family during the second world war. The society daughters chose varying paths. Diana went on to marry Oswald Mosley, founder of the British fascist party. Unity corresponded intimately with Hitler. And Jessica thought uncle Joe Stalin was just fine and communism was the road to the future.
The family tension must have come to a head when Unity attempted suicide, on the mainland, but returned as an invalid to live out some more damaged years, on the island. It’s a script you couldn’t write, for fear of being thought theoretical or sensational. But that’s part of the history of this house.
It’s picked up directly by David Faithfull in his bound folio of digital prints with a screen-printed cover. The colour background alludes to both Nazi and Communist sympathies. The print medium and its presentation in this bound folio lends itself well to presentation of a body of work made in response to being a resident artist’s group in this place. I spoke in depth to Veronica Slater, who attended the opening in An Lanntair with David.
She explained that some work in the show came, as you might expect, as a spontaneous response and other pieces came later, as a hard-won body of work. There is a range of styles and favoured media in the show and this seems a healthy thing in bringing together such a residency. I suggested to Veronica that there could be parallels with the ethos of the Triangle Trust international artists’ workshops which led to a pilot project in North Uist then a series of three Scottish Island workshops.
The difference is that there is no exhibition or product in mind in the Triangle ethos – a deliberate policy. You might say there’s a risk of a possible lack of focus but a gain in that artists, both early in their careers and established, are encouraged to think, experiment or interact – or all of these – and possibly arrive at something which could be outside or extending the scope of their usual working practice.
No doubt thanks to a range of factors, the 6° WEST concept has resulted in a very worthwhile exhibition. These factors must include sensitive curatorial input, including choice of artists, management of challenging logistics and support of the galleries the show will be linked to. But most of all, the commitment of the individual artists has to be the crucial element.
Mhairi Killin takes a more minimal approach than the others. In An Lanntair, a wall is built so a corridor is simulated. The sort of tag you might find on vintage luggage, hints at more clues to elusive lives. There is a particular mirror, with layers of allusion, but you have to look for clues. Outside, there is the most delicate assemblage which is so striking it revitalizes a possible cliché in the art of working with things found – a Gaelic/Japanese aesthetic seems present. There is also an editioned print which combines some of these elements as motifs.
Anne Devine’s work is cleverly placed adjacent. This is drawing essentially, though colour is used too – it is discovery by doing. The fluency and energy of the drawing provides the interest as opposed to the delicate balance in her neighbour’s pieces. The figures in the drawing suggest folklore and mythology. Many elements are gathered in a large scale vibrant work, oil wax and resin on linen. It’s a bit like placing a more sprawling but energetic novel beside a tight series of short-stories. Again, a print has also been produced, this time in stone lithography.
Veronica Slater has gone for one telling thing – the porthole-type window. Then she repeats it, expands, plays with it. So windows are contained within windows. She has taken a colour swatch from the interior décor and painted a large circle on the gallery wall. Within that are circles which could either be looking out, through weather, towards a mainland or looking within the rooms of the house.
I have been within these walls but more than thirty years ago. A friend was invited by the then caretakers and brought me along. I’d been expecting something more opulent. Instead there was a consistent arts and crafts look and feel to the quite spare but elegant furnishings. Veronica Slater is clearly an artist who loves her materials as well as her subject. She has observed how damp has affected the fabric of walls and reproduced its effect with a wide range of media, orchestrated within her large circle. On an opposing wall, a group of smaller circles uses similar techniques.
You could say that her vision sees ageing and weathering as a gradual enrichening.What might have been once quite spare has become opulent. Similarly her Giclee print – a straightforward photographic means of reproduction which I must say doesn’t excite me the way the slightly uncertainties inevitable in other print media does – has an additional layer imposed by screenprinting.
David Faithfull takes us back outside to the tidal regions where bleached cetacean bones can be found amongst whitened driftwood. He shows a whole body of work, enough for an exhibition in its own right, linked to a 20th century literary reference to a leviathan – a text from William Golding’s Pincher Martin. The list of materials reads like poetry. A central large-scale drawing, on paper and linen is made in “gouache, meteorite and oak gall ink”. Although the drawings are mainly monochrome and the subject matter is exterior, the allusions are as often literary classics as family-history. The overall effect is again rich.
Shelved and floor-mounted sculptures reproduce the beautiful bone shapes in cedar-wood – a transformation from the bible. This is an artist who loves the book as a form in itself. I’m sure one day soon artists will make work from the dead shells of Kindles, but right now I find that difficult to see.
Shannon Tofts documented the process of the workshop and the acts of making in still and moving images, installed to make good use of the busy An Lanntair foyer and to lead custom into the show. Veronica also shows an intriguing attempt to draw the moving shadows cast by a tenacious small tree, in pebbles or shells. I loved her title for a video piece focusing on this strange, tall, island house –‘Home’ Movie.
Veronica Slater’s printed works were made at Highland Print Studios (David Faithfull is a master printer and printed his own prints; Anne Devine worked with master printer Elspeth Lamb to produce her stone lithography, and Mhairi Killin worked with Edinburgh Print Studio). The idea of using HPS as a mainland hub is one seen before at An Lanntair in their touring exhibition Is A Thing Lost?, exploring storytelling in mainly visual terms. It’s inspiring to see this excellent facility continue to take traditional and contemporary printmaking techniques to such a level of excellence.
Ian Stephen is assisting Christine Morrison this week at Highland Print Studios, making a series of four prints, derived from voyages to outlying islands. Each uses the photo-polymer process (monochrome) and screen-printed texts in colour.
© Ian Stephen, 2013