Materiality and Focus

In the fourth of our seven-post series on the work of David Cass (ahead of his exhibition at The Scottish Gallery next week), I thought it would be a good point to widen the scope a little and consider the manner in which Cass works and the materials he works with. As with previous posts in this short series on a single artist, the underlying thinking has been to take just one work as a point of focus – that is, as a jumping off point from which to consider the wider body of work brought together and ‘assembled’ in his upcoming exhibition. We have also been running (with the kind permission of the authors, and David himself), short texts that appear in the beautifully crafted exhibition catalogue, too; a copy of which landed on my desk just yesterday, and which I thoroughly recommend.

Today’s contribution from the catalogue is by Scottish Gallery Director Guy Peploe, who below presents a ‘take’ on the process of Cass’s art, as well as the underlying thinking that has given rise to it. My hope here is that Peploe’s text will throw further light on the materiality of the work, too, as well as Cass’s subject matter and interests that have been discussed in our previous posts. As for today’s singular piece that I’m posting below for consideration, I’ve chosen to depart from this self-imposed rule and, instead, take as our jumping off point a series of paintings he has made on metal trays, found and repurposed as the support for each work. Each of these paintings display a different handling and approach to the representation of that eponymous rising horizon that is at the core of all Cass’s works included in the exhibition.

It should not escape our notice here that the assembled trays on which Cass has painted seem, in some way, to be informed by the Northern Romantic tradition in painting; I would hate to overdo this particular reference, but many of them appear (perhaps fortuitously – perhaps not) to reference the stylistic handling of some of northern Europe’s finest painters – from Nolde and Munch, to early Mondrian and more recently Gerhard Richter. Brought together in this way, they represent a coherent body of work in their own right, for sure, but they also offer us a means to meditate upon our changing relationship with our world – a relationship that is shifting as our impact upon it becomes ever more evident.

David Cass, 25 Selected painted printmakers’ trays (view the full set at


Guy Peploe

The ocean is our most vital life support, the lung of the Earth. Its recycling and purification qualities are the miracles which sustain life. The pollution of the oceans is a tragic paradigm for our careless attitude to resources while the pollution of the atmosphere will lead to global warming, loss of land ice and the drastic rise of sea levels. It is hard not to see how our abuse of the oceans will rebound in our inundation. Hubris and nemesis.

Cass has been in thrall to the wonder and beauty of the sea for as long as he can remember and since he has looked with an artist’s eye – to enhance, edit and interpret – he has been struck by the conundrum of the horizon. The horizon of the sea provides proof of the curvature of the Earth, it is the visible beginning of sky, the locus for the appearance and disappearance of the Sun in our turning world. So where to place it? The instinct of the painter is to seek out a meaningful ratio: perhaps the Golden Section, the level around which many of Cass’s horizon-lines rest. Yet, with no loss of respect for the natural phenomena he observes, Cass seeks some codification, and in this series each depiction is given its number: the percentage of the overall picture occupied by water, so the horizon rises by progression in a series. In the ‘final’ work – a square of wild, open ocean – there is no horizon, only water. The flood is upon us and the artist has chosen the rich vehicle of oil paint worked with fingers and spatula, smeared and splattered to describe the tempest. So, the rising is not an arid, scientific process: each work is complete and replete within its own terms, and beautiful, the paint often a response also to the supporting material on which it has been painted or the scale which the artist has chosen to use. There is no uniformity – anathema to nature observed – instead each work is unique, true to the moment of its conception…

Galley trays  repurposed as the artist’s painting supports.

Galley trays repurposed as the artist’s painting supports.

As in his previous exhibitions Cass is not constrained to use only conventional materials. In the past he has painted upon table-tops, doors, printmaking trays, drawer bases and enjoyed the history of material, adapted or ‘rescued’ and recycled to become the base for a new work of art, a powerful trope of modernism from Dada to Pop. In Rising Horizon, Cass has used metal surfaces: steel signage, galley trays and even a copper boiler. In preparing to paint he has had to conduct research into his new materials (although copper is a well-established painters’ choice from the early Renaissance) to make sure his paint will adhere, and the support will not corrode further. Elsewhere he has commissioned his own recycled boards: made from waste packaging, plastic bottles, carrier bags, even yoghurt pots (with metal-foil lids incorporated, providing flecks of darker tone and texture). The lattice of wave motion which Cass has made his leitmotif is applied then scoured and wiped, so the marks seem to emerge to the surface rather than sit upon it. 

Cass considers every aspect of the production of an exhibition from presentation, catalogue, signage and installation: making each exhibition an artwork in its own right, a conceptual whole allying him closely to the continuing, contemporary zeitgeist. In this he sees no conflict, comfortable considering himself as a painter, continuing to embrace a traditional medium as servant to contemporary ideas. The complementarity of the concept and his love of oil and watercolour paint chimes with the marriage of opposites within his subject: natural and man-made, sea-rise and drought, metal and wood, rise and fall.

The above text (slightly abridged) is used with kind permission and remains the property of the author (© The Scottish Gallery, all rights reserved).

David Cass | Artist Talk – 9th February 11am - 12noon

David Cass will be joined by Professor Dave Reay from The University of Edinburgh, to discuss the environmental issues portrayed through the seascapes. This is a free but ticketed event, please click here to reserve your place.

16 Dundas Street

30 January 2019 - 23 February 2019