Black Isle Abstract

As part of my brief look back at the visual art highlights from northern Scotland during 2018, the following is a copy of my review of Black Isle Abstract at Thurso Art Gallery from 2 July 2018.

Black Isle Abstract is a collective of three artists who live and work on The Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands. What binds them together is their devotion to abstraction. But how do I know this? For their exhibition at Thurso Art Gallery, they have produced a modest but perfectly formed eighteen-page booklet that explains their motivation and points of connection, that's how. One can learn a lot from booklets such as the one referred to, but it is obviously no substitute for seeing 'the work', and as the artists well know, I'm sure, in reproduction the subtle nuances of their work gets somewhat lost.

This is not a negative criticism, however; far from it! Let's see it more as a warning to anyone who, on the basis of reproductions of the work of Black Isle Abstract gives the show a miss, because in my personal opinion there is much to this exhibition that merits a visit, and if turnout is low it it will be great shame. I mention this because, standing in the middle of the gallery with one of the three artists, Alex Dunn, he tells me that it is generally accepted that the footfall for exhibitions of abstraction in the Northern Highlands of Scotland is frequently lower than that for figurative, or more 'showy' work.


Showy isn't the word Dunn uses (it's mine), and I use it here largely because one of the most recent exhibitions that I saw at Thurso Art Gallery was the Crafts Council sponsored touring exhibition of tapestries by Grayson Perry (which I am saving to write about for another time). I am writing about Black Isle Abstract now because there is a greater strength to their work than I have seen in Thurso for quite a while, and there have certainly been some strong shows that the gallery has been host to. Dunn is, of course, just one-third of the trio, the others being Scottish-born Ian Barr and the Slovenian artist Beti Bricelj, the latter currently still in Slovenia when I met with Dunn, although she divides her time between Scotland and her home country.


With the walls hung with paintings and graphic work by Dunn, Barr and Bricelj, either end of the gallery are situated two large plinths that support arrangements of sculptures by Barr, and the impact received on entering is of an exhibition that does not try to say too much – it is not overhung, in the sense of being cluttered or crowded, and neither is it spaciously arranged to the point of becoming a minimalist statement. The balance here is just right for a space that, despite its rectilinear dimensions is incredibly versatile, and what quickly becomes clear is that here is assembled the output of an industrious trio of artists with very different concerns when it comes to their own individual input.


Bricelj's Flat Cubes (above), painted in acrylic on board, are a clear pulling point on arrival. Exquisitely arranged with both poise and elegance, the white space of the gallery wall is integral to their success. They seem at once to float, effortlessly, and yet there is a stillness about them that soothes the mind. Don't be lulled into a sense of false security, however, or approach them with complacency. Stop for a moment and absorb their first impact from the centre of the space before moving in for a closer look, and very quickly they become something quite other; slightly disorienting, shifting their form in subtle ways, as is Bricelj's way with optical illusions that work on the eye.

At close quarters they continue to do this too, which is a fair benchmark for judging the success or failure of the illusory devices that she deploys. The depth of the board on which these 'cubes' are painted seems to shift, too, as they are viewed at close quarter, and they take on yet another dimension, at once sculptural but then again, not. Don't mistake this work for mere trickery, however. This is hard-edged abstraction at its best in my opinion, and while it is no mere intellectual exercise on the artist's part, these are serious works that deserve some time spent with them.


Ian Barr's work could not be more different in its concerns when compared to Bricelj's. His framed assemblages are very strong indeed, and though not pictorial there is a narrative revealed in Barr's work, for which process is clearly an all-important factor. One in particular – Blue Fragment – that I want to single out for discussion here is pictured below (and seen in the installation photograph above, second from the right). Measuring just 30cms square, although appearing somewhat larger when mounted in its frame, the process of his method that I refer to is revealed in the apparent economy and understatement of the way he applies the paint. Nothing is overdone in Barr's Blue Fragment. The central form topped with a vibrant blue reveals more of the board onto which it is painted that the rest of the picture, reminding us that somewhere below there lies that starting point for the work, divided horizontally in an approximate two-to-one division by what it is easy to take for a horizon line. 


Whether this sense of a horizon is intended or not is largely irrelevant, I think, because what interests me most about Blue Fragment is the manner in which the paint is applied, pared back, reapplied maybe, scraped, rubbed, scratched at, and then reapplied. Here is a painting where the artist, if I understand his concerns correctly (and of course I may not) appears to be searching for that point when all that he applies to the small board on which he is working, begins to come together as a cohesive 'image'. It certainly does not appear laboured, or overworked. It does not seem haphazardly thrown together or simplistic either. There is a lot going on to catch the eye within the limited dimensions of the board that he allows himself here and, while gestural, there is no point at which the gestural qualities dominate – there's simply a perfect balance between painterly process and the finished 'object'. 


Extraneous to Barr's work itself, there are factors that I find distracting, but they are a matter of taste that have nothing to do with the work on display, that is definitely first rate. As a colourist, Barr has an excellent eye in terms of chroma and the purity or saturation of the colours that he juxtaposes, with more muted bands running vertically or horizontally. My issue with regard to any distraction from this relates mainly to the width and dominance of the distressed silver frames on just a few of the works he is exhbiting. As said, the work itself is hard-won, clearly (Blue Fragment hints at just how hard-won it can be) but the eye can wander from the edge of the picture to the light texture of the frame that, while sympathetic, is probably not required. 

That said, I am well aware that this is a selling show, and the artist must indeed present 'the package' as a whole, such is the uncertain commercial tightrope that most artists walk from the studio to a gallery space such as this. Works that will hang well on the walls of one's home require presenting in a way that they would not in other contexts, but make no mistake here –  my personal taste should not dissuade close attention to the paintings themselves, which I have to add (from a commercial perspective) are reasonably priced; indeed surprisingly so.

Another aspect to showing in this space and the way the work is presented relates to the light; and nowhere does this distract than when the late evening sun enters through the south-westerly end of the gallery (we are talking about a gallery in the far north here, remember, where on a good day there are over 18 hours of sunlight). Impressive are the electronic blinds that can be operated by remote control, but when open, the sun can be hard on Bricelj's beautiful works in acrylic on paper.

Sympathetically lit, they are compositions that have become her tour de force over recent years, but when lit by the sun that casts a shadow across them, slight wrinkles that would otherwise be hard to discern start to show up, and the sunlight can reveal the buckling of the paper and exaggerate it unnecessarily. If an artist works with precision, as Bricelj clearly does, this is an unfortunate outcome, and I'd strongly encourage the gallery assistants on duty when the sun starts to catch the work to be mindful of giving Bricelj's paintings in acrylic on paper the opportunity to be seen at their very best. They are clearly worth a quick flick of the switch to bring down the blinds. 


These issues that, I reemphasise, are entirely extraneous to the strength of the work itself are a minor quibble, but one that is worth stating when showing hard-edged abstraction. It's a delicate balance between getting it right and wrong, however. Alex Dunn's pictures do benefit from the light being variable because unlike Bricelj, Dunn works in a media that profits from a changing light. Though appearing two-dimensional in reproduction, his work with card are more two-dimensional assemblageswhen seen up close. One might refer to his method as similar to appliqué. In work with textiles, appliqué would refer to the ornamental application of pieces of fabric sewn or stuck on to a larger piece to form a pattern, but Dunn labours with precision to apply small tiles of various card shapes to achieve his overall objective. A good example here in the installation photograph below is the work appearing second from the right, which is titled Blue Calvary (the media for which is stated as 'graphite and crayon on card, on card).


A better image of this work appears on his website (see below), and in that one gets the full sense of what we are looking at. Tiles of card, spaced generously like mosaic tiles of various shapes are applied to the base sheet having been heavily worked with dense graphite and crayon rubbings to achieve a quite specific texture and luminance. Graphite is a medium that really can shine in unexpected ways, and the interplay with coloured crayon here (a medium that has far less luminence and appears far denser) makes for an interesting an rewarding juxtaposition. One of the most intriguing pictures that is constructed in this way is that which is titled Closure (seen above, far left). In Closure Dunn has densely packed almost the entire surface of the picture with his graphite tiles, which are intersected by a bold red line, not dissimilar to Barnett Newman's 'zip' device – a single painted line, in Newman's case, that run's vertically down the surface of the painting. I could describe other works by Dunn here, but words are no substitute for seeing the work in the flesh, so to speak. 


Neither do I want to say much about Barr's sculptural contributions, not because they do not merit a mention – on the contrary – but because what they really warrant is being seen in the context of his work on the walls, and most of all in the three-dimensional space of the gallery! Suffice to say that Barr's sculptures that are on display have all the gravitas of his best work in the show (of which there are many). All are relatively small in stature, but each carries its weight and presence well. A couple of them I couldn't help but note the influence of that generation of sculptors that included Lynn Chadwick, although the scale of Chadwick's work and his figurative references are near-absent in Barr's own (nonetheless Chadwick's Watcher XI1961, might be a relevant reference point for understanding the presence I refer to).

In all this is a strong and energetic show, and a worthy contribution to the 2018 programme of exhibitions that Thurso Art Gallery has assembled for the year. If it is left off the itinerary for regular visitors to the gallery it is to their detriment and not the artists', for Black Isle abstract, a trio who have come together with a shared but equally divergent approach to abstraction, are clearly three artists who merit consideration against the very best of the figurative work the gallery has shown to date. 

FURTHER READING: See the group's website and individual artist websites listed below:

Black Isle Abstract
Alex Dunn
Ian Barr
Beti Bricelj