In Conversation with Ian McKay
IAN McKAY: As visitors to our website will know, we’ve been following the progress of your exhibition Rising Horizon at the Scottish Gallery, David. Sadly, the opening of your exhibition coincided with the lead up to the launch of Art North magazine, and so us coming together to assess the show now represents a kind catch-up after a lengthy interlude. As Rising Horizon comes to an end, I am intrigued about what I might have missed, and also I wondered whether you are already beginning to take stock of the project, or whether it was possible to stand back from it yet… maybe assessing it from both a personal and professional point of view.
DAVID CASS: To stand back and look over one’s own project is not an easy thing to do. I don’t see Rising Horizon as an end-point, but I can see it as a contained slice of the whole. For one, the show is contained through its materials. It’s a show created from mostly, though not limited to, metal found objects, a consideration which marks its individuality when set against my practice that might be characterised by the obsessive re-purposing of antique wooden substrates. Secondly, Rising Horizon is perhaps the most far-reaching, and by this I mean non-site-specific exhibition that I’ve ever created. The topic of the series is sea rise, which is a global issue, not exclusive to any single coastline. True, we see certain locations already impacted by rising sea levels, but overall, the rise affects the World Ocean.
You’ve shown before at The Scottish Gallery, but Rising Horizon represents quite a different perspective to previous outings both at the Scottish and elsewhere, and, correct me if I’m wrong, there seems to be a clear narrative unfolding over time that merits some comment maybe, to place Rising Horizon in its wider context. There is a clear ‘message’ that appears to underpin what you are showing, now, but do you see that as a development of past work or perhaps a continuation of prior interests?
Well, Rising Horizon followed Pełàda, an exhibition that took Venice as an example of localised inundation as a result of environmental, anthropogenic change. The Venice series examined the façades of Venetian buildings as we see them today… tide-marked brick… plaster façades… still exquisite, but eroding, stapled together, plastered with advertisements, and often etched with scrawled admonishments of cruise ships and tourist numbers. The series used the face as a vehicle to convey change, while Rising Horizon zooms out to illustrate, quite simply, a rising horizon line.
I saw that you posted a time lapse of the hanging of the show on social media, and it all looked very controlled and very well thought out, but hanging the show must have been quite stressful. It is for most exhibitions, but the hang broke some common rules, didn’t it? There were clusters of work. Works hung at high level, many different ways of presenting what, overall was a coherent body of work. How did that go?
We hung the exhibition along a traditional level. A horizon for the gallery. The curation of the show chose not to follow a linear path, though. Paintings such as ‘Horizon 10%’ did not precede ‘Horizon 20%’. ‘Horizon 44%’ did not sit next to ‘Horizon 45%’. This idea was explored but we quickly discounted it, not because sea-rise trends themselves do not follow a linear path… ice melt is not a steady stream, run-off happens in waves, for example… but because Rising Horizon is a painting exhibition, too, and in my practice visual dynamics are key. Rather than moving through the exhibition fluidly, the eye jumps from one horizon to the next: some positioned over head-height, some below.
This curatorial decision positions the viewer within the exhibition… in the water… this is key… the scale of works too, as you suggested in something you wrote prior to the exhibition opening, keeps coming back to me, because what you wrote is true of most pieces. You referred to artists who express their environmentalist concerns and perhaps force their argument in bold gestures, while Rising Horizon offers us an antidote to that. I think you were right in seeing that the work does ask its audience to come in close, quietly, personally. That’s an aspect that is definitely important to me… its intimacy… the attempt to reach each member of its audience as an individual.
This notion of subtle expression is really important for me. Individually, no matter the scale, no matter the turbulence of the sea surface depicted, these are subtle, minimal paintings. They do not aim to shout. But when taken together, the obsession that lies beneath my practice is, to me at least, evident. Whether a positive factor or not, obsessiveness characterises my practice… from the gathering of the various substrates, which currently includes not only metals, but waste plastics and recycled canvases too, to the process of painting. Surfaces are worked and re-worked, paint is applied, removed, re-applied, and this repetitive approach mirrors the functional past-lives of the surfaces themselves.
You refer to the surfaces, but for those unfamiliar with the current body of work, or who might not be fully aware of the sheer range of supports that you have used here, how would you sum those up?
Motorway signs, tins, advertisement plaques …items that aren’t fragile… they were built to stand up to time… and the elements. Then there are the recycled plastics used in four seascapes, which are everyday items, yogurt pots, food packaging, etc., reformed into incredibly durable surfaces. The plastic panels can be treated as wood and sanded, drilled…
…and one in particular that attracted a lot of attention, although it would perhaps be wrong to extract it from the wider body of work as a whole, was a copper boiler on which you had painted… so the sculptural element, or perhaps the two-dimensional writ large on such an unlikely support made quite an impact. Is it possible, yet, for you to get a sense of what all these different dimensions became, as a singular presentation in the form of an exhibition?
It’s tricky for me to objectively analyse the outcome of the show. I can tell you that I am pleased, but I can’t elaborate much more than that. I’m not sure about that yet. Overall, I feel mostly confident in stating that the exhibition has achieved what it set out to. Public engagement has been high, and feedback from those who have visited is that, being in the gallery is an immersive experience, not only because of the sheer volume of paintings… there’s around one hundred and fifty in all… but because of the curation too… and the blue painted gallery wall at the back which seems to move with you as you span the gallery space.
I notice that the exhibition attracted quite a bit of press interest, and it was The Herald’s ‘critics choice’ exhibition. As some of the write-ups stated: “…on plastic food packaging, advertisement signs, pill tins, hook-on racing car numbers, old paint tins, he paints his seascapes, things of beauty in themselves, celebratory, but also more subtly exploring the terrifying fallout of the Anthropocene…” And then: “there is something of the miniaturist in Cass’s work, a focusing in on the detail, no matter what the scale – and that scale ranges from the very small to the very large.” There was also some focus on the fact that you find objects in flea markets, salvage yards, antique fairs, and the show was also summed up as, “a new departure for an artist who has made much of his previous work of, on and from found wood.”
Obviously recycling or repurposing is an aspect that is central to the exhibition, but there are so many dimensions to address, aren’t there? Not just about process, but theoretically, too. As one article notes, the exhibition is not just about the surface upon which you paint, but your reuse of the objects themselves. Do you get a sense that visitors to the show understood the sheer multiplicity of interests and dimensions that Rising Horizon encompasses?
On a personal level? It’s one thing to research the facts of sea-rise, and more broadly, environmental change, but it’s quite another to present that research to the public. Almost every gallery visitor I have spoken with has engaged with the topic, and as the days have passed, I’ve become increasingly passionate about… well… understanding the facts behind something you care about is one thing but passing the message on in a coherent way is quite another.
The power that art has to convey such messages is surprising. Entry points have been key, and certainly the most discussed piece in the show has been the painted copper boiler that you mentioned, ‘Horizon 42%’. That piece directly references the warming of sea water. The percentage, too, is the proportion which thermal expansion contributes to overall sea rise. It’s also Scotland’s target, for a 42% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, and an 80% reduction by 2050. Perhaps it is apt that the boiler itself came from a Scottish home… a tenement flat boiler from Edinburgh.
I’ve been asked several times now whether this exhibition makes me an environmental activist, a notion I hadn’t before considered. And my answer is no: I’m an environmentally aware artist, just as we all should be environmentally aware citizens, at whichever level is most achievable for us. Every step counts. In fact, I’ve just launched a petition on Change.org, seeking signatures to assess interest as to whether there is public appetite for more regular Environment News updates.
Perhaps that’s a good point to end on, then. It’s certainly a stunning exhibition, beautifully and thoughtfully hung, but there is a further dimension here that is also apt in terms of public engagement. Given that I’m going to publish this online, how do you feel about ending with a link to that petition?
I’d appreciate that. Thank you.
Rising Horizon was at The Scottish Gallery, 30 January - 23 February 2019. The exhibition publication and press announcements can be accessed via:
https://scottish-gallery.co.uk/rising-horizon. Further information from David’s website: http://davidcass.art
David Cass’s next exhibition will be at An Talla Solais Gallery, Ullapool, with a feature article appearing in our print magazine to coincide with the show:
AS COASTLINE IS TO OCEAN: David Cass, Joseph Calleja and Robert Callender
20 July - 8 September
An Talla Solais Gallery,
West Argyle Street