Across Land and Sea

Just seven months after Circus Artspace in Inverness was announced as a viable venue for contemporary art in the Scottish Highlands, an upcoming exhibition is about to signal that this new contemporary art initiative may already be coming of age. If you are among those who claim to support contemporary art in the Highlands and Islands, your time is now.

Shaun Fraser ,  Moine , Glass, Peat, 2017. (Image courtesy the artist / Circus Artspace)

Shaun Fraser, Moine, Glass, Peat, 2017. (Image courtesy the artist / Circus Artspace)

When Scotland’s Press & Journal newspaper announced in March 2019 that a group of professional artists based in Inverness had embarked on a one-month crowdfunding campaign to create a new artist-run gallery in the city centre, it is probably true to say that nobody outside the immediate Inverness arts community knew precisely what to expect. As Alistair Munro reported for the Press & Journal, if the crowdfunding campaign was a success, Circus Artspace would “offer a rolling programme of free regular exhibitions, events and discussions on different aspects of artists’ work,” it’s aims also being to organise “social meet-ups and artists’ film and performance nights,” as well as “to support recent graduates through a series of internships offering mentoring.”

With a spokesperson for Circus telling the paper at the time that there was “no dedicated space for contemporary work in the city,” the manner in which contemporary art in the Highlands has been so undervalued was clearly underscored, but opinion was divided on just how successful the initiative would be. Seven months on and it seems that Circus is finally realising the ambitions of those behind it with an ambitious exhibition that unleashes the work of three thoroughly grounded artists upon the public, with each artist able to boast a sound track record and fine reputation. From Friday 11 October 2019 the work of Shaun Fraser, Patricia Shone and Vivian Ross-Smith will be on show in the form of an aptly titled exhibition, ‘Across Land and Sea’.

There has already been work shown at Circus, of course. In July, Circus Artspace’s inaugural show launched within Inverness Creative Academy – the former Midmills Campus – with ‘Parade’; an exhibition that featured the work of of nine artists from the Highlands, Moray, Orkney, Aberdeenshire, Glasgow and London, and included both established artists and recent graduates. With ‘Across Land and Sea’, however, there is now a sense that the venue has begun to find its identity with a far more focussed show that has a clear message to convey. ‘Across Land and Sea’ showcases what are described as “three emergent artists whose practices have been gathering profile over recent years,” and all hail from the Northern reaches of Scotland in some specific regard.

The exhibition represents the coming together of three artists, spanning the Highlands and Islands, who clearly share a common interest in elemental material and process, and in this there is great mileage for the show’s audience to reflect upon what it actually means to be making art in the Highlands today. Through their work, each artist clearly draws from the northern landscape and in doing so references their own notion of community and placement. This is what is needed now more than ever. In these uncertain times there is not just a clear division in terms of the outlook of those living in what is currently the wider-UK, but also a clear division in Scotland, also – that is, between the strangle-hold that the Central Belt exercises in terms of the presentation of contemporary art, and work being made in the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

Vivian Ross Smith ,  Haddock skins , 2017, Bronze with natural patina from Atlantic Ocean (Series of 7). (Image courtesy the artist / Circus Artspace)

Vivian Ross Smith, Haddock skins, 2017, Bronze with natural patina from Atlantic Ocean (Series of 7). (Image courtesy the artist / Circus Artspace)

While the Northern and Western Isles have benefitted greatly from the development of a sound visual arts infrastructure that has been hard-won over decades, Inverness as a centre for art is finally being seen to flex its muscles, therefore, and the artists selected for ‘Across Land and Sea’ are very definitely drawn from The North.

Shaun Fraser is a sculptor and visual artist based between Scotland, London and Amsterdam. Growing up in the Highlands of Scotland, landscape has always featured heavily as a part of his notion of self, and as the pre-opening publicity materials state, “his work often comments upon links to landscape and connections with a wider sense of situ and environment. By incorporating soil and natural inclusions into his sculptural works he taps into some of this disposition” – the ability to evoke a sense of place in particular.

Vivian Ross-Smith meanwhile draws upon her life as an islander, using adapted island imagery to communicate craft, skill, isolation, commitment to place and community. Growing up on Britain’s most remote inhabited island, Fair Isle, Ross-Smith has spent the majority of her life as a part of extreme landscapes and fragile communities. Combining elements of painting, textiles and sculpture, she embeds the traditions of island life into her work. Craft-making skills such as knitting, preserving skins, net making and metal work are all utilised in her work to question what it means to be an islander, and Ross-Smith’s contribution to the exhibition is described as “an entry point into discussing the depth of understanding communities have toward their place.”

The third artist, Patricia Shone, is a ceramicist who will be know to many. Whether she can truly be recognised as an “emergent” artist (as the publicity materials state) is up for debate, but however you label her contribution as an artist, the fact is that she is based in the Sleat area of Skye, having been born in Scotland. Although Shone spent her early years being brought up in South Devon, it is to Scotland that she returned, eventually settling in the north-west Highlands.

Patricia Shone ,  Erosion Jar 34 , (Image courtesy the artist / Circus Artspace)

Patricia Shone, Erosion Jar 34, (Image courtesy the artist / Circus Artspace)

As Shone says of her work, “it is informed by the powerful landscape around me on the Isle of Skye, developed in response to the feeling of connection with its inhabitants and their passage across the land. By walking the paths of predecessors I contribute to the formation of the paths at the same time as obliterating previous footsteps; as an incomer to this community I absorb and am changed by its culture whilst altering it by my presence here.” For Shone, therefore, “the nuances of contradiction in the human experience of life are very visible” where she has now settled and established herself and her practice, “but the community survives,” she says, “just as the surfaces of the land are eroded but the substance of it remains constant and immutable.”

The proven track record of each of these three artists is beyond question – that much we can be sure of. Shaun Fraser, for example, is a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art and previously studied at Edinburgh College of Art. His recent exhibitions include showcases at No20 Arts London, Galeria Carles Taché in Barcelona, Groundwork Gallery, Christie’s Auction House, London, and ‘Collect 2019’ at Saatchi Gallery, London.

Ross-Smith is a previous graduate of Grays School of Art in Aberdeen, and is currently studying an MA at Glasgow School of Art, although she made herself known early in her career with her collaborations with Newfoundland artist Jane Walker and their project islandness (which Art North reported upon in our own debut Spring 2019 issue) recent showcases for Ross-Smith have included a solo show ‘Half oot afore i’ da left’ at An Tobar on the Isle of Mull, as well as group exhibitions at North Atlantic Lighthouse at Hanstholm in Denmark, the RSA Open in Edinburgh, and The Garment Factory in Glasgow.

Finally, Shone’s recent exhibitions have included ‘Collect 2019’ at Saatchi Gallery, London, The Scottish Gallery, too, and ‘Homo Faber’ a group showcase at the Michaelangelo Foundation in Venice. She has additionally had work recently acquired by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for their permanent ceramic collections.

With the exhibition ‘Across Land and Sea’ opening on Thursday 10th October (6pm-9pm), and the exhibition then running from 11th to 20th October (far too short in my opinion but there may be reasons that I’m unaware of in terms of the scheduling), the sense that many I have spoken to have is that, despite some initial reservations about whether Circus would be able to achieve its main aims and objectives, here is a keynote exhibition that illustrates well what those aims and objectives are (certainly as they were stated at the crowdfunding stage).

The political landscape for the arts generally, and support for contemporary visual art in particular, has never been quite so uncertain as it is at this time, and so ahead of the Preview – which Art North will be attending this week – I enthusiastically embrace what both Circus Artspace and the artists in this exhibition are seeking to achieve.

The real test for Circus will come with the development of an ongoing programme of artists of this calibre, and also one that is fully representative of the Northern Highlands, too. Whether that can be achieved and maintained over the coming years is not just down to the organisational apparatus of Circus Artspace, but also the willingness of us all to support the initiative, and for the institutions of contemporary art education throughout the whole region to support Circus Artspace, too. Too often have young initiatives such as this been squandered at a time that they are needed most.

From the furthest Northern and Western Isles to the hidden enclaves of artistic activity that are situated in small communities across the very northern stretches of the mainland in both Caithness and in Sutherland, if the gravity is to shift northwards in terms of the celebration of contemporary art in the north of Scotland, the time is now to stand up, be counted, attend this exhibition, and show that this matters, not just to you, but for future generations of artists and arts graduates as well.

Across Land and Sea
Shaun Fraser | Vivian Ross-Smith | Patricia Shone

Circus Artspace
11 – 20 October 2019
Preview Night: Thursday 10th, 6pm-9pm

Circus Artspace,
Inverness Creative Academy,
Midmills Building,
Stephen's St,