David Cass

Ten Points

Contrary to popular belief, melting icebergs and sea ice have no effect on sea levels. Like floating ice in a glass, they are approximately 10% above the surface, due to the peculiar fact that ice has lower density than water.

The primary cause of change in global sea levels relates to the amount of ice on land – primarily our vast ice sheets and glaciers – 98% of which are on Antarctica and Greenland. These huge ice sheets are several miles high and would raise global sea levels some 65m if they were all to melt. Fortunately, this would take many centuries.

Over the last century, global sea levels have increased by approximately 20cm. In recent years, the rate of rise has rapidly increased. Most scientists believe that acceleration in the rate will increase in a non-linear manner: this relates to the way ice sheets and glaciers go through phases of collapse which cannot be precisely predicted.

A secondary factor of global sea rise is that seawater expands as it warms. In the last century thermal expansion of seawater has contributed around 8cm to ocean height.

In addition to global sea level variations, there are local factors that influence change. One such factor is that land in different places moves either up or down: caused by tectonic shifts, the compaction of silts and organic matter, or pumping water or petroleum from the ground. Such local variations warrant evaluation both to better predict future sea levels and to design adaptations.

David Cass ,  Horizon 49% , oil on re-formed waste plastics: food containers, 112.5cm x 104.5cm (detail)

David Cass, Horizon 49%, oil on re-formed waste plastics: food containers, 112.5cm x 104.5cm (detail)

Throughout Earth’s history sea levels have changed more than 100m vertically as the amount of ice on land has altered. The last low water mark was approximately 22,000 years ago, when sea levels were around 120m below present. The last high water mark was approximately 120,000 years ago, when sea levels were roughly 7m above present. These fluctuations were part of a natural repeating process that is commonly called the ice ages, a phenomenon that has been occurring naturally approximately every 100,000 years, for almost 4 million years.

We have now broken out of the natural ice age cycles of the last few million years and are in a period of abnormal warming. This correlates almost precisely with elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which acts like a sheet of glass in a greenhouse: transmitting radiant sunlight but blocking the escape of warm air.

Today, the oceans are measured to be approximately 1°C warmer than they were a century ago. While the atmosphere is also getting warmer, more than 90% of the excess heat is stored in the oceans. Warmer oceans mean that the ice on land will melt until it reaches a new equilibrium.

From geologic history it is quite clear that even 1°C of higher global temperature corresponds with metresof higher sea level. We are in the early stage of a transition that will continue throughout this century and beyond. Higher sea levels will gradually reshape coastlines all over the world. Even a few centimeters of change are already affecting the short-term flooding brought by storms, heavy rains, and extreme tides. Sea level is the baseline that raises all those temporary events.

Recognising this new reality, we need to do two things simultaneously: pursue all means to reduce the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels as the primary factor that we can control. If done sufficiently at a global level, this can eventually slow the warming. Having already passed a tipping point, we need to start adapting to a new era with a rising sea. We have decades to adjust building codes, engineering, communities and infrastructure, but we have no time to waste.

John Englander
The above text is used with kind permission and remains the property of John Englander.
© The author, all rights reserved.

David Cass – Rising Horizon

A catalogue to accompany David Cass's exhibition, Rising Horizon, is available from The Scottish Gallery here. The catalogue features contributions by Professor David Reay of Edinburgh University and the oceanographer John Englander.


16 Dundas Street

30 January 2019 - 23 February 2019

Like a Whisper in Your Ear…

There are some of us, of a certain age, who remember the impact that the quarterly magazine Modern Painters had on the visual arts in Britain. Founded by the late art critic Peter Fuller in the mid-1980s, Modern Painters did much to bring a certain kind of art to the attention of a wide public, and some of the work Fuller did in this respect was commendable, for sure. Personally I owe much to Peter Fuller for him giving me my first real break in writing on the visual arts in the second issue of his magazine that had quickly captured the imagination of many who felt marginalised by the internationalist trend at that time. Though Fuller was to tragically die in a road accident on the M4 motorway in 1990, his influence was still felt for a while following his death, though it waned. Some were glad of that, and others not, for he was certainly very good at dividing opinion.

Fuller divided opinion in a way that was often fascinating, and at time infuriating, though. In 1988 he was quick to warn against the ignorance or xenophobia yet argued passionately for an “informed provincialism in art, which looks for immediate meaning in local forms, and finds its larger sense through affiliation to a national tradition” (Seeing Through Berger, 1988). I remember writing around that time, that Peter Fuller’s ‘take’ on art was similar to that of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. As far back as 1942, Vaughan Williams had warned (long before the European Union was conceived, and long before it faced the current threat of disintegration), that when “the United States of Europe becomes a fact, each nation must have something to bring to the common stock of good.” Opposed to a Europe populated by “good Europeans, sharing a universal language in the arts”, Vaughan Williams had asserted, “what we have to offer must derive essentially from our own life. It must not be a bad imitation of what other nations do better” (National Music and Other Essays, 1963).

For some, Peter Fuller, represented a similar position with regard fine art in the 1980s. The composer David Mathews has said of Vaughan Williams that his “understanding of […] musical tradition and his love of his native landscape came together at a particular moment during the Second World War when everything he most cherished was under threat of destruction” (in: Towards a New Landscape, 1993). Fuller, meanwhile, became most vocal about a traditional aesthetic in the visual arts during a period remarkable for the emergence of a brash materialism that was a signature of life in the financial sector prior to the economic crisis of 1987. In such a pre-crash climate, Fuller perceived a different kind of destructive influence: “the Young Turks with their Saatchi-style values and trans­atlantic air­ tickets” were, as he put it, “taking over the Parthenon,” (Interview with Matthew Collings: 'Onward Christian Soldiers', Artscribe No.52). They were, eroding traditional values to such an extent that our culture was becoming “so warped it could sustain no widely shared artistic language, nor give rise to a style that was any more deep-rooted than a passing fashion” (in Images of God, 1990)

The Problem for many was that Fuller was a Tub-Thumping Little Englander, propagandising in method and (in the latter part of his life) deliberately divisive in his tactics. It is important to clarify that Fuller, like Vaughan Williams, was pleading a case for an informed provincialism which avoided at all costs what was once the art historian Kenneth Clark's worst fear: as Clark had argued, provincial artists are often “complacent” and “out of mere ignorance […] refuse to look beyond the circle of their fellow mediocrities” (Moments of Vision, 1981). Vaughan Williams believed that he avoided such traits in seeking a political internationalism and a personal individualism, but the jury may still be out on Fuller’s agenda, for following his death his contribution was rather quickly erased, and the magazine he had founded soon withered and morphed into something quite other (ironically, yet another organ of a brash materialism in the art world). To the surprise of many, his legacy did prove quite short lived, therefore.

Fuller – always so fond of absolutes – also got it wrong quite often. At his home in Stowlangtoft shortly before his death, I once asked him about a Turner Society lecture he had delivered at London’s ICA, at which he had announced to the assembled audience that the Tate Gallery was, “attempting to impose the taste of an arid and bankrupt aesthetic” in the guise of the Turner Prize. Perhaps there was something in that but Fuller, for those who remember his thoughts on the art of those times, will no doubt recall his belief that any support for the Turner Prize revealed a paucity of critical perspicacity, and artists he had once championed he later shunned when they became Turner Prize nominees (a notable case being the painter Thérèse Oulton). He was, in short, ferociously opposed to what he perennially referred to as BICCA (an acronym he had invented that referred to what he thought of as Biennale International Club Class Art) but those he shunned did not always deserve to be thrown into the camp he had devised for them.

Many of us back then could be forgiven for losing count of just how many times Fuller was heard to argue that we should not confuse the bombastic bigness of German painting (a favourite bête noire in his propagandising mission) with the greatness of smaller pictures emanating from what he thought of as a ‘British Tradition’. As Fuller argued with regard to those who took their lead from the wider European scene back then, they were sliding down a slope towards cultural pluralism, the corollary of which would be a homogenous European art that is corrupt and bland. Of course he was wrong, but not because his critics and adversaries were necessarily right. Fuller was very much of his time, as I have noted. He was obsessed with the international art market and, although not without a sense of humour at times, always keen to polarise opinion on this if he could. His reputation rested on it to some degree, after all. He was good TV. He wrote compellingly, too, and could drum up an audience for sure, and yet ultimately his influence, with the benefit of hindsight now, was ultimately destructive.

Of Fuller’s tendency to argue his case via the discourse of propaganda, Julian Stallabrass has alluded to what he calls Fuller’s moral McCarthyism, in which the critic could often be seen to condemn those that stood in his way with accusations that they had no affection for either their nation, its people, its traditions, its customs, or its landscape – sometimes all of these things at once. Stallabrass has also (I think convincingly), shown that Fuller’s essays often followed a format that depended upon the techniques of propaganda to establish his own moral rectitude, and then wear his readers down by sheer repetitive output too. If you read Fuller through a Stallabrassian lens, this makes perfect sense. The fact is, however, that he was so much of his time, and his death came so early (he was in his early forties when he died) that in a tragic twist of fate, he was thus deprived of seeing art that he may have approved of, or may even have changed his sometimes Stalinist position on what did and did not represent good art.

That painters of the kind he ordinarily approved of could produce work that revealed a new form of post-conceptual painterly aesthetic, would have perhaps been unthinkable to him. Who can tell what he would have made of it? I don’t know. Looking at Fuller’s criticism today is rather like looking through a telescope from the wrong end. It has become diminished and so, so small, and yet at the time he was writing it seemed so huge. There is obviously a cruel irony to this. While Fuller championed artists such as John Bellany and Arthur Boyd for their imaginative transformation of materials into hard-won, high-calibre works deserving of wide attention, he missed out on a new generation of artists who today paint with great economy and equal conviction to elucidate their thoughts on pressing matters that were only just entering the public consciousness at the time Fuller died.

Take, for example, this single work by David Cass (below). Of what does it comprise? It is titled Arctic (2017) and is a painting in oil on a pill tin attached to a thread spool. It measures just 10cm by 4cm. And yet, look at it! Cass too seems to be asking us to look through the wrong end of a telescope here too, but what he depicts is not diminished. In some strange way it seems magnified.

David Cass, Arctic (2017) oil on stacked cylindrical pill tin and thread spool, H:10cm W:4cm

While so many artists who express their ‘environmentalist’ concerns do indeed force their argument in bold gestures that could easily be mistaken for confusing bigness with greatness, Cass instead seems to unassumingly (though no less importantly) offer us the antidote to that – by which I mean, he appears to present an urgent request to come in close, quietly, personally, and in our own time, to consider just what it is that he is addressing. Here is an art that is truly intimate. It asks big questions, yes, but it asks them of the individual, drawn in close by the diminutive size of the work.

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that this work titled Arctic (one of several from a series) asks each of us who encounters it; Look at me, attend to me, I am here for your personal attention. This work is is, above all, discrete. It certainly does not shout. It is not tub-thumping in its attempt to make a statement. With great economy on the part of its maker, it puts a question to us; one that demands our attention in a way that far bigger statements often fail to do (and maybe there is something in this that Fuller did get right). In a dozen or so deft marks in oil paint, we see the future – or at least an allusion to it – albeit in the wider context of Cass’s larger works, as well. While there are much larger works in Cass’s exhibition Rising Horizon, this single work titled Arctic is no less important for its size.

But where am I going with this? To return to Peter Fuller for a moment, what occupied much of his concern as a critic was not the art he liked, but the art he didn’t like. Certainly what raised his ire most was the frequent dismissal of painting as irrelevant for our age (or at least the age in which he was writing) and I understand why. Not long after Fuller’s death, I once found myself proposing an article for the pages of Art Monthly to that magazine’s editor, Patricia Bickers. The work in question, I put to her, owed much to a tradition that stretched back through the School of London to Sickert, but was thoroughly contemporary in its ‘post-conceptual’ execution (Oh! how critics so loved style labels back then). Without seeing the work or asking to, however, my proposal was dismissed with Bickers simply announcing, “I’m sorry Ian, but Art Monthly doesn’t really cover painting any more”! Such an editorial policy, to me at least, seemed ludicrous, and it still does, for it was just as Stalinist in outlook as Peter Fuller ever was.

More than that, though, today it seems all the more ludicrous because I don’t give a fig about the medium, it is the message I’m concerned with. Things have moved on. We are no longer living in a world in which the threat of a pluralist aesthetic can result in a bland homogenous art (or at least that no longer feels like a pressing concern that requires much of our attention). Give me film, video, painting, sculpture, land art, whatever it may be, and from wherever it arises – geographically and/or theoretically – and attribute to it whatever style label you like. Only give it to me straight and make sure that it addresses the most pressing issues of our day. While I am not averse to losing myself in art that offers me just that (the losing of self, a moment for escape, for we all need that) I also need to feel the sharp end of life as it is experienced today, too.

Most of all, though, I need to see it addressed to me personally, and asking me what am I going to do? How will I respond to this work? I want to see it asking every other person who approaches that same work, what are they going to do, too. How will they respond? I’m done with big gestures and propagandising art that is often just as divisive and overbearing as anything Fuller ever wrote. Art (and the culture industries generally – as I have previously written in this series of posts), can play an important part in forming opinion and galvanising an audience; equipping them for what was is to come and the part they may choose to play if the will is there. Cass may be a maker of works that deploy a variety of media, but his work has a message, also; although it would be foolish to reduce it to a one-dimensional argument concerning our rapidly changing climate and all that goes with that.

Nonetheless, in this one work by David Cass that I have selected, above, this time it seems it is personal. The debate has shifted. What were concerns for art criticism in the 1980s may still remain and for some sound reasons, but the times that we are now living through (particularly with regard the state of the planet and our failed stewardship of it) has become a pressing subject for our arts, and not least Cass himself. The argument is no longer about the threat of internationalism, or an “informed provincialism in art, which looks for immediate meaning in local forms, and finds its larger sense through affiliation to a national tradition.” Instead it has become for some of us about how we can reach out internationally and forge links around issues such as climate change, leaving behind us the partisan squabbling over the threats posed by pluralism and internationalist ‘trends’.

Perhaps I am wrongheaded in extracting Arctic from the series of which it is a part, but, to co-opt that maxim of late-1960s Feminism… The Personal is Political… and although I’m not sure if David Cass would agree with me, I can’t help but feel that in his dozen or so painted marks upon a single pill tin that is attached to a thread spool, we find an intimate form of didactic art for our times – a ‘thing’, that is, that shows rather than tells, drawing the viewer in and asking a few very simple, personal questions: You see this here? This minute glimpse of the horizon far to the north of you, as if you are looking through the wrong end of a telescope? How do you relate to that? Can you? Will you? This is for you, like a whisper in your ear, and it is beautiful – Don’t you think?

NOTE: The stack series, from which Arctic (2017) is taken, earned David Cass the 2018 RSA Benno Schotz prize (most promising work by a Scottish artist under 35). (All images used with kind permission, courtesy of the artist, © copyright David Cass)


16 Dundas Street

30 January 2019 - 23 February 2019

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 scottish-gallery.co.uk)


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

Forest Fire Aftermath

This week we are posting a series of ‘snapshots’ relating directly to work by David Cass in the run-up to his exhibition at The Scottish Gallery. Back in 2014, Cass was heading out for what he describes as “a research stay in an arid zone.” He’d gone straight from the moist climate and wet ground of the Scottish Borders to an alpine-desert and, as he relates it, “The heat and dry atmosphere hit me hard, but seeing this patch of bright red forest was almost surreal. Eventually, with a friend, Gonzaga Gómez-Cortázar, I managed to climb the mountainside and enter the aftermath zone, where we took photographs and shot film.” Cass and Gómez-Cortázar’s film, El Bosque Encarnado, went on to be exhibited during ArtCop21 in Paris; the Rome Media Art Festival, 2015, and at Istanbul’s Museum of Modern Art.

El bosque of the film’s title is the forest of the Sierra Maria-Los Vélez Natural Park, in Almería, Spain – “a place of sometimes-hazardous Aleppo Pines that cover the hillsides for miles around,” the artist states. “Planted by man, they’re thought to absorb what is for this environment the precious source of subterranean water.” As an artist sensitively in tune with nature (and particularly humankind’s impact upon it), the experience of the region did not just result in the above film for exhibition, nor an assembled collection of photographs as a record of that stay in the bizarrely-coloured landscape of Almería; it has now also resulted in the following short supplementary text that is included in the exhibition catalogue for Cass’s upcoming show. It is reproduced below with David’s kind permission, and further throws light on yet another aspect of the artist’s thinking.

Forest fire aftermath | Looking In / Looking Out

By David Cass

Forest fire aftermath photographs (framed c-type prints, edition of 2)

One starting point for this project was the aftermath of a forest fire. The burned patch of Almería hillside had new brush and scrub poking up between blackened rocks by the time my colleague (photographer Gonzaga Gómez-Cortázar) and I arrived. What drew us to that patch of hillside was its colour: a vivid blood-red. The water and retardant poured from the air to halt the blaze contained this artificial pigment. 

You realise, exploring the arid Almería landscape, that these patches of nightmarish forest are common. The region is bone-dry, and pine trees abundant: non-indigenous and originally planted by man for hunting. Their roots absorb the scant subterranean moisture that should be going to crops, invading terrace systems and ruining age-old watering channels. Precipitation here is at an all-time low and so most of these channels no longer function, though. 

Almería contains the closest thing to a full desert Europe has – it’s described officially as a semi-desert – and the rest of the region is becoming increasingly susceptible to the same fate. Explore the region and you’ll see hundreds of abandoned houses: from simple dwellings to grand farmhouses with acres of land, they’re each now left to the elements. There’s nothing here to keep families on the land: wells and reservoirs have gone dry and episodes of drought have become ever more frequent since the middle of last century, rendering the land unworkable, uninhabitable, unsellable.

We spoke to locals – elderly residents of rural villages – and were told of the wet springs of their childhoods, of snow in winter, of green (Pine free) hillsides. In half a century, life in this region has changed dramatically. Almería currently endures over 80% of the year without rain, or chance of rain (that’s in a non-drought year). 

But what has all this to do with the topic of Rising Horizon? The answer is, everything. Drought and inundation are both sides of the same coin and symptoms of climate change. A warmer world means faster evaporation and irregularities in the ability of our atmosphere to hold and transport moisture. This means dry areas of the world become even drier, while wet areas get wetter. When the rain does arrive, it is increasingly likely to be torrential, in the form of a storm, causing flash flooding and stripping soil and nutrients from the land.

(© David Cass, all rights reserved).


16 Dundas Street

30 January 2019 - 23 February 2019

Horizonte, horizontes, horizonten

Horizonte, horizontes, horizonten? In German, Spanish, and Dutch respectively, these are the plural forms of the English word ‘horizon’, and all have as their etymological root the Latin word horízōn (from the Greek noun ὁρίζων, itself related to ὅρος meaning boundary or border). The English word ‘horizon’ (singular) is furthermore spelt the same both in French and Dutch, while the Latin root has also given us Horizont (in German), orizzonte (in Italian), horizonte (Portuguese), orizont (Romanian), and gorizont / горизон (Russian). Additionally, in Finnish we have horisontti, in Latvian horizonts, in Norwegian horisont, and Polish horyzont. Among the Slavic languages the form is pretty much the same throughout the Balkans and travelling north into Mitteleuropa, also. Speak the word in English and in most European languages you will be understood fairly well, therefore.

Whether the word horizon is derived from Latin or not, in almost all languages it refers to ‘the limit’, ‘the line’, and to what is ‘over there’; at the furthest stretch of both our travels and our imagination. When Caspar David Friedrich painted his Monk by the Sea (1808-1810), or John Constable his Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (1827), those artists were not working with a mere topographical or meteorological subject matter, but – each in their own way – a hugely personal subject matter, too. Stand at that point where dry land meets the ocean, and the distant horizon becomes the limit case for our understanding of our smallness (or conversely, the bigness of the natural world, whether it be the dark horizon of Friedrich’s work or the menacing cloud wrack of Constable’s study).

Set sail in a vessel across the ocean, meanwhile, and though climatic conditions may well vary and change, what the horizon represents to us is a constant that remains much the same; at least until we reach landfall. Turn to see where you have just come from and there the horizon is again, though – that constant that has been there for millennia, stirring the imagination of humankind.

Caspar David Friedrich ,  The Monk by the Sea  (1808-1810) and right,  John Constable ,  Seascape Study with Rain Cloud  (1827).

Caspar David Friedrich, The Monk by the Sea (1808-1810) and right, John Constable, Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (1827).

If I may – a personal digression for a moment, and one that at first may seem somewhat trivial: In the late-1980s, as a young cub critic working in London where rarely one has a real chance to take in any natural horizon line that is not intersected with some aspect of the built environment, a regular place to meet in Soho if one didn’t have much money was a certain pizzeria where on the menu was something called Pizza Venezia (the ingredients of which I cannot recall now). What I do recall is the information appended beneath the ingredients listed on the menu, though, informing customers that if they ordered a Pizza Venezia, twenty pence (£0.20p) from the bill would be donated to a fund set up to ‘Save Venice’: a city that was, and remains, in perilous danger from the threat of the sea. It’s such a tiny thing to recall after all these years, but looking back, it offers a fair indication of just how far we have come. Venice was in peril! And of course it still is. But back then, Venice was over there! Venice was beyond the horizon of the mind for most diners, I’m sure. Saving it, one thought, might be achieved with a paltry contribution, or so some kidded themselves when eating a pizza, and so donating to ‘a fund’. Today there are bigger asks that befall us, and they don’t really involve dining.

You obviously know what I allude to here. Today we have quite a different idea of what faces us all and, in a sense, we no longer Stand with Venice (in the parlance of social media). Instead, what was the plight of that city has become the plight of us all as projections of sea-level rises over the coming decades promise to shake us from our complacency with very real threats that cannot be placed upon one single far-off place or location. Even the very idea that a small fund might save a city is such a bizarre idea today, particularly when confronted with the reality of climate change, and yet… well, why do I mention this? The focus has shifted now, that’s why, and the naiveté of those times has gone, for good. Those that accept climate change for what it is are not naive in their thinking and, make no mistake, climate change deniers are not ignorant of the choices they make either – they are informed choices that they make, and let us not forget that, for it is a common mistake to think otherwise. Such choices are not born of ignorance, in fact quite the contrary. To put it bluntly, they are born of a mindset where, being appraised of some salient points and basic facts, an individual or organisation decides that it is not in their personal or business interests to give a shit.

It is partly for this reason that I have been so captivated by the work of David Cass since I first started to look at what lay beneath his art and the concerns that it embodies, for clearly Cass does give a shit. In his paintings of the horizon where sea and sky meet, many of which are soon to be brought together in his upcoming exhibition at The Scottish Gallery titled Rising Horizon, David Cass has also completely reconfigured what I see when I look at that Constable painting, or Friedrich’s Monk alone on the shoreline. While there are many things I have seen in my life that I would like to unsee, and there are some states of ignorance I still hanker for, if I’m honest, too, the things I’d like to unsee were events, and they had a natural beginning, middle, and end. In the case of Cass’s interests, there is no neat beginning, middle, or end that we can assemble as a story and pack away once told. We, ourselves, are part of the very process of that story that his work addresses. Instead, we stand, perhaps like Friedrich’s monk on the shoreline, directly in the middle of a catastrophe for which we may not see ‘the end’, but about which we know pretty well what the projections mean for those who will.

David Cass, Horizon 48%, oil on sign, 109.5 x 55cm (detail)

Looking at paintings such as Horizon 48% by David Cass, I view it now through a new lens, therefore, fully cognizant of what it is I am encouraged to consider, beyond the handling of the paint or the scene presented in front of me. But what does it mean if we take from Cass’s work a sense of pleasure and enjoyment, of an aesthetic nature, that is? Are we involved in a form of cognitive dissonance as we at once take enjoyment from his handling of paint on a surface, the design of the work, its composition or the materials of which it comprises, and, at the same time, also read the environmental backstory that is central to his concerns too? I think the answer to this question has something to do with how we might believe change can take place. On the one hand, there are those who, when confronted with an imminent crisis or catastrophe, want to arrive at a point of resolution by the fastest route possible. Others, while knowing that ‘something needs to be done’, understand that that ‘something’ will only come into play through a process of consciousness-raising in all areas of life, and that art should be considered no exception to that process of consciousness-raising, too – indeed the arts and culture generally can often be the spearhead for change, and frequently have been, whether by grandiose or quite modest means.

Tomorrow, therefore, another post about a single work by David Cass will appear on these pages as his exhibition at The Scottish Gallery approaches. To anyone who asks, ‘Why devote a week-long series of posts by different authors about a single artist?’ my answer is ‘Why Not?’ Once in a while an exhibition comes along that deserves this kind of attention, presenting a variety of takes on the work, and Cass’s upcoming exhibition is, I believe, just such a show.

I am not suggesting for a minute that Cass’s current body of work is a form of agitprop environmentalism or a call to arms (though I would have no problem if it were). What I am suggesting is that now, perhaps more than ever, we need artists such as Cass. Artists, that is, who can at once present us with moments of pleasure when looking upon their work, and yet at the same time offer us reference points for understanding the environmental catastrophe that our own actions represent for the very environment that supports and currently sustains us. That the two can co-exist at one and the same time in any single work (or the body of work as a whole), is commendable, I believe. Where once it was possible to ‘take in’ such art from a position of passivity or non-involvement with the wider backstory that often underpins the work, perhaps we should no longer see this as an option, nor a privilege that is wholly relevant for our times.


16 Dundas Street

30 January 2019 - 23 February 2019