Exhibitions

Helen Glassford's Immerse

Helen Glassford’s Immerse at the Tatha Gallery is an exhibition of over forty-five oil paintings that the artist has been working on for over a year, inspired by the fascination she has with the sensory experience of the landscape; the forces at play (both physical and psychological); and the wild and unpredictable personalities of nature. What we see here are what some might consider ‘the empty places’ – deserted beaches and rocky outcrops on the periphery of the Far Northern reaches of Scotland.

As reported in Issue no.2 of Art North magazine, the love and passion for being out there in the wildness of a landscape such as that which Glassford frequents as a painter was first kindled when walking in the Lake District hills as a child. Vivid memories of the smell of the air, the light on the mountains, and the sense of solitude that it evoked, all remain with her today and are as much the subject of her art as the landscape itself that she paints.

Helen Glassford ,  Immerse II , Oil on Board 120cm x 120cm, 2019 (Courtesy the artist).

Helen Glassford, Immerse II, Oil on Board 120cm x 120cm, 2019 (Courtesy the artist).

When in 1995 she moved to the East Coast of Scotland to study at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, it was the lure of the light and the easy escape routes to the hills and beaches that understandably were the draw, and as a consequence she made her home here, now living and working in Newport on Tay, where she established the Tatha Gallery – a space that has done much to advance the careers of artists of all ages and revitalise the art scene across the water from Dundee.

As I wrote myself, in the pages of Art North, “being ever aware of the transient nature of life that the landscape she is most drawn to evokes may be one thing, but what is it like to be an artist who is also Director of one of the most respected galleries in the region?” Now showing her own work at the Tatha Gallery, are there “any dilemmas, as if crossing an line should she do so?”

Art North Magazine , Issue 2 (Summer 2019)

Art North Magazine, Issue 2 (Summer 2019)

My conclusion was, and remains, that she has certainly earned the privilege of presenting her work to a wide audience in her own gallery, as she does now, and it is not before time. It’s not as though she has thrust herself at collectors by utilising the space for self-promotion, as anyone who knows Helen will agree: In fact, she has gone out of her way to put together an inspired exhibition schedule over recent years, promoting artists either senior in stature or new to the market.

Helen Glassford ,  Time Lapse , Oil on Board 92cm x 152cm, 2019 (Courtesy the artist).

Helen Glassford, Time Lapse, Oil on Board 92cm x 152cm, 2019 (Courtesy the artist).

There is something rather special in fact, in knowing that the artist is a person who, in presenting her own work to the public, knows intimately herself the hard-won struggle to bring such work to fruition, and all that goes with making the transition from easel to gallery wall as an exhibition nears. Of the work itself, Helen has written of her journeys to soak in the landscape:

Getting to know the landscape is a mysterious hunt and will perhaps always remain elusive. Yet it is as perplexing and as intangible as any other relationship. The dark hills forbid yet entice. The thin light on the water is fragile and uplifting. Softening light at the end of the day unifies landscapes to a single texture and quilts its harder edges. It is the fascination for these transient beauties of the landscape and the weather it wears that will forever inspire me.

Without a doubt, the art that Helen Glassford excavates in her search for the illusive qualities of the Scottish landscape that is her inspiration is every bit as eloquent as her writing on her own art. I therefore encourage anybody with an interest in contemporary landscape painting, or those who are willing to extend their interest to include such a powerful body of work, to be sure of adding the Tatha Gallery to their itineraries over the coming weeks, and be sure to give time to take in Glassford’s Immerse.

Helen Glassford ,  Immerse , Oil on Board 120cm x 120cm, 2019 (Courtesy the artist).

Helen Glassford, Immerse, Oil on Board 120cm x 120cm, 2019 (Courtesy the artist).


Helen Glassford | Immerse

21 June 2019 – 24 August 2019
Preview and Book Launch: 21 June (6.30–8.30pm).

Tatha Gallery
1 High Street
Newport-on-Tay
DD6 8AB22

Dear Christine

‘I’d like to thank everyone who is paying tribute to my mother. She was a very brave woman. Thank you’
– Seymour Platt, son of Christine Keeler, January 2019

Though I feature in Dear Christine only through the medium of a republished essay from the Telegraph that now appears in the book that accompanies the exhibition (currently on show at Vane in Newcastle Upon Tyne), even minor involvement in this enterprise has made me feel extraordinarily excited. It’s the sheer originality of it combined with the paradoxical feeling of inevitability – why did no one ever do this before? Perhaps because women artists are still so astonishingly rare. There can be no branch of the arts in which women can be seen but not heard from as much as painting – nowhere where the role of muse is so strictly demarcated. Quite a few groupies have managed to become musicians and secretaries to become writers – but to move from one side of the easel to another is a task way beyond the reach of most of the youthful and passively pretty women who are chosen to inspire Great Men. Fionn Wilson – an artist from a working-class background in South Tyneside – was made to curate this project.

Three years in the making, it is a thing of beauty without cruelty, a balm applied posthumously to the wounds Christine Keeler fatally sustained in the very uncivil sex war of the 1960s. In theory everyone was free to do it with everyone else – in practice the rich (be they jaded old aristos getting in on the Swinging London lark or the newly-minted showbiz kids who drove it) still got the pleasure and the poor still got the blame. By the end of the Sixties the freewheeling sexual swashbuckler as played by the well-bred and privately-educated Julie Christie and Charlotte Rampling would be feted and imitated by women of all classes – while the perfect prototype, more beautiful than any of them, would be living in a council flat, the diminishing returns she received for repeating her warnings about the wages of sin gone into the pockets of well-fed sharks.

The difference between Christine and the dolly-birds who would ironically monetise their sexuality while hers was used as a stick with which to beat her was of course social class. Growing up in a converted railway carriage without hot water or electricity for many years, raped as a teenager by her stepfather and his friends, removed from her home after a school health inspector found her to be suffering from malnutrition and at 17 the mother of a baby who died after six days, she arrived in London the summer before the Sixties; had Hogarth still been around, he would have loved her. Instead she fell under the spell of the amateur artist and society doctor Stephen Ward, who immediately recognised in her Modigliani face and Ingres body that despite her dirt-poor origins she was one of Nature’s aristocrats: ‘She could have been a duchess.’ Women of her class had always been valued solely for their beauty – as muses, models, actresses and prostitutes – and discarded when it faded; Ward believed he could help her escape the fate she had been born to as well as amusing himself with the sexual escapades he stage-managed for her.

Christine Keeler  (photographer unknown). Courtesy the  Christine Keeler Collection  with kind permission of James Birch.

Christine Keeler (photographer unknown). Courtesy the Christine Keeler Collection with kind permission of James Birch.

When a sex farce became a Shakespearean tragedy, Christine’s (it seems too harsh to call her ‘Keeler’ after all the times the word was used as a sniggering slander) punishment was uniquely cruel. Her Svengali escaped by committing suicide; her playmate Mandy Rice–Davies parlayed her tough-minded cheekiness into a career as a cabaret singer. Most poignantly her War Minister lover disappeared into good works at Toynbee Hall in the East End – ironically a charity which ‘works to bridge the gap between people of all social and financial backgrounds.’ He became their chief fundraiser, able to work as a full-time volunteer due to his inherited wealth; with his appointment by the Queen at Buckingham Palace as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975, his return to respectability was complete – if anything, he ended up with a better reputation than he started with.

But with no family money – indeed, with no family except one which had raped and starved her – to fall back on, Christine’s Hogarthian journey spiralled downwards. As Fionn Wilson quotes in her Foreword to the book of the exhibition (catalogue seems too slapdash to sum up this beautiful thing): ‘It's been a misery for me, living with Christine Keeler – even a criminal has the right to a new life, but they made sure I didn’t. They didn't stop calling me a prostitute for ever and ever and ever and ever. How can anyone live with that? I took on the sins of everybody, of a generation, really…’ Calling herself Christine Sloane, she sold advertising space, worked as a receptionist in a dry cleaners and latterly was a dinner lady at a London school; when the principal discovered who she was, she was immediately sacked. She died two years ago at the age of 75. During her later years of penury and ill-health, people were happy to exploit her fiscally as eagerly as they had been to exploit her physically when in her prime; in the famous chair shot she is visibly wincing (and till the end of her life protested that she had not been naked but wearing pants – a last desperate grab at decency from an inherently decent woman who lived a louche lifestyle through necessity rather than choice) and when she was paid £5000 to attend the premiere of Scandal! she watched it ‘through gritted teeth.’

Why is this exhibition so vital, in both senses of the word? Because it’s a belated celebration – defiant, affectionate, sorrowful and more – of a life which was trashed by the Establishment – by the risibly-named Great and the Good – while the woman who lived it was still a teenager. It speaks for the legions of women desired, used and discarded not just in art but in life. Fionn Wilson – creator, curator, and keeper of the flame – says it best: ‘Her only crime was to be working class, to possess a supernatural beauty – and to try to eke out some sort of freedom.’

Roxana Halls ,  Laughing While Smashing (for Mandy and Christine) , 2018, oil on linen, 105 x 105 cm, private collection

Roxana Halls, Laughing While Smashing (for Mandy and Christine), 2018, oil on linen, 105 x 105 cm, private collection


Dear Christine: A Tribute to Christine Keeler
Conceived and curated by Fionn Wilson

VANE – Newcastle upon Tyne
Until 29 June

ELYSIUM GALLERY – Swansea
5 October – 9 November

ARTHOUSE1 – London
2 – 29 February 2020


julie-burchill-christine-keeler-1.jpg
Claudia Clare ,  Christine Keeler: An Uncertain Pilgrimage , 2019, slip painted earthenware, glazed, with gold leaf, 40 cm high x 38 cm wide. Image credit: Sylvian Deleu

Claudia Clare, Christine Keeler: An Uncertain Pilgrimage, 2019, slip painted earthenware, glazed, with gold leaf, 40 cm high x 38 cm wide. Image credit: Sylvian Deleu


EXHIBITING ARTISTS: Natalie d’Arbeloff, Helen Billinghurst, Claudia Clare, Caroline Coon, Lucy Cox, Catherine Edmunds, Roxana Halls, Sadie Hennessy, Marguerite Horner, Barbara Howey, Shani Rhys James, Sal Jones, Jowonder, Sadie Lee, Cathy Lomax, Julia Maddison, Sonja Benskin Mesher, Wendy Nelson, Sarah Shaw, Stella Vine, Fionn Wilson, and with music composed by Katie Chatburn.


christine-keeler-book-dear-christine-fionn-wilson.jpg
 

BOOK: The Exhibition is accompanied by a book, featuring writing from David Astbury, Julie Burchill, Amanda Coe, Tara Hanks, Kalliopi Minioudaki and Bo Gorzelak Pedersen, with additional photographs from the Christine Keeler Collection (with kind permission of James Birch), and poetry from Sarah Caulfield and Charlotte Innes. Forewords by Tanya Gold and Seymour Platt.

(Page Banner Image: Courtesy of the Christine Keeler Collection with kind permission of James Birch).

Read the essay by Ian McKay relating to this exhibition 

Ragnar Kjartansson in Tórshavn

(Translated by Ian McKay)

Nordic House (Norðurlandahúsið) in the Faroe Islands is showcasing the works Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt and A lot of Sorrow by Ragnar Kjartansson in an exhibition that runs from 15 June to 18 August, and in addition there are fifteen watercolours from the series Omnipresent Salty Death and the video work Satan is Real. The actual exhibition title ‘Ragnar Kjartansson – A Few Works’ seems almost apologetic in its lack of pretension, particularly as it covers an international artist's first exhibition in the Faroe Islands. The same applies to the catalogue, the content of which is more significant than its diminutive physical size (16 x 11 cm) suggests. This exhibition is quite a scoop, however, and the catalogue text is informative and inspiring – all thanks to Nordic House and curator, Inger Smærup Sørensen.

Installation View  of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’ showing  Omnispresent Salty Death , (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’ showing Omnispresent Salty Death, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

It is not every day that we experience international art here in the Faroe Islands – not even Icelandic art, though Iceland is significant as one of our closest neighbours. Speaking of the relationship between ourselves and Icelanders, there is a joke in Iceland, based upon the myth that Faroese men are descendants of those Vikings who, on the way across the North Atlantic from Norway to Iceland, became so seasick that they could not go any further. Iceland is a country that we in the Faroe Islands feel closely related to culturally, linguistically, and historically, though. Iceland is our big sister, the brave and crazy one that we look to in awe.

Although the development of the visual arts in Iceland has been more progressive than in the Faroe Islands, we do have a lot in common – visual art originated relatively late in both countries and was initially characterised by both European modernism and a particular form of Romantic Nationalism. Furthermore, Icelandic visual artists were typically educated at the Danish art academy in Copenhagen, where several generations of Faroese visual artists also received their education.

Installation View  of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, showing detail of  Nur wer die Sehnsucht.  (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, showing detail of Nur wer die Sehnsucht. (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

It may seem peculiar to focus so much on the differences between Iceland and the Faroe Islands in mention of an art exhibition, but for a Faroese viewer, these differences and similarities form a fundamental part of the experience and recognition of Kjartansson’s universe. In the Faroe Islands, for example, we are expert fishermen, just as we are world champions in partying and impromptu singing in hotel rooms, too. The idea of using these elements in artworks, as Ragnar Kjartansson does with works such as S.S. Hangover or The Visitors, however, is probably about as possible as getting a Faroese pavilion at the Venice Biennale or an art academy of our own in the Faroe Islands! This is the situation. It cannot be regretted, it’s acknowledged, but we hope to change it.

Kjartansson is a visual artist trained at the Art Academy in Reykjavík, but his practice is both performative and musical, cinematic and scenographic, and these elements are united and coherent from the point that you enter the exhibition; you can hear the deep bass sound from the audio track of the video work A Lot of Sorrow – grief and longing, death and impermanence, are common topics in Kjartansson’s art. His fifteen watercolours of the sea resemble natural romantic impressions, replete with a sense of indeterminate longing and beauty, but the title, Omnispresent Salty Death, indicates another more contemporary conceptual consciousness, presented with a touching and generous enthusiasm.

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Omnispresent Salty Death:  Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Omnispresent Salty Death: Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Omnispresent Salty Death:  Detail from ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Omnispresent Salty Death: Detail from ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

A Lot of Sorrow is a performance that Ragnar Kjartansson conceived with the American music group, The National, and is a performance of an extensive concert of more than six hours duration – the band repeatedly performing the same number, over and over. It is a monumental and magnificent song of love and melancholy: "Cover me in rag and bones, sympathy / ‘cause I don´t want to get over you / I don´t wanna get over you”. The song is repeated as if in a loop, but it is not; small shifts occur in the repetition, derived from the fact that it is one long-lasting filmed performance with increasing and accelerating exhaustion being the result. As Inger Smærup Sørensen concludes in the text of the catalogue, the repetition becomes exhausting in a very concrete way, and in this exhaustion lies the hope of achieving another state of transcendence; of sorrow and the sublime.

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  A Lot of Sorrow:  video work from ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, A Lot of Sorrow: video work from ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Sublime is certainly the best descriptor for the work titled Nur wer die Sehnsucht, which Kjartansson originally made for the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2015, and which I have seen several times in images and video, but which I have now experienced for the first time in the Nordic House presentation. It is a great, touching, and complex experience, filled with multiple associations. The whole room has been transformed into a large installation, reminiscent of a somewhat primitively painted scenographic installation with snow-covered mountain landscapes and high peaks, common to Romantic painting, but here they take the form of freestanding, cut sheets of plywood. Moving through the space, you see what first appears to be the back of the work – unpainted wooden boards – but this is as integral to the painted surface to the front.

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Nur wer die Sehnsucht,  Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Nur wer die Sehnsucht, Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Nur wer die Sehnsucht,  Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Nur wer die Sehnsucht, Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson ,  Nur wer die Sehnsucht,  Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

Ragnar Kjartansson, Nur wer die Sehnsucht, Installation View of ‘Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk’, (Photo: Kinna Poulsen)

A quote from Romantic literature also appears directly in the work's title, leaving one sympathetic to the overall message here – the first line of a poem by Goethe is used – but there is also the liberating humorous tone that is consistently a feature of Kjartansson's work, too. Nonetheless, one suddenly finds oneself standing there, in the midst of the work, like Tintin in Tibet, or as the wanderer above the sea of fog, completely unprepared for the overall effect of the installation. In spite of the neutral lighting, which deliberately lacks drama and dissolves all irony and intellectual distance, the illusion is astonishingly strong, evoking a form of childish immediacy. It is fun, and I am glad to go with that and play along.


Ragnar Kjartansson - Nøkur verk

The Nordic House
Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
15 June – 18 August 2019
(Opening: 15 June at 16.00hrs)

The exhibition showcases the works Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt and A lot of Sorrow with the exhibition. In addition, 15 drawings from the series Omnispresent Salty Death and the videowork Satan is Real is exhibited.

 
 

Through a Glass Darkly

With Edinburgh’s Arusha Gallery currently showing an exhibition of painting on glass by Ilona Szalay (Until 23 June 2019), perhaps this is a good time to examine the place the artist’s work occupies in its wider historical context, for painting on glass has a long and much-celebrated history. Szalay is known, it is said, for deploying a range of media (canvas, tracing paper, LED light, and glass) all of which allow her scope to engage with the multitudinous dichotomies that make up both collective and individual subjective experience in a restrained, poetic visual language: ‘The contrast between the subject she paints and how it is painted is never sharp or demanding; the heavy, looping strokes and soft lines made by her brush point towards something much more ingenious and intuitive. These are contrasts that are gestured at, never insisted upon, and allow for a kind of dialectic with the viewer: a set of techniques more native to the literary arts than to the visual medium in which she works.’

Ilona Szalay, Arusha Gallery, Installation view. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Ilona Szalay, ORACLE, Arusha Gallery, Installation view. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)
From Left: Oracle, 2019 Oil on glass, 75 × 65 cm; Bystander, 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm, & Seeker, 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm

When asked what springs to mind when the subject of artists working on glass is raised, among many examples from the twentieth century, undoubtedly Picasso painting on large glass plates in Paul Haesaerts’ 1949 documentary Visit to Picasso (Bezoek aan Picasso) will likely spring to mind, but the use of glass as a support for painting stretches further back than the mid-twentieth century. Haesaerts’ documentary, nominated for a BAFTA award in 1951, may capture the artist painting on the fast surface of the glass plates that the director provided for him, but glass was not Picasso’s favoured support – rather a device used by the filmmaker seeking to document the process of Picasso’s art, and so it is something quite other than what I’m addressing here. Painting on glass as a chosen support goes back much further, in fact, to Thomas Gainsborough, and well beyond that.

Some of the earliest examples of painting on glass (lustre work) originate from ancient Egypt and Syria, where glass was used as a support for painting in gold and yellow pigments. In the middle-ages gold leaf was adhered to glass to embellish the paintings on windows and ornaments, but it was much later that Gainsborough emerged as one of many who, at the height of his career, saw the real potential for painting on a glass surface. Known examples of painted glass from the British Isles date from around the latter part of the sixteenth century, when glaziers began painting glass either as an alternative to, or as an enhancement of, glass windows. Louis XIII of France unwittingly contributed to the application of paint on glass, too, when during the war of 1633-6 he ordered the destruction of the glass furnaces of Lorraine. Glaziers all over Europe began using white glass and decorating it with colours by enamelling, and as architectural historian Michael Quinton Smith has observed, ‘designers, no longer restrained by the need to lead together irregularly shaped pieces of coloured glass, felt themselves free to imitate pictorial styles current in contemporary easel painting of the time.’

Painting on glass from Egypt , late-10th or early 11th-century. ( The Metropolitan Museum of Art )

Painting on glass from Egypt, late-10th or early 11th-century. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Thomas Jervais ’ West Window of the Chapel,  New College Oxford , designed after oil cartoon by Sir Joshua Reynolds. 1785.

Thomas Jervais’ West Window of the Chapel, New College Oxford, designed after oil cartoon by Sir Joshua Reynolds. 1785.

By the mid-seventeenth century, many examples of painted glass within Oxford’s colleges were already renowned for their high quality and innovatory style, and by the 1700s, windows throughout the British Isles were being installed and admired. In 1782, for example, Sir Joshua Reynolds designed the west window of New College Chapel, a window that was constructed by Thomas Jervais. It is Gainsborough, however, who might be seen as one of the first artists to have realised the real potential for glass to be used as a true support for painting in its own right. While Reynolds’ design for New College Chapel did function as both painting and window, it is first and foremost decorative and conceived as such. Gainsborough was approaching glass from quite a different angle altogether, having witnessed an exhibition of work on glass by Jervais (mostly scenes depicting the effects of candlelight and moonlight), held in London in the early 1780s.

Thomas Gainsborough’s  showbox on display in Room 88. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Thomas Gainsborough’s showbox on display in Room 88. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Both Reynolds and Gainsborough had been suitably impressed around the same time by Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon, too, which was on display c.1781-2. As John Sunderland has explained, the Eidophusikon, described at the time as Moving Pictures, Representing Phenomena of Nature, was a small-scale animated stage-set with sound and lighting effects used to present literary stories and sublime landscape scenes. de Loutherbourg’s first engagements in London had been a result of his friendship with David Garrick who assisted in him becoming a scenic designer for the theatre, but he never realised the true potential of glass as a support for painting (a key feature of the Eidophusikon), and in later life he moved away from painting altogether to embrace alchemy and more esoteric interests.

Gainsborough, on the other hand, saw the unique potential of the medium and set about designing his own ‘exhibition box’, or show box as it has come to be known. The show box, held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (above), is a closed wooden construction with a lens that can be animated to suggest distance with painted glass transparencies, each of which were lit by candlelight diffused behind a fine silk screen. While Gainsborough is celebrated as the inventor of such a construction there had, nevertheless, been many experiments by those researching the potential of such apparatus. The earliest may have been Alberti, in fifteenth century Italy. Most celebrated for his theoretical writings and work as an architect, poet, priest, linguist, and philosopher, for the most part historians have passed over his experiment, some mistaking it for a camera obscura, although Alberti describes his construction of an ‘intersector’' (the precursor of a ‘camera lucida’), in De pictura (his Treatise on Painting) published in 1450.

Gainsborough’s show box in the V&A has with it seven glass paintings which reveal a variety of experiments with lighting techniques; a River Scene with a Boat; a Woodland Scene with Tree Stump; a Downland Scene with River and Bridge; and probably the most revealing of the show box’s ability to enhance an image, slides such as A Cottage in Moonlight and a Woodland Scene with Pond and Cattle. These paintings on glass serve as an example of Gainsborough’s real joy in painting, too. Removed from any patronly pressure they are clearly relaxed, freestyle sketches and, as Jonathan Mayne has written of them: ‘All the evidence suggests that when Gainsborough’s friends called upon him and sat and sipped their tea, they were, perhaps without knowing it, assisting at the birth of some of the most original and attractive inventions. The show box, for all its air of being little more than an amusing toy, was in reality an important tool in the forging of Gainsborough’s late style in landscape painting.’

Thomas Gainsborough ,  Cottage in Moonlight , Oil on Glass, 28 x 33.6 cm. (courtesy the Victoria & Albert Museum).

Thomas Gainsborough, Cottage in Moonlight, Oil on Glass, 28 x 33.6 cm. (courtesy the Victoria & Albert Museum).

The specific method that Gainsborough used in painting his glass plates was fairly simple, and not unlike the method of painting in oil on any other support. The oil paint was thinned with a hard resin varnish, albeit applied in perhaps a more reticent manner than upon canvas for the reason that glass offers an incredibly fast surface. Artists across Europe during this period were experimenting with a variety of new methods brought about by a wide range of new industrial processes, too, however. Enamel on glass was another method that found renewed favour following the design and manufacture of purpose-built kilns. Constance-Anne Parker has surmised as to why Stubbs chose to experiment with enamel paint in the 1760s. He may have felt, she claims, ‘that enamels are less changed by darkening and cracking than oils,’ and Stubbs continued to experiment with a set of pigments that would guarantee permanence and durability. Though he experimented with painting on copper plates, another fast surface that seems to have held some attraction, he abandoned glass as just too fast a surface. Nonetheless, Parker advances the view that he was still pursuing what she terms ‘a glassy quality.’

Isaac Alexander Gibbs ,  Glass Door Panel  (1831), 213 x 119 cm, (Courtesy Asprey’s of London).

Isaac Alexander Gibbs, Glass Door Panel (1831), 213 x 119 cm, (Courtesy Asprey’s of London).

Glass painting as window decoration continued unbroken through the remaining years of the eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, whereupon the various workshops of the arts and crafts movement revived many methods of production that had either been abandoned or simply forgotten. Nevertheless, one of the most astonishing examples of glass painting from the nineteenth century is not from the latter part of that century but conceived and executed in 1831. When Isaac Alexander Gibbs completed a pair of glass door panels, each with six scenes of classical ruins and gothic arcades, the wider European industrial revolution was still in its infancy, and artists travelling abroad on the Grand Tour still had to negotiate fatiguing journeys by coach or on foot. What Gibbs was to achieve in his window paintings was the depiction of a literary ideal, likely conceived for the purpose of decorating the house of a family well-versed in the writings of the romantic poets and the European travel itineraries of their day.

Some years ago, now, Jane Holdsworth, manager of Asprey’s antique glass department, revealed to me her research regarding the two windows by Gibbs that were then held by Asprey’s of London. Gibbs, she noted, was advertised in the catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (where he exhibited windows in the Gothic style) as a Designer and Producer of Windows at Camden Town, and he is still best-known for his ecclesiastical windows of the period. Of his fourteen children, three continued in the profession that he provided for them, with Isaac Alexander junior continuing until the turn of the century. Little is known of Gibbs’ technique used in the pair of glass door panels, though it is likely that his methods differed little from his traditional ecclesiastical glass painting methods. The result, much to the taste of the day, appears now laboured and tight, as though he is fighting the very support on which he paints, seeking to achieve a mere backlit equivalent of classical scenes realised more often on canvas. One thing is for sure, however; Gibbs’s method was a complete departure from Gainsborough’s freestyle approach for those images conceived to be backlit by candlelight.

While Ilona Szalay’s work may seem an extreme departure from the history here, I think that that view might be worthy of reconsideration, for it certainly shares much in common with Gainsborough’s work on glass, at least in terms of application. The fastness of glass almost encourages the freestyle approach, just as was seen when Picasso painted on the surface for Haesaerts during filming. In particular, Szalay’s handling on glass is not dissimilar, in some ways, to the handling of another artist recently shown by Arusha; Casper White. Like White the fast surface is clearly seductive, although in White’s case the favoured support is a range of metal surfaces such as zinc and steel (Ilona Szalay has also used metals as a support in past works too).

Casper White , And You Danced, Arusha Gallery, (Installation View showing detail of  Right Before You Said , 2019, Oil On Zinc, 80 x 30 cm). (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Casper White, And You Danced, Arusha Gallery, (Installation View showing detail of Right Before You Said, 2019, Oil On Zinc, 80 x 30 cm). (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

The handling of paint on a glass surface probably differs more than painting on any other, though. It calls for an immediacy of eye and hand coordination and a quick mind to achieve the desired result. It is slick (in the true sense of the word) and though Haesaerts’s 1949 documentary of Picasso at work may hint at the fluidity of mark making that is a feature of painting on such a surface, there is something more going on in Szalay’s work, I believe.

Part of the reason for that is the nature of her subject matter, of course. As the exhibition literature from Arusha states, ‘Ilona's paintings in this exhibition play with the idea of […] fragmented, incomplete “truth”. The more I tell you, the less you know, a series of oils on glass, explores this notion most explicitly, as we are given glimpses of a tantalising narrative which swoops in and out of focus. [Her] decision to produce all the exhibition's new works on glass stems from a desire to embody the paradox of transparency and mystery, and to 'argue' that mystery, secrecy and unknowability are as visible and unhidden as glass itself.’

Ilona Szalay ,  Bystander , 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm (left), &  Seeker , 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm (right). (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Ilona Szalay, Bystander, 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm (left), & Seeker, 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm (right). (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Then there is the title of the exhibition to take into account: Oracle. ‘The oracle is a gatekeeper, straddling the divine and the mortal – a whisperer of secrets and a deliverer of riddles. Sphinx-like, she remains impassive and composed, her face often masked with an apparent neutrality or even indifference. She is sought for her guidance, her wisdom and her prophecies.’ Is it far fetched to consider similar allusions to glass as a medium through which ideas pass or are reflected? Obvious examples, though perhaps crass on some levels, already exist in stories such as Snow White, or Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. In both, the mirror, in those examples, serves as a portal through which access to truth or lie, fact or fiction may be found. When Alice enters the world beyond the glass, it is a fantastical world in which everything, including logic, is reversed.

On (and within) the glass works of Ilona Szalay, we negotiate a different world however, not reversed but nonetheless just as disconcerting and disarming at times. In several of her paintings from Szalay’s series currently on show, we also encounter a number of erotic motifs that she has become known for over recent years, as ethereal and as apparently impermanent as any image glimpsed in a dream – the slick surface of the glass and the oil paint applied to it with a liquidity that is hard to grasp does that; as though always about to slip out of hand; out of mind; out of view.

Ilona Szalay , (2019)  GRID 2,  Oil on glass, 40 x 50 cm. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Ilona Szalay, (2019) GRID 2, Oil on glass, 40 x 50 cm. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

In some of the works on show, we encounter touchingly personal images of an apparently benign nature – in the case of the portrait pictured below, intimate too and sensitively handled – but is it a portrait, or the fading memory of such, imagined or otherwise? The craquelure (from the French ‘craquelé’, denoting the pattern of dense cracking on the surface, induced by the drying of the paint), seems to speak of the physical world, while the fluidity of stroke and wash is again ethereal and other worldly, at the same time appearing to speak of corporeality and decay. While glass, once a fluid, becomes fixed, it still carries a sense of its former fluid, mercurial self, while the marks painted upon it speak of a permanence and future.

Viewing some of these works I’m particularly aware of those with feint washes that have dried upon the surface, and certain of Yves Klein’s work come to mind: works that refer, as Klein explained, to “the shadows of Hiroshima in the desert of the atomic catastrophe, terrible evidence, without a doubt, but evidence of hope all the same, hope for the survival and permanence, albeit immaterial, of the flesh." What Klein was referring to were the shadows, mere stains of the dead, that were left against walls and surfaces of Hiroshima after the detonation of the nuclear bomb. Klein’s Untitled Anthropometry, ca.1960 may be relevant here too.

Ilona Szalay , (2019),  Grid 3,  Oil on glass, 40 x 50 cm. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Ilona Szalay, (2019), Grid 3, Oil on glass, 40 x 50 cm. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

There are, in short, so many levels on which these paintings work. They possess an erotic quality, for sure, and that too may be associated with the medium on her chosen support, perhaps. Though far removed from it in terms of media and handling, her nudes have all the erotic qualities that one expects from French Salon painting of the early to mid-nineteenth century. Though short on the detailing of Ingres, say, these icily erotic paintings have every bit the touch of Ingres’s imaginative forays into the harem to paint his odalisque, or concubines. His The Source of 1856 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) might feature here as an example. As images wanting of the modelling of flesh, it would be all too easy to align Szalay’s work with that of Julian Opie, I’m sure, but that would be a mistake, for Opie reduces the female form to a banal sexualised caricature, and these are far from that! The name Sickert also features in the literature in relation to Szalay, I see, and this seems far more apt. While we are not in the same murky realm of Sickert’s darksome Camden interiors (for by their very nature these are light and spacious pictures for the most part), there is still the darksome subject matter.

Ilona Szalay , Arusha Gallery, Installation view of  Bystander , 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm (left), &  Seeker , 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm (right). (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Ilona Szalay, Arusha Gallery, Installation view of Bystander, 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm (left), & Seeker, 2019 Oil on glass, 115 × 85 cm (right). (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

When Arusha showed works by Szalay in 2016, Angie Kordic of the Swiss website Widewalls commented: ‘Her skill of a storyteller is particularly emphasised in her smaller works, which have been compared to the narratives of Sickert, because of their intimate and intriguing interpersonal dramas. Reminisc[ent] of fairy tales, they also evoke visual forms of a diary, with their indicators, props and clues to the confidential stories of magic and wonder. The curious interiors and miniature performances seem to be just behind Ilona Szalay’s clever curtain.’ Its a slightly clumsy description, but Sickert of course gave us this in spades, and the comparison still seems appropriate. The sexual (mortal/documentary/quasi-pornographic) seems to be presented on a level equal to the divine (immortal, even).

Ilona Szalay , ORACLE, Arusha Gallery, Installation view. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Ilona Szalay, ORACLE, Arusha Gallery, Installation view. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Seen together, however, as a body of work, collectively these paintings work on a whole different level. Like rifling through a drawer in an already ransacked apartment where everything has been disturbed, it is hard to piece together a coherent narrative or complete picture of what we are seeing. Innocent, though vaguely erotic images, hang adjacent to portraits – some more heavily worked that others – yet we also encounter sinister images, too, and some near-pornographically sinister, some disconcerting, and others disturbing. Grid 7 (2019) is just such a work. Over a fluid wash are wider, heavier, darker marks, delineating a women with braided hair (clothed), pulling the head of another backwards as she sits naked on a chair.

Ilona Szalay , (2019),  Grid 7,  Oil on glass, 40 x 50 cm. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Ilona Szalay, (2019), Grid 7, Oil on glass, 40 x 50 cm. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Balthus ,  The Guitar Lesson , 1934, Private Collection.

Balthus, The Guitar Lesson, 1934, Private Collection.

Here the references are more readily available, from possible allusions to Lady Chatterley-ban-era pornographic photographs that once would change hands for a few shillings in backstreet Britain, to the the questionable narratives that unfold in the work of artists such as Balthus (paintings that later seem to have provided for equivalents in the work of artists such as Paula Rego, too, whose work is currently on display at the Milton Keynes Gallery until September 2019). Like Balthus, cruelty and sexuality become overlaid in Rego’s work in ways that are clearly meant to disturb and arouse in equal measure. Like Alexander Gibbs’s classical scenes on glass, though, Balthus’s work is laboured, tight, and clearly as controlled as the controlling of those being abused in his paintings (paintings such as The Guitar Lesson being an obvious example here). Szalay’s work is much looser though, which is where the comparison to Sickert no doubt comes in, but when juxtaposed with Sickert’s Camden Town Murder paintings and studies, I’m not entirely sure that the comparison holds up for long. The building up, the construction of Sickert’s imagery in swift dawbs, flecks, and stabs of the brush are quite other (again on canvas mainly) to Szalay’s washes and fluid strokes.

Walter Richard Sickert ,  The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do about the Rent?  c.1908. Tate Gallery.

Walter Richard Sickert, The Camden Town Murder or What Shall We Do about the Rent? c.1908. Tate Gallery.

Earlier works by Szalay offer other comparisons, no less erotic in subject matter but disturbing nonetheless. Take, for example her painting Angry Octopus (2014) in which a woman stands, uncertain, naked, hesitant perhaps, and frozen in that moment, while in the upper left quarter of the painting an octopus, or something resembling a creature of the octopoda order of species (we only have the title to go on here) threatens from above. Title aside, there is nothing that is comfortable in that image from 2014. Sexual pleasure and death are one, as is so often the case in the common tropes of the erotic arts, and as is evidenced by a comparison with Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife of 1814 painted almost precisely 200 years previously.

Szolay-Angry-Octopus.jpg
Katsushika Hokusai ,  The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife  (1814), included in  Kinoe no Komatsu , a three-volume book of shunga erotica (above). The work depicts a young ama (pearl) diver entwined sexually with a pair of octopuses.  Ilona Szalay ,  Angry Octopus, 2014,  Oil and resin on board, 200 x 150cm, © The Artist. (not in exhibition).

Katsushika Hokusai, The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife (1814), included in Kinoe no Komatsu, a three-volume book of shunga erotica (above). The work depicts a young ama (pearl) diver entwined sexually with a pair of octopuses.
Ilona Szalay, Angry Octopus, 2014, Oil and resin on board, 200 x 150cm, © The Artist. (not in exhibition).

What then becomes of paintings such as Grid 1 (below) that hangs in the same collection of images as Grid 7, referred to above? A near detail-less face (an everyman for our age) appears no longer as just a sketch on glass with rudimentary features blocked in with fast strokes and a single zig-zagging wash of slicked hair. It becomes sinister, and as unknowable as any identikit portrait, assembled to resemble, but unable to pin down in one’s memory entirely, surely, or with any sense of certainty.

Ilona Szalay , (2019),  Grid 1,  Oil on glass, 40 x 50 cm. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Ilona Szalay, (2019), Grid 1, Oil on glass, 40 x 50 cm. (Photo: © John Sinclair, courtesy Arusha Gallery)

Should one even try to attempt to consult the Oracle here – to try to discern some answer here, that is – or the answers to prove ultimately elusive, designed to elude, intentionally painted to appear beyond our grasp or understanding? The disquiet they cause in the gallery space is of course a ‘safe disquiet’, for we are under no real threat here, yet they seem to speak of threat and one that increasingly builds, comparatively, across several of the works on display. The nudes, such as Seeker and Bystander, offer much less a threat by comparison, but are we not all either seekers or bystanders when approaching the work of Ilona Szalay? There are unspoken truths here, and crimes of passion I am guessing, too, but in seeking any answer to what those crimes might actually entail, in the safety of the gallery space we become bystanders to our own curiosity and, thus, our own complicity in whatever it is we are looking for.


Oracle: Ilona Szalay

Until 23 June 2019

Arusha Gallery
13A Dundas Street
Edinburgh
EH3 6QG

Monday-Saturday, 10am – 5pm
Sunday,  1 – 5pm

Donald Smith: The Paintings of an Islander

If An Lanntair’s mission is to connect and inspire through the production of extraordinary and creative programmes that are uniquely rooted in a sprit of place, then it is little wonder they are going all out with the upcoming exhibition of work by the late Donald Smith. Smith was born in rural Lewis in 1926, and as Gray’s School of Art Principal Ian Fleming wrote in 1958, he was “the outstanding student of his year… unquestionably a man of great ability as an artist.”

He went on to be exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy, Society of Scottish Artists, Aberdeen Artists, An Lanntair and elsewhere, with his work acknowledging movements in both Europe and America. International in outlook, he remained resolutely local in terms of his subject matter, however, and from his studio on the West Side of Lewis from 1974, up until his death in 2014, his intense, lyrical images of Island fishermen and women celebrated the “indomitability of the human spirit.”

Donald Smith ,  Balaich an Iasgaich , 1973 (courtesy Murdo Macdonald/An Lanntair)

Donald Smith, Balaich an Iasgaich, 1973 (courtesy Murdo Macdonald/An Lanntair)

Murdo Macdonald’s feature in the current issue of Art North elucidates further the intricacies and underlying influences of Smith’s art in connection with An Lanntair’s upcoming retrospective (see details below); and now there is a book to accompany the show, too, titled Donald Smith, The Paintings of an Islander from the publisher Acair, established in 1977 to provide Gaelic language materials for a bilingual education project in the Western Isles. Richly illustrated with drawings, paintings and portraits, along with insightful essays in both Gaelic and English, Donald Smith, The Paintings of an Islander adds considerably to the scholarship on Modernism as it touched the Outer Hebrides.

An Lanntair’s Head of Visual Arts & Literature, Roddy Murray, states, “Donald Smith’s art was, quite literally, drawn from the community he was born into. He imbued his paintings of fishermen, herring girls and crofters with the respect working people deserved but were seldom afforded. In which sense he was political. Never sentimental or romantic, always radical. Powerful yet understated, a vital chronicler, interpreter and champion of the islands of his time.” Of the accompanying book, adds Agnes Rennie, Manager of Acair: “It’s been a real privilege to work with Donald Smith’s family and close friends to make this unique book a reality. Donald Smith’s work spoke for a way of life now mostly gone but the landscape he recreated on canvas still lives on.”


Donald Smith, The Paintings of an Islander , published by  Acair .

Donald Smith, The Paintings of an Islander, published by Acair.

 

An Lanntair
Stornoway, Isle of Lewis

Exhibition Preview: 5 July 2019, 5pm-8pm 
Exhibition: 6 July - 17 August 2019
Tel: 01851708488