Lucy Gans

In the Summer Issue of Art North magazine (Art North No.2), we ran a leader article on the topic of Women & Self-Portraiture, having put out an open call to artists working in this field. It was an interesting exercise, for the work submitted for inclusion far-exceeded our expectations and, for want of space, it was impossible to include even a fraction of that work, nor the many candid responses that were sent to us from female artists using self-portraiture for a variety of reasons. Our article was therefore couched as a signal that this was a subject we will return to regularly, both in the magazine and online, and so we begin with the work of Lucy Gans.

Gans has been making self-portraits for twenty years or more, although like many people, the first time she recalls making a self-portrait, “it was in highschool as an assignment.” Later, as an artist, she made drawings in graphite and then added gouache and watercolour, but, “now I usually make prints – I like having the ability to layer the image and to emboss and deboss text onto the image and work with a matrix using the same image and different texts, or the converse, the same text over different but similar images.”

Gans is Professor of Art at Lehigh University in the USA, and the first holder of the Louis & Jane Weinstock ’36 Chair of Art and Architecture. She teaches sculpture and drawing and is also an affiliated faculty member in the universty’s Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program, as well as an artist/teacher in the Vermont College MFA program. Her exhibition, In Our Own Words, at Zoellner Center for the Arts’ Gallery, Lehigh University, was composed of over 400 ceramic heads, eight looping audio tracks and accompanying text. Its subject was Domestic Violence with an audio component derived from interviews with survivors, and In Our Own Words received a special award from the Fine Arts Commission for Social Impact.

As a student, Gans earned her MFA from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY. She also studied painting and drawing at the Art Students League, NYC, and earned her BFA from Lake Erie College, Painesville, Ohio. For over 34 years, now, she has taught in schools, colleges and universities in Ohio, New York, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. Her earliest self-portraits as an artist were personal, she says: “All those doubts we have working alone in the studio, and the doubts we have as women, as mothers and partners, so I made self-portraits then wrote all over them… these really awful thoughts and doubts.” It was “cheaper than therapy,” she adds, but later she moved into what she terms, “more universal issues; such as ‘women in poverty’, ‘domestic abuse’, ‘workplace violence’, ‘murder and suicide rates’,” eventually arriving at that exhibition that won her the Social Impact award at Lehigh.

Invariably such subject matter throws up all sorts of challenges, of course – the main challenge for Gans being around issues of ‘authenticity’. “Although I used my face, my portrait, the words were often from my research or from interviews that I conducted with women who were survivors. Sometimes I encountered hostility when a viewer discovered that I personally had not been a victim of all those horrible acts that I wrote about. Mostly, however, the work opened doors to alternative spaces and opportunities to create safe spaces for women who have been victimised and survived unthinkable atrocities.”

Asked of the nature of the hostility she received, interestingly this did not come from the women involved in her research, nor female viewers of her work. “The negative reaction came from a few male artists I was at a residency with. Somehow, for them, the work lacked authenticity because I myself had not been a victim of all these abuses. I found that shocking, but that was not the general consensus, and the work has been well received.”

Another issue that is worthy of mention is the rigour with which Gans’ project was conducted. The safeguarding of respondees to research enquiries that spawn highly sensitive testimony is, after all, something that has to be very carefully handled. As Lucy Gans states, “Every woman I interviewed gave me permission to use her text, and they were very proactive towards the work and its exposure. I still believe firmly in keeping them anonymous and I only used their first names, but I had them all read or listen to the tapes to be sure I had accurately transcribed them.”

Most important of all, the research went before an IRB (Internal Review Board) at Lehigh University, which serves as what, in the UK, would be referred to as an Ethics Committee that vets the integrity of the work and the safeguarding of its participants. “I usually donate the work to different agencies so they can use it for fund raising,” Gans notes with regard to her work in this field.

Of those Gans cites as having a perhaps influential impact on her own work, “Käthe Kollwitz is probably the first who comes to mind, but I also love that Artemisia Gentileschi used her own image often for her paintings without it being a ‘self portrait’ in the traditional sense,” she says. At present, Gans is now working on a series based upon her own biography – a remembered trauma of her own, that is. “I have the text but not sure of the image yet,” she says. “I think it will be several blurred images. I am currently working on some solar plates for an exhibition in Spring 2020, a sort of narrative retrospective installation of small self-portraits spanning about 20 years, from age 50 to 70.” 

Lucy Gans | Website | Instagram |

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.

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

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

Can you see what it is yet?

This summer, visitors to the Scottish National Gallery are being treated to an eye-blistering display of works that encopmpass more than 70 years of Bridget Riley's career. According to National Galleries of Scotland, "through her observations of nature and the world around us, and careful study of the work of other painters (Seurat, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Mondrian and Klee) the artist has made a penetrating investigation into the art of picture-making, and how we see. David Lee offers a head start on the Riley reveleries here, focussing on the recent Bridget Riley work that was visited upon The National Gallery (London), earlier this year – and he finds it rather wanting.

Except as an example of how to illustrate the collapse in standards caused by the worst excesses of Modernism, and the concomitant low expectations of easily pleased critics, I can’t explain why London’s National Gallery would have commissioned a wall painting for its newish entrance lobby by the 88-year-old Bridget Riley. For those of us schooled in the decorative cycles of Pompeii, San Vitale and the Renaissance, Riley’s spots are a disappointment for being a tad short on content. The obligatory accompanying sales pitch for this misguided project – lest we should not immediately recognise its significance for ourselves – includes the description of Riley as “one of Britain’s most distinguished artists”. Well, if you saw this and you didn’t know you certainly wouldn’t suspect it.

Bridget Riley ’s  Messengers , 2019 at The National Gallery (London), Annenberg Court.

Bridget Riley’s Messengers, 2019 at The National Gallery (London), Annenberg Court.


I’ve had to watch Riley’s career develop. The first proper exhibition I ever visited, Op Art at the Tate (c.1966) on a school trip, featured her work. She was by then already a Swinging celebrity, her dazzle designs everywhere counterfeited on skirts and curtains. This cultural trip, allowed only to the most artistically inclined of Lancashire’s Iouts, was memorable mainly because on our return to school we were publicly dressed down by the head for strafing pedestrians with lemon curd butties from the chara. We young blades cased the show using our self-invented yardstick that the best pictures must be those which made us feel the dizziest. It was, unanimously agreed that the King of Op was not Riley but one Jesus Raphael Soto, an ace Venezuelan with a cracking name.

From wiggly black and white stripes, through Pantone charts and multi-coloured harlequin diamonds, Riley has now graduated to spots, while still trying to fiddle with our eyes. There’s nothing wrong with this except that it no longer enjoys the limited appeal of novelty her works once had. It’s something she can do, so she does it. Her spots at the National Gallery London are a massive design of dull matte green, blue and brown, ten inches in diameter and set in diagonal lines, all of which are lovingly painted – as with the rest of her work – by someone else. As braille, we are informed, the wall reads “The blind leading the blind”, while as morse code it translates as “I’m very influenced by Old Masters therefore I must be as good as them”. So, there’s more to it than meets the eye – oh yes, far more than just an arrangement of flickering discs. It’s all to do with Constable and his clouds, apparently. And don’t forget Seurat; oh no, young Boy Georges, as we all know, was a devil for dots. Heavy stuff then.

Bridget Riley  & National Gallery (London) Director Gabriele Finaldi looking at  Messengers . © 2019 Bridget Riley (All rights reserved) Photo: The National Gallery, London.

Bridget Riley & National Gallery (London) Director Gabriele Finaldi looking at Messengers. © 2019 Bridget Riley (All rights reserved) Photo: The National Gallery, London.


Curiously (or not) Riley’s spots in London have their ‘own ‘curator’, or at least some self-important fool who calls themself by that name. How can something not yet in existence be ‘curated’? As usual with State Art and its army of charlatan hangers-on we enter Wonderland, where words mean… whatever. Once upon a time a curator was a scholar who researched and explained an object, and used a breadth of knowledge to situate it precisely inside an oeuvre. It was never a jobsworth who orders the Prosecco and makes sure the ladder’s held properly before sitting down to scribble a page of bollocks about it.

By the way, among the first examples of a ‘curator’ I’ve recently come across was Julius Caesar. As a young man he was appointed curator (carer, steward) of the via Appia, the revolutionary all-weather highway (already two centuries old in his day) from Rome to Brindisi. He did a fine job. Long lengths of it can still be walked a mere 2,400 years after it was first laid. I wonder where Riley’s ‘curated’ spots will be in 2,400 years?

On the scale of artistic quality in which zero is a Formula 1 trophy, and ten the Kenwood Rembrandt, Bridget Riley doesn’t even make the subs’ bench. Astonishing really for one who sounds and writes so sensibly, that she should herself produce such empty work. It’s not as though these spots are attractive or entertaining even as a pattern. As with most of state-sponsored contemporary art we are here, yet again, asked to play a game of ‘Let’s Pretend’.

Bridget Riley

Scottish National Gallery
Sat 15 Jun 2019 - Sun 22 September 2019
Open daily, 10am-5pm, Thursdays until 7pm
£15 – £13 (concessions available)
25 & under £10 – £8.50

David Lee is Editor of The Jackdaw, an Independent bi-monthly paper on the visual arts with a rarely updated website. Former Editor of Art Review magazine, he also supports Manchester City, and occasionally contributes content to Art North magazine.

At heart, I am an internationalist

The following essay is extracted from Peter Hill's recently completed book: 'Curious About Art: Encounters with 50 Contemporary Artists from Marina Abramović to Rachel Maclean.'

Marina Abramović  at MONA, Tasmania. Photo: Peter Hill

Marina Abramović at MONA, Tasmania. Photo: Peter Hill


When I met Marina Abramović in Tasmania, in one of the luxury garden cabins at MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art, owned by billionaire gambler and art collector David Walsh – she told me several extraordinary things about herself. One of those things – which I’ve often thought would apply to many of the artists I’ve met and interviewed over the years – was her matter-of-fact statement that, “There are at least three people inside my head. Part of me is very regimented and drawn to rules and instructions. It comes from my parents, both high-ranking army personnel in the Yugoslavian army. Secondly, there is the part of me that likes to have fun and adventure and try new things. Finally, there is the lazy me, who lies around eating chocolate and ice cream, and watching box sets of DVDs.”

Other artists I’ve encountered could similarly switch in an instant from talking about the complex processes involved in a video shoot, or the precision needed to make a lost wax casting, to enquiring of a studio assistant about the half-time score in a World Cup qualifier between England and Spain, or The Netherlands and Argentina. And if football (and I must confess I’ve never been to a game) is the global sport of the art world, then the art world itself, in the late-twentieth and early-twentyfirst centuries, operates on a global level, with its biennales, documentas, commercial art fairs, auction houses, museum franchises, and networks of commercial galleries: Gagosian, Spruth Magers, Pace, and Blain|Southern. All agents for change.

But – and this is the important point – it usually all begins in a cluttered studio, in an inner-city warehouse conversion, such as the one where I met and interviewed London artist Steven Claydon for Vault magazine. We talked about the underwater compression of objects, used in his recent work, from research done by the oil industry in Aberdeen, beneath the North Sea. And the recent residency he had just completed in Scotland. 

Michael Candy  in his Gold Coast studio (Australia) working with robotics and empathy. March 2019. Photo: Peter Hill

Michael Candy in his Gold Coast studio (Australia) working with robotics and empathy. March 2019. Photo: Peter Hill


Or on Australia’s Gold Coast, it begins here too with a lone artist, where I spent an afternoon recently with Michael Candy, talking about robotics and empathy, in his studio-cum-workshop with its add-on sleeping space, deep in the heart of an industrial zone, far from the sand and the surf. And that is where I most want to be – not at a sporting event or by a beach – but with another artist, in that space, the studio, that is a physical extension of their very selves – enthusing about their art and their ideas. Sating my curiosity.

Other encounters take place in galleries or museums, where artists are showing the end results of all the long hours battling in those studios with the physicality of “matter” – be it paint, welded steel, or computer algorithms and the hardware that contains them.  

That was how I met Jorg Immendorff in 1983, sitting in the office of Edinburgh’s legendary New 57 Gallery. He telling me about “the monkey on my back”, a reference to his conflicted self, torn between his recent youth in a German Maoist group, and his new-found wealth in the nascent casino economy of the early-eighties’ art market. Overnight, he found himself in a position of privilege that allowed him to buy a studio in Dusseldorf the size of a city block. This would later bankroll an addiction to cocaine and prostitutes, both of which almost landed him in jail. They would have, were it not for his friendship with the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. Immendorff was his favourite artist. The politician collected his work. He did not go to jail.

Or Ai Weiwei. I encountered him in the basement of Gene Sherman’s art foundation in Sydney, the day he announced that “I am not a dissident artist. I have a dissident government.” I finished by asking him about future projects, hoping for a scoop. He merely said “I want to eat. That is my next project. I love food. Let’s go upstairs and eat.” I guess most of us have a few different people banging around in our heads. In my own case, it’s a head torn between attempting to make my own art, and trying to write about the art and lives of other artists.  

And generally, artists are extremely good company. Curious about the universe, yet viewing it askance. And often with an amazing sense of humour. To spend a few hours with fellow Scots Steven Campbell, Bruce Maclean, or George Wyllie was to be entertained. Crying with laughter, as if having a private audience with Billy Connolly, with the shades of Marcel Duchamp and Max Beckmann looking over our shoulders.

And if there seems to be a disproportionate number of Scottish and Australian artists who I’ve encountered, that is a deliberate attempt to redress the usually skewed balance. In Australia especially – and you can tell from the surnames – many of these artists were born overseas, or have European or Asian heritage: Patricia Piccinini, Guan Wei, Laresa Kosloff, Peter Booth, and Mathieu Briand. The Indigenous artists, such as Tracey Moffatt and Brook Andrew, also make work about their mixed heritage. When I met Brook – again for Vault magazine – he told me he wanted to “reclaim the word ‘half-caste’ in a positive sense”, just as “queer” was turned into a respectful descriptor. He was proud of the black and white sides of his family, and if he embraced only one strand of his DNA he would be denying the other.

Peter Hill  arrives in Australia disguised as assistant press officer from New York’s Museum of Contemporary Ideas (1994).

Peter Hill arrives in Australia disguised as assistant press officer from New York’s Museum of Contemporary Ideas (1994).


As someone who was born to an Australian mother and a Scottish father I have, from as early an age as I can remember, embraced both countries and their histories as my own, while not always agreeing with all that was done in their name. At heart, I am an internationalist. So both hemispheres of the planet are as important to me as both hemispheres of my head. That great line by poet Les Murray, about jet travel (from one hemisphere to the other), suddenly comes to mind… “Ascending the left cheek of earth...”

Lynn Barber, doyen of the interview form (she has communed with film stars, captains of industry, politicians, and novelists, mostly for The Observer newspaper) sums up just why she likes interviewing visual artists more than those from any other profession. She writes in her memoir A Curious Career, “I like artists. It is quite rare for me to meet one I don’t like. And, for interviewing purposes, I like the fact that they don’t come laden with PRs – you can usually approach them directly or through their gallery and nobody sits in on the interview to make sure they don’t say anything that might damage their image. Artists don’t have images, thank God. And most of them drink, and smoke, and give good parties so being around them is fun.”

Not all artists are as Hydra-headed as Marina Abramović. Sitting in the kitchen of Little Sparta with Ian Hamilton Finlay, in the middle of the Scottish moorland that he had called home for many decades – never leaving it on account of what he described to me as his “nervous condition”, never attending any of his openings, whether at Tate or documenta – there was no side of his personality that I could discern that would be at all interested in eating ice cream, or watching box sets of The Sopranos. He was totally focused. Totally serious. He was about to go to war with France, after all. This was over the cancellation of a commission to mark the 1989 bicentenary of the French Revolution. Artpress magazine in Paris, for whom I made the Marina Abramović interview, claimed Ian had recently exhibited a Fascist artwork and should be stripped of the commission. In fact, he had made an anti-fascist statement as part of a concrete artwork, by incorporating the lightning flashes of Hitler’s SS as the two central letters in the word OSSO (meaning bone – from the Latin and Portuguese). 

A few years earlier, Ian and I sat in the very same kitchen while his Saint-Juste Vigilantes gathered outside, all of us there to support him against the removal of artworks by a bailiff and sheriff’s officer, in lieu of rates that the local authorities spuriously said were owed. One work had been sold directly from his studio, to a museum or a private collector, at a time when he and Sue were living as close to abject poverty as you can get. And these mean-spirited bureaucrats at the Hamilton Rates Authority said that because of this sale his studio had to be rated as a commercial gallery, at ten times the current rates, something he could in no way afford. Later that afternoon, we all signed a declaration that was sent to the United Nations demanding peace-keeping troops be parachuted into Little Sparta. He may not have been “fun to be around” in the Lynn Barber sense of the phrase, but my God, you were never bored!

I will finish with a reflection on Rachel Maclean, and one of many circularities that have joyfully ambushed me over forty years of interviewing artists. In this case it links Stephen Campbell to Rachel’s generation. It is also an example of the generosity of spirit that I most admire about those who inhabit the art world.  She and Charlotte Prodger are the latest artists to emerge internationally from the Scottish art scene, and subsequently both have a growing reputation. Rachel trained as a painter at Edinburgh College of Art, but since childhood had always made videos using her father’s borrowed VHS camera. “I made lots of totally banal, rubbish stuff. Mostly horror films, with my brothers and cousins acting in them, heavily influenced by Blair Witch Project and things like that.”

Rachel Maclean  before the opening of her installation  Spite Your Face  from 2017 Venice Biennale, at Talbot Rice Art Centre, February 2018. Photo: Peter Hill

Rachel Maclean before the opening of her installation Spite Your Face from 2017 Venice Biennale, at Talbot Rice Art Centre, February 2018. Photo: Peter Hill


On my way to meet Rachel, three hours before her Venice project Spite Your Face opened at the Talbot Rice Art Centre in February 2018, I’d worked out in my head that at thirty-one she was already a year older than Steven Campbell was in 1983, when I stayed with him in New York and he had his two sell-out shows at the Barbara Toll and John Weber galleries. Walking across to Spoon Cafe from the Talbot Rice, and quite unprompted by me, she suddenly started talking about Steven.

“He was the most amazing influence on artists of my generation. He made visits to schools all over Scotland and really enthused all these young kids about art, and how they could all go to art school if they really wanted to. He never actually came to my own school, but when I started at Edinburgh College of Art, so many of my classmates told me that it was because Steven visited their schools that they decided to become artists. His message seemed to be, ‘If I can do it, so can you’.”

In Issue 3 of Art North magazine, Peter Hill will be contributing a feature article on the work of artists Annie Cattrell, Anne Petters, Anne Vibeke Mou, and Jeff Zimmer. (Peter Hill –