Frantic at the Fringe – Part II

20 Aug

After a full Scottish breakfast, I was ready for Day Two and to carry on with my art trail.  I had allocated another morning for four galleries and I knew this was going to be tight.  Having recovered from all my walking the day before, and having seen the threatening rain clouds, I decided to stick with trainers to help speed up the day’s madness especially as my last Fringe show wasn’t scheduled to end until gone midnight.

Before you even enter the National Gallery of Modern Art, there’s plenty of opportunity to have seen Tony Cragg’s work as six of his sculptures are situated in the grounds, some amongst Charles Jencks’ Landform.  Although slightly outside the main hustle and bustle of Edinburgh’s frenetic centre, this gallery is definitely worth the cab ride (or walk or bus if you don’t have any time restraints).

Tony Cragg, Luke, 2008, and Declination, 2004. Own photograph.

 This is the first Cragg exhibition in Britain for more than a decade, focusing on two groups of works from the past 20 years.  Cragg’s Early Forms are derived from the vessel motif while the Rational Beings series is characterised by tall columnar shapes in bronze, wood, stone, plaster and steel in which facial forms appear and disappear.  Vessels are among the simplest and earliest surviving man-made forms and are important markers of past cultures.  Cragg takes these vessel types and mutates them into new forms, creating a vast array of unique sculptures.

Tony Cragg, Early Forms St Gallen, 1997. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.nationalgalleries.org.

 His works are always engaging with an element of mystery.  His biomorphic sculptures are mesmerising, encouraging visitors to explore the pieces from all angles.  The different media provide varying levels of finish, created by an incredible process of building up circular or elliptical cross-sections on a vertical axis which are then cut and shaped.  The sculptures are overtly abstract yet the figurative form always breaks through.  Cragg has studied the different facets of the human face, and here, and in his vessels series, he pushes the boundaries of repetition and re-exploration of an object.

Tony Cragg, Accurate Figure, 2010.  Image courtesy of the artist and via www.nationalgalleries.org.

 Surrounding the works are 100 or so of his drawings that offer a fascinating insight into the artist’s working process.  Cragg began his career as a laboratory assistant and at an early age used drawing as a means of understanding the experiments he was conducting.  Some of the drawings look like biometric coding recalling this past career – a series of shapes that almost seem to attack the paper.

Although his style has changed dramatically over the years, Cragg has always stuck to his guns and remained a sculptor.  He varies his media impressively at times but he has never conformed to changing tastes, he works with what he’s good at and he is a very skilled, enigmatic sculptor.

Tony Cragg. Own photograph.

 Cragg’s works are extraordinary.  The carved faces are distorted and warped, exploding with creativity and hidden facets.  That Cragg has managed to create these shape-shifters in bronze is an amazing achievement – they appear weightless, floating in space.

Tony Cragg, Distant Cousin, 2003.  Image courtesy of the artist and via www.nationalgalleries.org.

The former Dean Gallery, just across the road, has now been rebranded as Modern Art Two.  While Modern Art One is housed in an imposing neo-Classical building, designed in 1825 and used as an institute for fatherless children, Modern Art Two was built in 1833 as the Dean Orphan Hospital.  Modern Two, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Festival, is exhibiting work by Hiroshi Sugimoto, a photographer who goes back to the origins of his medium and blends art with science. As with the Tony Cragg exhibition, the gallery has presented two series of works by Sugimoto.  In the first, working from original negatives, Sugimoto is able to bring to life images by Fox Talbot that are 160 years old.  He spent several years locating and acquiring Talbot’s rare negatives and has enlarged and developed these to reveal works that are haunting, almost painterly in their evocative power.  These dimly lit, blurry images reveal ghosts of the past which Sugimoto has brought to life.  These photographs have incredible depth and you need to look deep into the works to see and grasp the image.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Louisa Gallwey and Horatia Feilding, at Lacock Abbey, August 29, 1842, 2009.  Image courtesy of the artist and via www.nationalgalleries.org.

In his second series, Lightning Fields, Sugimoto looks at the effect of violent electrical discharges on film.  Placing the film directly on a metal plate in a dark room, Sugimoto charged a generator until he could feel the hairs on his arms stand on end, before releasing a charge of 400,000 volts.  By using this process, he has managed to freeze lightning, capturing blooms of light erupting in the darkness, frozen in time for eternity.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields 168, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.nationalgalleries.org.

This is a photography exhibition yet not a single shot has been created by a camera – the works are visually striking and beautiful.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lightning Fields 226, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist and via www.nationalgalleries.org.

As part of the festival, Richard Wright was commissioned to create a painting in the west stairwell of the Gallery.  Wright has only made a few permanent paintings in the past and few for public buildings.  The repeated pattern in this painting recalls a bud or a flower, referencing the fleur-de-lys image.  Wright is particularly interested in the history and function of a building and the rows and rows of delicate shapes are intended to bring to mind the generations of orphans who used these stairs.

 

Richard Wright, The Stairwell Project, 2010.  Image via www.edinburghartfestival.com.

Next, with time whizzing by, we cabbed it to the Scottish National Gallery to see Dame Elizabeth Blackadder’s retrospective.  I know it seems I’ve been taking a lot of cabs (especially as I’m in flats) but, trust me, I have walked an incredible amount on this trip.

This exhibition marks the artist’s 80th birthday, spanning the six decades of her career to present her diverse body of work.   Blackadder is important in the history of female artists; she was the first woman to be elected to both the Royal Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy and, in 2001, she was honoured with the title Her Majesty the Queen’s Painter and Limner in Scotland.  The drawings from her student days are lovely and it is fascinating to see her develop an interest in the relationship between objects – hence her still lifes.  Her studies from nature are the best-known of her works (watch out for her watercolour of a pheasant, an enchanting depiction that deserves close examination) and I was surprised by the sheer range of her other subjects.  One room, for example, is dedicated solely to her visits to Japan in the 1980s and her exploration of its culture.

Elizabeth Blackadder, Grey Table with Easter Eggs. Image via www.nationalgalleries.org.

Her flower studies have long been famous and easily recognisable.  Her flower woodcuts are really superb and, in some ways, preferable to her paintings; their strength of form provides a powerful contrast to the delicacy of her watercolours.

She is an artist with a very different kind of fame to the likes of Anish Kapoor or Martin Creed and this is highlighted by the fact that the majority of these loans come from private collections.

Elizabeth Blackadder, Tulips. Image via www.nationalgalleries.org.

One thing that did irk me as I wandered around was the placement of the wall labels on the dado.  What were they doing down there?! I know I’m a stickler for labels, wall colour and all that but it looked as if the hanger had run out of time and just shoved them anywhere.

Some of Blackadder’s paintings are very sensitive offering new perspectives on familiar scenes and she has revitalised established traditions but I don’t feel this exhibition presents her in an exciting light.  She’s a great painter but it’s easy to leave this exhibition feeling nonplussed.

Elizabeth Blackadder in her studio, November 2010. Image via www.scottish-gallery.co.uk.

Downstairs, The Queen: Art & Image was absolutely packed showing people’s love for the Queen and our monarchy.   Including a wide range of works, the exhibition traces Her Majesty’s reign across six decades from the age of deference to the era of celebrity.

This is the opening site for a  touring exhibition that marks the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee next year (it will be at London’s NPG in 2012).  Including formal portraits, media photographs and contemporary responses and portraits, the works explore traditional representations and push the boundaries of the visual language of Royal portraiture.  The exhibition celebrates the incredible range of artistic creativity that the Queen has inspired.

Eve Arnold, Queen Elizabeth II. Image courtesy of the artist and Magnum Photos and via www.nationalgalleries.org.

Our Monarch is a subject of relentless visual scrutiny.  Photographers, such as Dorothy Wilding, emphasised her youth, elegance and glamour while Cecil Beaton’s Coronation photograph concentrated on her dignity and regal splendour.  Each artist has sought to capture the Queen’s different qualities.  During the 1960s, her image became more informal, creating an impression of domesticity and playing up her role as a mother.   She was shown as lively, spontaneous and fun, advancing the idea of an ‘ordinary’ monarch.  The diversity of her image in the 1990s shows the trouble the Royal Family were facing at the time.

The exhibition includes the provocative Sex Pistols’ poster God Save the Queen designed by Jamie Reid as well as works by Andy Warhol, Gilbert & George and Lucian Freud.  There is a Sugimoto photograph of the Queen’s wax mannequin and a Struth photo from this year in which I feel the Queen looks slightly uncomfortable.

Thomas Struth, The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh, 2011. Image  courtesy of the artist and via www.nationalgalleries.org.

The Queen’s image has engaged millions over the years.  Through all the varied portrayals, one thing remains firm, her enduring loyalty to the nation, her beauty and her dignity.

The Edinburgh Art festival has grown this year.  To help showcase its diverse and incredible programme, the organisers have commissioned artist J. Maizlish to draw a map of the City and participating festival venues.  It’s gorgeous and definitely a helpful aid for people who don’t know Edinburgh very well or for those who are feeling brave and have the time to seek out all the galleries!

 

J. Maizlish, detail of Sites of the Edinburgh Art Festival, 2011. Image via www.edinburghartfestival.com.

The problem with Edinburgh in August is there is just too much to see.  Admittedly, this is a wonderful problem with which to be faced.  Art, theatre, comedy, music and literature literally spout from the city’s every pore.   I always wish I had more time in Edinburgh, there is always more I want to see. Maybe I should just stay for the month…  Bring on the 2012 Fringe.

Tony Cragg: Sculptures and Drawings is at Modern Art One until 6th November 2011, Hiroshi Sugimoto is at Modern Art Two until 25th September 2011, Richard Wright: The Stairwell Project is a permanent installation in Modern Art Two, Elizabeth Blackadder is at the Scottish National Gallery until 2nd January 2012, The Queen: Art & Image is at the Scottish National Gallery until 18th September 2011, www.nationalgalleries.org.

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