Saturday, 28 January 2012

Inside, outside

In the past few weeks, Megan Chapman and I have visited more galleries in Edinburgh than I ever have in such a short period before. We have seen so much art in all of these galleries, that much of it has blended together. This in itself is telling, yet after writing big art thoughts last week, this week I am more inclined to  look inwards, rather than out.

There is now a little over two months to go before my rather important joint show at Union Gallery with Kevin Low. One of the effects of looking at so much art recently has been to pull my ideas about what I want to paint and how I want to paint in different directions. Given that I have already began working towards the show, this was not altogether welcome. So it was that, after a splurge of gallery visits last weekend, I settled down to get some painting done.

As it happened, I did not quite paint as much as I had hoped to. My unfocussed mind would not quite settle and so I resorted to the time-honoured technique of tidying up my studio and taking care of other necessary art-related tasks. Principally, this involved painting the wooden edges of my pieces.

One of my recently finished pieces, currently untitled.
© Stewart Bremner 2012; Mixed media on board, 12x12"
To begin, I painted the edges white, however I was concerned that this would cause them to blend into the gallery walls. Instead I tried using black, which seemed the most natural next choice. Again, there were some drawbacks. Both colours (or, rather, tones) worked well and, being unable to settle on one, I opened the debate up to the interwebs. I received many and varied responses, although as yet have still to make a concrete decision.

After discussing the edges on my work, attention in my studio turned to their fronts. I have so far began twelve paintings. Looking at them altogether, it is clear that only a few of them are finished. While there is potential in the rest, plenty of work still needs to be done to them.

I had thought more of my paintings were finished prior to this re-evaluation. Where in the past this finding may have worried me, presently I find that I am relishing the challenge. I've got two months to get this show right and I feel that the pieces I have finished are amongst the best I have ever painted.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Stop in the mighty river

Art is such an ambiguous word that it can be open to almost any interpretation. Every artist has their own take on what it means, likewise curators and viewers have their own ideas and all of these ideas, on everyone's part, are likely to be altered by context. This morning, for example, when reading an article about art I realised that I had entertained a thought that was diametrically opposed to one I had earlier in the week. Less than an hour later, those diametric views have been forgotten and I find that I am unconcerned by their occurrence or loss.

Untitled, Arrangement with Black
William Johnstone, ink brush drawing, c. 1975
The idea that everyone has a role to play in defining art is very close to the subject of the current exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery. Beholder, which runs until February 18th, focuses on different people's perceptions of beauty in art and therefore comprises a very mixed show. It was refreshing to see such a variety of work in one place, even if personally there was no particular piece that represented beauty to me. Of course, in many ways that is the point.

Beauty for me, however, is a hard thing to grasp in the grey depths of winter and so it was consequently something of a surprise to find it lurking in the Scottish Gallery's William Johnstone retrospective. Until walking through their doors a few days ago, I had no idea that there was a local abstract expressionist contemporaneous to the big names of the field. (This probably says more about me than it does about the world of Scottish art.) There are some powerful pieces in the show, however it was in some of the stark ink on paper works that I really saw something special.

The most lingering effect of the show has been to give me the feeling of a connection to the past. Hitherto, I had been under the uninformed impression that abstract art did not have a local history, that it had taken place mostly within a small group of New York-based artists. I therefore saw myself painting in something of a rootless, borrowed environment. While seeing Johnstone's work means that I am still clearly not at the cutting edge of art, it also means that I am no longer quite so adrift.

Painting by Doug Randall
Another person whose art I encountered this week and who is similarly far from the cutting edge is Doug Randall. Doug is an impressionist painter from Fayetteville, Arkansas and a friend of Megan Chapman. This week Megan and I had our own late Christmas day and Megan gave me a small painting by Doug as my gift. It is one of my favourite pieces from all that I have seen in the past few weeks.

In a less personal way, both Megan and I were also very drawn to four textile pieces by Phoebe Anna Traquair, so much so that we visited them twice. As part of the permanent collection at the Scottish National Gallery, these works from the end of the nineteenth century are located in the furthest and darkest part of the gallery. Even in their dim corridor, they sparkle with richly-coloured life, made with an assured, painstaking hand.

These recent experiences have given rise in me to a different way of thinking about art. Both my work and Doug's have their genesis in eras before our births, yet we are by a very correct definition contemporary artists. Thinking about this and my recently-discovered local history, I began to see art as something like a mighty river, yet like a river whose delta is often springing new separate rivers, all flowing ever onwards.

The Progress of a Soul
Phoebe Anna Traquair, thread on linen 1895-1903
With this in mind, I thought further about Traquair's pieces, which do not appear to be from a particular period. In photos, she is clearly a Victorian lady (even if she acted little like that imagined stereotype). This idea of her seemed almost irreconcilable with her work and it gave rise to a further thought; that who we are as artists is of far less importance, within that great river, than what we make. We do not enter the river, only our art does. Art is all that is important.

The river of art, today, seems less about beauty than ever before. Whilst the Beholder show demonstrated that beauty can be found in many disparate art forms, the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art's Sculpture Show (that Megan and I visited last week), gave strong clues that beauty is no longer such an important element in art. Even less palatable than this revelation though, was a further one which suggests that in the world of art, the art itself seems to be losing its importance.

In one of the only rooms not to be currently housing the Sculpture Show, is Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing #1136. The gallery notes that "drawings such as these exist as a set of instructions that are then carried out by a team at the Gallery who make the drawing themselves…"

The suggestion that the artist does not need to make their own art is unwelcome enough on its own, however that the artist need not even go near their work is worse still. More dammingly, the statement goes on to note that the piece, which is painted each time directly onto a gallery wall, will later be painted over. We can therefore be delivered into the unhappy conclusion that the actual piece of art is less important than the idea behind it. In many ways this interpretation of what art is for is the most challenging and potentially disastrous of all. When the idea becomes more important than the art, can we still actually call it art?

Back in that immense river, as the delta spreads, the main channel grows slower and weaker. Indeed, there are so many other channels now, that for all we know maybe what we once saw as the main one will soon wash up in a mud bank. Or maybe the time for such a simplistic vision has passed. It is an entertaining thought.

In the mean time, I'm going to keep on contributing to one of the less well-regarded channels. It may not be a fashionable one, but for me it is art.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Ideas and meanings

Inspiration and ideas are some of the rarest things in art. They don't come often or easily. Staring at a blank canvas and wondering what comes next is difficult and brings with it too many questions of self. Waiting for a cosmic inspiration ray to connect with the correct synapse is fruitless. Ideas and inspiration take work, thinking and planning.

When I returned in November from my visit to Fayetteville, I had an idea and I was very pleased to have it. It was vague but I had the edge of it and I was sure that, if I could find a corner piece as well, I'd be able to make something of it. Last week I made something out of that edge, which I was also very pleased with. I have not, however, managed to grasp that elusive corner piece as well and, instead, that very edge seems to be dissipating back into the mist, from where it came.

All of this is a whole mess of metaphors, that only serve to say I had an idea but it didn't work out as I had hoped. Luckily, I was distracted from this by the arrival in Edinburgh of Fayetteville's own Megan Chapman. In the first few days of Megan's stay, we visited two of Scotland's national galleries.

The Scottish National Gallery was our first stop. Featuring a broad selection of works from the Renaissance period up to the early 20th century, there is quite a wealth of art history on show. Many world-famous artists are represented, from a mostly Euro-centric view of art. For all of the jewels in the collection, it was the lower gallery, which is given over to exclusively Scottish art, that Megan and I found most engaging. Here we found life and beauty in pieces by artists whose names are unlikely ever to be mentioned outside of Scotland.

A few days later we visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which seems to have suffered an unfortunate re-branding accident. Inside 'Modern One' we visited The Sculpture Show. Stuffed with a who's who from around the last 150 years of sculpture, with a particular emphasis on contemporary conceptual art, there was a lot to see. Sadly, there was not a lot to feel. My long-standing antipathy towards conceptual art can't have helped, nonetheless I really felt a lack of connection to most of the art on show. I'm at a loss as to exactly why that was, or indeed why I was left with a lingering feeling of having encroached on an elitist area that I have no right to be in. In many instances I felt myself wondering if there was simply something I was not getting.

In all, there were only two pieces that spoke to me, both deceptively simple works by Barbara Hepworth. With their clean lines and stark white paint on wood, the pieces were elegant and inordinately pleasing to view. There was a strong temptation to touch them, however the gallery's own piece Wave, had been stuffed into a glass case.

The exhibition left me with a lingering impression that I mostly don't like sculpture, that "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like". I can't stand that feeling. I was also very disappointed to note that the entire gallery had been given over to this exhibition for six months. I am not going to be able to show the collection that I have long admired.

Across the street in Modern Two (or the Dean Gallery as was), we found some Samuel Peploe paintings, which mostly made up for the earlier disappointment. I've enjoyed Peploe's work for many years and seeing them in the flesh is always a treat. This time it was doubly so because I was seeing them with Megan, to whom I first (digitally) introduced Peploe almost two years ago.

As enjoyable as seeing Peploe was, the earlier exhibition became the dominant topic of conversation on the walk home. Our discussion was lively and I often found myself attempting to defend my ongoing dislike of conceptual art to Megan, as ever a great devil's advocate. Ultimately, I questioned whether an idea that has been created by a brand and produced by employees should be called art.

As I sit here now and ponder the nature of my own inspiration and ideas, the discussion resurfaces. I have few positive feelings about The Sculpture Show and so it is probably not helping me wrestle with my own art in any meaningful way. It leads me then to this conclusion: that no matter what the art is, it can provide inspiration, even if only to not make art like it. It also reinforces my belief that the best art is that which means something personal to the artist and that they have made it with their own hands. Maybe this makes me old fashioned, an anachronism. If so, I really don't mind.

Friday, 6 January 2012


As I have mentioned a few times already, Kevin Low and I will be having a joint show at Edinburgh's Union Gallery in April. I have been aware that, apart from being really, really excited by this (which I really, really am), I should probably be at least a bit worried. This is because the exhibition will be my highest profile one so far and not only have I not yet a body of work to show, the three months I have to make that body of work in is not a very long time.

I especially thought I should start worrying after I spent a day at the gallery in December and worked out just how many paintings I was going to need to do. Somehow, though, I did not worry and that made me happy because I have always been someone to whom worrying came easy. My recent lack of worry could mean that I am less of a worrier than I used to be, which is good, however it could also mean that I now have confidence in my abilities and that is great.

In the middle of November, on my flights home from Fayetteville, a vague idea for a theme for my new work floated in my consciousness. As the weeks went by following my return, and I resolutely did not paint, the idea never became any more concrete, indeed it seemed at times to become less so. Nonetheless, I gathered materials and waited for the moment when I knew I had to paint. That moment arrived six days ago.

(As yet untitled)
© Stewart Bremner 2012
Mixed media on board, 12x12"
Every day since the moment's arrival, I have painted for several hours. Pulling something from nothing, with only a slight grasp on the edge of a concept, is hard work and it was therefore to be expected that the pieces would not be as focussed as could be desired. Consequently, I am really rather pleased that two of the paintings I have been working on are quite fully realised and close to my nebulous original idea.

In a week I have made two paintings that I am happy to call finished. If I can keep that hit rate up, I'll have enough paintings for the exhibition by the middle of March. Which would be perfect!

I've got many, many hours of painting ahead of me and a lot of thinking to do. This is going to be my biggest artistic challenge to date and as the desire to paint slowly builds, I know I am going to truly relish these coming months.