|Untitled, Arrangement with Black|
William Johnstone, ink brush drawing, c. 1975
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|
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
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.