Duncan Macmillan: Using the words of the Romantic poets , Susie Leiper creates visual landscapes out of literature, marrying language and image...
SUSIE LEIPER: THE ONE LIFE *****
OPEN EYE GALLERY, EDINBURGH
TOBY PATERSON: REMNANT ****
GLASGOW PRINT STUDIO
GORDON PICKEN: SOLASTALGIA ***
THE OLD AMBULANCE DEPOT, EDINBURGH
EMILY YOUNG: LITHICA ****
BOURNE FINE ART, EDINBURGH
AS I WRITE, individually the letters carry no meaning. They only represent sounds and so, in combination, words. If I was writing in Chinese or in Japanese, which also uses the Chinese Kanji script, it would be different. Kanji’s many thousands of forms are ideograms, a kind of picture. However much reduced in practice, in their origin they do not represent sounds, but concepts, objects or ideas, singly or in combination. It flows naturally from this visual character that it has a close relationship with painting and that in the East calligraphy itself – literally “beautiful writing” – is a major art form.
Calligraphy is, of course, practised in the West, often with very beautiful results, but with an alphabet of just 26 letters the possibilities are limited. Western artists have for long looked with envy at the richness of this oriental tradition and the ease with which it blends written and pictorial forms; and correspondingly how it can present visual and verbal poetry as unified.
Many artists have tried to find a way of achieving this unity using western script, but simply writing on a picture is not enough. There has to be an organic relationship between the three elements, the image, the forms of the words and their meaning. One of the few artists who brought this off with real success was Miró, who devised a spidery style of writing that flowed naturally out of his imagery. Although he was inspired by oriental models, he was not dependent on them and so did not seem imitate them.
Susie Leiper, a trained calligrapher and truly a mistress of beautiful writing, has also undertaken to attempt this fusion of text and image. In her show at the Open Eye, her starting point is frankly oriental, however. She heads her show with two quotations about the unity of things, one from Wordsworth’s The Prelude, “for in all things I saw one life”, and the other describing the ancient Chinese concept of Dao, of unity that “gives life to everything under the sun”. Thus in her union of word and image, she aspires to find a metaphor for the unity of all things.
Not everything in her show carries text, however. There are semi-abstract paintings of sky and mountains, for instance, but she is most successful when these misty abstract images do coalesce into words. The lines she has chosen are principally from The Prelude, but also from Tintern Abbey, also by Wordsworth, and from poems by Coleridge, Tennyson and others. They all seem to be reflections on the sublime, on the beauty of landscapes of cloud and mountain and frequently too on a kind of universal unity the poet has found in these things in keeping with the idea of Dao.
Thus the lines taken from The Prelude “the unfettered clouds and region of the Heavens’ tumult and peace; darkness and the light were all like workings of one mind” are inscribed in gold against a ground of cloudy darkness. The same text from The Prelude also appears in a big painting that is a composite of several different pieces of poetry that drift like clouds against a warm, golden ground.
Many of these composite images are very beautiful. Particularly lovely, for instance, are Orange Sky at Evening and The Hills are Shadows. The former is a small triptych of stained wood with a text from The Prelude written in gold that ends “the orange sky of evening died away”. The latter is a single panel with a text from Tennyson’s In Memoriam. The words, beginning “The hills are shadows” are written in black against misty grey, but other less legible calligraphy also drifts like unformed thoughts through the cloudy distance.
The textures against which she writes are always carefully considered and the interplay between text and image works perfectly. As with Miró, however, they work best when they are least beholden to oriental models and are clearly pitched in the formal language of western abstract art which she handles with imagination and real sensitivity.
At Glasgow Print Studio, Remnant, Toby Paterson’s recent show, demonstrated how much he too is a poet, though given his usual subject matter of redundant modernist buildings, that might not at first seem obvious. The show consisted of recent prints, but set in a context of the architectural surfaces favoured by brutalist architects in the sixties – hammered concrete, brown brick and a sort of pebble-dash aggregate, uncomfortable concrete with pebbles showing.
All these surfaces, originally the product of careful aesthetic choices, are reproduced like wallpaper in “attractive” colours and are either papered onto the walls or onto free-standing geometric blocks. One of the prints, Ashlar Triptych, takes up this theme of architectural finishes with three images of an ashlar wall built of stones, carefully – but always unsuccessfully – arranged to look random. Polish Terrazzo is a perspective view of a path of terrazzo tiles laid out with the same equally careful random effect.
Several prints, however, also reflect Paterson’s favourite theme of the manifest beauty of the Utopian architecture of the 1950s and 60s when it is presented in the abstract geometry of design. There are isometric views of buildings and geometric designs in that formal language. But the poetry in his work is seen most clearly when he contrasts these abstract dreams with their messy concrete (literally) reality as he does, for instance, in CDA Diptych and in Pitt Street Elevation.
The first has two elements, an orderly plan seen in vertical perspective and alongside a set of photographs of what appears to be the actual place. Pitt Street Elevation is even starker. In a single print, the beautiful architect’s drawing of a retaining wall marching in steps down a long slope is paired with a current image of the actual wall. Built in brick, it is worn and stained. Innocence and experience, in these apparently prosaic images Paterson captures the eternal gap between dream and reality, between our visions of Utopia and the messy way in which, being human, we will always live.
I found a practical example of this same gap between aspiration and reality at the Old Ambulance Depot on Edinburgh’s Brunswick Street where Gordon Picken was showing Solastalgia. I had never heard of the Old Ambulance Depot till a rumour reached me that this show might be worth a visit. The day I went, I had been the only visitor so far. The day before there had been no visitors at all. The place is apparently run by a PR company. Gordon Picken’s pictures are big and bold. Painted on separate A2 panels and then assembled, there are obvious memories of Hockney. Indeed Picken’s execution is reminiscent of Hockney’s iPad drawings, although there is no sign of anything electronic underlying his big paintings of derelict buildings covered in graffiti. The joins in the images are pretty roughly matched, however. Picken’s approach is more like that of Joyce Cary’s Gulley Jimson than Hockney’s professionalism: paint on anything and the audience, if there is one, can take it or leave it. The best things were two black-and-white drawings. On the same scale as the paintings, with more limited means they hold together better.
Finally at Bourne Fine Art, like Susie Leiper, Emily Young makes beautiful things. She cuts formalised heads, or purely abstract shapes from exotic stones like jade or onyx. These are polished, but also left partly uncut as though the figure was emerging from the stone itself. The results are quite beautiful. You could be looking at jewellery made from semiprecious stones, except that the individual works are the size of boulders and far too big to lift.
• Susie Leiper until 6 November; Toby Paterson and Gordon Picken are now ended; Emily Young runs until 8 November