Traditional landscape painting, setting out to evoke the beauty and splendour of the natural world, sometimes struggles to define itself in the modern world. This is not an issue which bothers Kate Downie, an assured painter of the post-industrial world and of the infrastructures people impose on the landscape to make it work for them.
Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh ****|Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh ***
This impressive exhibition brings together works in a variety of media from a range of locations: Scotland, Norway, Japan, the United States. Downie, long fascinated by roads, was long overdue a chance to flex her painterly muscles on American highways, and she does so with relish: the trucks thundering along Route 66; the freeway snaking out to Tucson, Arizona, towards blue mountain peaks in the far distance.
Her world is often on the move. In Cross Country (Moving) she has painted a landscape glimpsed from a train window on what looks very much like a flattened out brown paper bag from the buffet car. In a street scene in Shimbashi, Tokyo, the people are dark figures, blurred with movement against the city’s bright neon. Even her paintings of airports are full of implied movement: baggage being loaded, staircases waiting for passengers, a plane taking off in the distance.
Downie is a very fine draughtsman, but she isn’t afraid to be free with paint. The largest works are highly expressive, such as ‘China (Erections)’ where great black tower blocks seem to challenge the mountains in their aggression. She make the infrastructure of the modern world feel monumental. Long a chronicler of the Forth bridges, she makes the new one look magisterial, the construction workers on it as insignificant as ants.
In this show, she uses an extended metaphor of anatomy, comparing these landscapes to aspects of the body: hands, brain, arteries. It has a surprising effect, reminding us that structures which we use and take for granted are part of us, organic, even vulnerable, in the way that we are, in the way that the world is.
A memorial exhibition for the Scottish artist Jack Knox, who died in 2015, is the major focus of the Festival 2017 show at Open Eye Gallery. Knox’s 50-year painting career encompassed a range of styles, some of them highly experimental, and though distinguished both as a painter and a teacher, he remains less well known that he should be.
On graduation, he travelled in Europe, absorbing the various styles of European modernism, and early works show him experimenting with Colour Field and abstract expressionism. In the 1970s, he settled to a more representational style, bold in form and colour, whether his subject is a coffee poet, a cactus or two capercaillies squaring up to fight. However, there isn’t enough work here to call this show a retrospective, indeed we need to see more of Knox if we are to understand fully the depth and range of what he did.
Kate Downie until 2 September, Festival 2017 until 28 August