THREE new shows look back at the artistic styles and processes of yesteryear, but do they have anything relevant to say today?
A winged man, dressed in the stiff outfit and top hat of a 19th-century gent, plummets to earth from a cloudy sky and comes to land in a beautiful but sinister city.
As he strolls the ornate but empty boulevards, demons and monsters pursue him. He ducks behind doors to avoid the rampaging skeleton of a gigantic tyrannosaurus and battles a crocodile-headed beast. Captured by a mad scientist, he is subjected to torture at the mercy of infernal machines. All this is rendered in the beautiful but crude animation of montage, in paper cut-outs against black and white photography. This is the madness of the modern city, the totalitarian state and the machine age, remade by hand.
On show this month at Dundee’s Cooper Gallery, Jan Lenica’s exquisite and anxious short film, Labyrinth (1963) seems as exciting and urgent as ever. It doesn’t take more than a moment to realise that it was a key inspiration for Monty Python powerhouse Terry Gilliam’s manic animations. Lenica’s film was a breakthrough moment in animation and graphic design, a counter-cultural triumph.
Tomorrow Was a Montage | Rating: *** | Cooper Gallery, Dundee
Another Minimalism: Art After California Light and Space | Rating: *** | Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
Jill Todd Photographic Award 2015 | Rating: *** | Stills Gallery, Edinburgh
Labyrinth revisited the art of surrealist figures like Max Ernst, as well as celebrating the transgressive decadence of fin de siècle Paris and the beautiful, morbid visual language of Art Nouveau, but it made them anew. And in an age when the cut-up, the sample and the internet meme rule it still feels that montage matters.
The exhibition Tomorrow Was a Montage brings Lenica’s work together with work by fellow pioneers from Eastern Europe, including the long-celebrated poster art of Roman Cieślewicz and the recent, claustrophobic animations of Wojciech Bąkowski.
If the content of the show is fantastic, its display is less happy. Labyrinth is casually projected on the gallery stairwell. Sixty fantastic posters on loan from the National Museum in Poznan are stacked high on the walls in a hang that means they lose their immediacy as eye-level graphic art. The necessity of conservation conditions for works on paper means that the visitor stumbles around the main gallery space in dim half-light. Tiny video viewing cabins mean that there is barely room for anyone who is not 5ft tall and a perfect 10. I would, however, recommend overcoming these obstacles for the messy lo-fi excitement of some wonderful art.
If Tomorrow Was a Montage celebrates the art of darkness, Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket is awash with winter sun. Melissa Feldman’s exhibition Another Minimalism is an attempt to rethink the legacy of a group of so-called California Light and Space artists such as Larry Bell and Robert Irwin, whose work in the 1960s and 1970s placed less emphasis on the material object than on sensation, working in light itself, technological materials or sensory trickery.
The results are pleasures like Olafur Eliasson’s Ephemeral Afterimage Star, which uses seven spotlights to create the impression of a coloured star using the effects of retinal afterimage, or his colour spectrum series on loan from the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney.
Feldman’s show is both an argument about the bright, sunlit terrain of the US West Coast versus the urban interiority of New York’s celebrated scene and an attempt to draw a thread between the work of Bell and Irwin and subsequent generations of artists for whom bodily perception might be as important as plain sight.
But despite the strong profile of many of the artists, this feels like an argument going on in another room, distant from current artistic concerns or the world outside the gallery door. In addition, many of these artists, including Spencer Finch, Carol Bove and Oalfur Elisasson, have been the subject of more in-depth presentations in Scotland or the wider UK in recent years.
This is not to deny the ample physical and optical pleasures of the show. There are many works here I really like, including Tacita Dean’s early film Disappearance at Sea (1996) a hypnotic anamorphic film of the revolving lens in an English lighthouse, and Bove’s Netting (1996), in which taut silver net is only apparent when the play of light and shade allows. The trick with this show might be simply to submit to the sensory sorcery of smoke and mirrors, industrial light and magic, exemplified by Ann Veronica Janssens’s Yellow Rose (2007), conjured entirely from yellow lights and artificial mist.
The simple actions of light and chemicals once formed the magic core of photographic processes too. At The Jill Todd Photographic Award 2015 at Edinburgh’s Stills Gallery that chemical history is invoked once more by Nic Rue, one of nine prizewinners or commended artists in this annual showcase of early career photographers. Rue works in the cyanotype process, that early photographic process that is notable both for its blue hue and its potential instability. Her images of moths have been left unfixed and are thus fading in front of our very eyes.
The award, which has toured and will also be shown in Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries next year, is named after the promising photographer Jill Todd, who died tragically and prematurely in 2010. The show itself is full of promise and of the excitement that art photography remains experimental and vital despite the fact that everyone, these digital days, is a photographer.
Sekai Machache, who is of Zimbabwean origin, portrays herself at a table reading academic tomes about contemporary African art. Behind her a painted figure, like a spirit or shaman, creates silent havoc.
Jill Quigley’s Retail Fluorescent pictures the high-viz fittings and fixtures incongruously found in the ramshackle farms of rural Ireland. It is as though California Light and Space had made it into much darker and damper climes.
• Tomorrow Was a Montage until 18 December; Another Minimalism until 21 February; Jill Todd Photographic Award 2015 until 17 January