From cigarette papers to mountains, by way of a subtly different take on landscape
Jac Leirner: Add It Up ****
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
Against Landscape ***
Reid Gallery, Glasgow School of Art
Susie Leiper: One Never Quite Knows the Mountain… ****
Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh
What looks like a textured abstract painting extends all the way along the back wall of the downstairs gallery in the Fruitmarket. Only when one gets closer can one see that it’s copper wire, about two miles of it, densely threaded in a vertical pattern. At one end, there is a plug and a socket. At the other, a lightbulb.
Little Light, by Brazilian artist Jac Leirner, has something in common with a lot of art being produced at the moment: it depicts a long journey from source to completion, which in some ways feels like an unnecessary one, yet – to paraphrase Stevenson – it’s more about the journey than the destination.
Also, like much of Leirner’s work, it has a charming ordinariness, a winning vulnerability. She hasn’t shown often in the UK (she was in the Fruitmarket’s Possibilities of the Object show in 2014), and this survey show of more than two decades’ work has an immediacy which is accessible and appealing. She draws on the detritus of everyday life: cigarette papers, used banknotes, objects picked up in hardware stores, yet her work has a formal rigour which makes it much more than an assemblage of ordinary things.
Leirner describes herself as having “the head of a painter” and the more time one spends with her work, the more this becomes clear. Examples of her watercolours, which she rarely exhibits, are included too: beautiful exercises in shapes and colours which recall the work of early 20th century abstractionists (her parents’ Brazilian modernism is an influence on her work).
These paintings give us a prism through which to see the rest of her work. So the meticulous arrangement of coloured cords – thinnest at the top, thickest at the bottom, or the spirit levels arranged according to the spectrum start to look like abstract paintings. Crossing Colours, the sculptures made with interlocking slats of wood not unlike flat-pack furniture, explore similar themes in three dimensions.
At the same time, there is a personal, personable quality to this work which is often absent in abstraction. Leirner is a recent ex-smoker, and the paraphernalia of smoking appears throughout the show. Skin, made from 2,448 cigarette papers, has the quality of abstract minimalism. Coloured works made from cigarette paper packages have a cheeky pop art vibe. Cigarette butts are strung on to wires to make hanging sculptures. Ashtrays “collected” from areoplanes are dislayed like museum pieces. Her works are strongest when the values of abstraction sit alongside the quirky homespun nature of the materials, when the conceptual playfulness and the painter’s sensibility come together.
The painter’s sensibility is the point of contention in Against Landscape, at the Reid Gallery at Glasgow School of Art. The title sounds like a provocation, and the exhibition blurb takes pains to point out that none of the artists in this group show curated by artist Daniel Sturgis for Grizedale Arts considers him or herself to be a landscape painter. “As if!” the text seems to imply. “Why would anyone do something so outmoded? Inconceivable!”.
One wonders if the artist doth protest too much, particularly since several of those in the show produce work which is close kin to landscape painting. Sturgis’ own abstracts owe much to the shapes of rocks and drystone walls. Both Patrick Caulfield’s exploration of a coastline and Gary Hume’s horizon-like abstracts are closer to landscape paintings than they are to anything else. In fact, the title is less combative than it sounds. The show is an exploration of how the ideas of landscape painting are worked out in a range of contemporary practices. Lisa Milroy plays with it, creating a spinning panorama, and a painting of a slide of a landscape projected on to a screen. Leo Fitzmaurice seems to show his contempt for the genre by appropriating the work of internet hobbyist painters and creating a slideshow accompanied by blandly infuriating mindfulness music. Yet, even then, he is in dialogue with it.
Others deconstruct the concept: Sam Francis photographs skiers releasing coloured gases to “paint” on snow; Eva Rothschild wraps a cottage in forest camouflage; Ian McKeever puts a painting in a hole in the ground and documents what happens to it over a period of months; Lucy Gunning walks with mirrors on her back, so that the landscape seems to walk with her.
One of the highlights is Michael Craig-Martin’s Film – so-called because it is the only one he ever made – shot in his native Ireland in 1962, is a beautiful depiction of a landscape and a culture with painterly sensibility in every frame. His engagement with the landscape genre is profound and respectful, and the fact that he and so many others consider it worth contending with tell us that it is far from redundant.If one needs any further proof of this, one needs look no futher than the artists who simply continue engaging with landscape as a profound and ongoing source of inspiration. Susie Leiper, at the Open Eye Gallery, bases her new body of work around Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, which is enjoying a resurgence since Shepherd’s face appeared on the new RBS Scottish £5 note (coincidentally, Leiper painted the fish which appear on the reverse).
Her work here is part of an ongoing exploration of Shepherd’s text. Her works range in size and across media; many are at least semi-abstract, though they speak to elements of landscape: mountains, rocks, water, weather. Some are bold and highly expressive – paint drips, or washes, or soaks into canvas. Others are muted and atmospheric. A further contrast with these is her work in silverpoint calligraphy, produced with absolute clarity and discipline.
It feels like a living body of work, and one which is unfinished. For Shepherd, the mountain was a mystery she could never fully grasp, and therefore a source of continuing inspiration. The same is true for Leiper, and it continues to fuel a vibrant artistic journey.
*Jac Leirner: Add It Up until 22 October; Against Landscape until 23 August; Susie Leiper: One Never Quite Knows the Mountain… until 24 July