Thirty years ago, The Vigorous Imagination at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh was a landmark show. Broadly, the artists involved were a generation: the oldest, Joseph Urie, was born in 1947; the youngest, Stephen Conroy in 1964. Nevertheless, they were not exactly a group or a movement, but a pretty heterogenous bunch. What they did have in common, however, apart from attracting art critic Clare Henry’s eye, for it was she who selected the show, was ambition. It was expressed in many different ways, but the common factor was some kind of figuration, narrative even, in work that was generally pretty physical and that definitely ran counter to current fashions.
The Vigorous Imagination: Then and Now, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh ****
The Vigorous Imagination: Revisited, Roger Bilcliffe Gallery, Glasgow ****
Adrian Wisniewski: Some Views, Scotland & New Zealand, Glasgow Print Studio *****
To mark the show’s 30th anniversary, Roger Billcliffe Fine Art in Glasgow and the Fine Art Society in Edinburgh have collaborated on a two-part show. There is a slight difference of emphasis; the Fine Art Society has got some recent work by the artists involved, but their main objective has been to show works that, if not actually in the original show, were at least contemporary with it. To achieve this they have borrowed from both public and private collections.
At Roger Billcliffe, however, the work is mostly recent and none is borrowed. The exceptions for whom sadly there can be no recent work are Steven Campbell, who died in 2007, and Ian Hughes, who died in 2014. Campbell’s painting in Glasgow, A Life in Letters: Idealised Portrait of the Wig’ed Foucault, is also as far as I can see the only one in either show that was in the original exhibition. There are, however, also one or two earlier works by others here. Tonight’s Star Prize by Ron O’Donnell, a photomontage of a cruise missile made out of money, dates from 1987, for instance.
Some artists have been pretty consistent over the intervening decades. Kate Whiteford for instance is still making patterns like primitive rock drawings as she did then. The continuity in Calum Colvin’s work is also clear, but the increase in its depth and complexity is also striking. In Edinburgh, an early work, Venus, already shows his unique style of photographed collage and montage, but in the same gallery, Vanitas, a memento mori with a skull to be seen with red and green glasses in 3-D, is an amazingly sophisticated development of his original idea. O’Donnell began making photo collages, but now they are simplified into strikingly simple images of flowers growing from earth that contains elements of rubbish, as though an accidental collage. Gwen Hardie has gone from painting magnified figures to painting highly magnified details of the surface of the human body.
The abstracted shapes in Sam Ainsely’s Reaping the Whirlwind from 1987, seen in Edinburgh, are recognisably akin to those in her recent work, Lady Macbeth’s Cloak, seen in Glasgow. In Edinburgh David Mach’s Local Hero from 1992, made of burnt matches, follows the same principles as his recent and beautiful Golden Buddha in Glasgow, made out of gilded coat hangers. Although Peter Howson’s choice of subject has been consistent, except perhaps for his more recent liking for religious themes, his work has lost the power of his Noble Dosser from 1987. A big, bold woodcut in black and white, it hangs in the Fine Art Society unframed for maximum impact.
Phil Braham’s art has always been about landscape and for a long time it kept the sombre mood of Lightning Seizes the Forest, a dark collage from 1987 seen in Edinburgh, but recent works like Autumn Equinox, a tree shedding golden leaves against a bright but misty sky on view in Glasgow, are altogether gentler. In his version of Ophelia, however, also in Glasgow the body of the tragic heroine floating through dappled sunlight and shadow suggests his mood has not entirely changed.
In the catalogue of the original exhibition, Tony Jones, then Principal of Glasgow School of Art, makes a scarcely disinterested claim that this was all about Glasgow, but that was certainly not the case at the time. The artists hailed from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and in the case of O’Donnell from Napier University. It has come to seem that Jones was right, however, because several Glasgow graduates have subsequently come to be particularly identified with the city. Chief among them was Steven Campbell. His art would dominate any company and he was certainly a central figure in the original show. His contemporaries at Glasgow, Ken Currie, Peter Howson, Stephen Conroy and Adrian Wisniewski were and still are all also figurative painters in a way that was at the time broadly akin to his work though certainly not dependent on it. (Although Campbell once told me, at least half-seriously, he had to keep moving studio to stop the others looking over his shoulder.)
Campbell is represented at the Fine Art Society by The Chinese Clam from 1987. Typical of his work at that time, it is enigmatic and beautifully painted. Also at the Fine Art Society one of the outstanding works is The Assassin by Currie, a big, dark drawing from 1980 of a man standing in a dismal kitchen and picking up a knife. It looks as though Currie has painted himself as Raskolnikov, the murderer and hero of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Currie’s recent work, a monochrome painting of a detached jaw bone in Edinburgh and a bleak monoprint portrait in Glasgow is still just as dark. In contrast to it, Wisniewski’s Islander from 1984 in Edinburgh is colourful and even lightheartedly fantastical. It’s heavy, rhythmic brushwork is in contrast to the almost pastel colours and refined drawing of The Chosen One from 2012 in Glasgow. In Edinburgh Conroy’s Wireless Vision Accomplished from 1987, with its preoccupied, anachronistic male figures in a shadowy interior, is typical of his early work, while in Glasgow, Man and His Shadow is recent, but still recognisably akin. A beautiful drawing of a nude, also from 1987 and seen in Edinburgh, shows how fine drawing is the basis of his art.
Ian Hughes’s grim portraits are as dark in mood though not in colour as anything by Currie. Urie’s painting was and seems still to realise the imagery of bad dreams in heavily impasted paint. Keith McIntyre showed bold and energetic drawings in 1987. Now in both Edinburgh and Glasgow he is still showing drawings, but only of thistles. Mario Rossi has moved away from his early figurative imagery to create fastidious photo collages like 100 Endings, a palimpsest of “The End,” the conventional closing frame of a film.
The story continues too. Concurrently with these twin exhibitions, Currie is showing Rictus, a grim reflection on nuclear war at Flowers Gallery in London. Meanwhile at Glasgow Print Studio, Adrian Wisniewski has reinvented himself yet again, this time as a superb landscape painter and print-maker with scenes from Scotland and New Zealand. Outstanding is a rhythmically painted, six-panel, 20-foot painting of Lake Tekapo. Two, nine-colour woodblock prints may be more modest but are equally memorable. n
The Vigorous Imagination: Then and Now and The Vigorous Imagination: Revisited both run until 18 November; Adrian Wisniewski: Some Views, Scotland & New Zealand runs until 23 December