Mysterious plaster cast creatures touch the soul while tie-dye figures have a lot of work to do, a Poussin update misses the point and rollerskating dogs delight
Nick Evans: Solar Eyes - Tramway, Glasgow
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Rachel Adams: Space-Craft -Tramway, Glasgow
Jutta Koether: Seasons & Sacraments - Dundee Contemporary Arts
Olivia Brown: Reggie’s Roller Palace - Park Gallery, Falkirk
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APAIR of eyes pin you as soon as you enter Nick Evans’ exhibition at Tramway. In another context, they might just be two sets of concentric circles. But here there is no doubt that they are eyes. A slightly sad, lumpen creature is looking at you quizzically, perhaps plaintively. Evans’ plaster cast sculptures occupy different places on a spectrum, from abstract objects to humanoid creatures. Some, like Gatekeeper, are very definitely beings, uncertain, damaged souls, like Henry Moore rejects, clinging to a kind of fragile dignity. Or so they seem – it becomes easy to imbue them with all sorts of emotions.
Tramway 2 is the biggest space Glasgow-based Evans has had to contend with and he has realised it isn’t enough to put a few sculptures in it and leave them to fend for themselves. Those who fare best with T2 take it on architecturally, which Evans does by placing an entrance suggestive of a Mayan temple, and decorating its walls with friezes of figures in DayGlo colours, part pagan gods, part Space Invaders.
While this certainly gives the installation a unity, I suspect that Evans’ deepest interest is in the sculptures themselves. He has developed a signature form, and here we see him pushing it in different directions. The two figures in Nothing to do, Nowhere to go, Nothing to be, No-one to know are very nearly human, clutching the poles of their banner wearily, as if they can no longer quite remember what they are fighting for. Guardian with image forlornly brandishes a screenprint of itself as if it has lost its identical twin.
Yet others refuse to give us easy-to-identify shapes, or to yield their forms to our imaginations. Unseeing Eye turns on its plinth, always remote from us in its abstractness. By pushing in both directions, Evans is himself testing the potential of what his sculptures can do.
Although they are made from plaster, and show their fragility in chips, cracks, tufts of horsehair and unfinished edges, they are almost, in their way, monumental. They echo figures created by Moore and Hepworth, or the shapes you find in Picasso. They are more vulnerable, less defiant than these, but there is a confidence in the making of them which mean they are interesting objects to be around.
Next door in Tramway 5, another Glasgow artist, Rachel Adams, has also created sculptures which tend towards beings. Her cloth figures, made from tie-dye denim, arranged on yoga mats, suggest some multi-limbed creature assuming the lotus position. Other works use mats and yoga blocks as sculptural objects.
Adams presents her viewers with a lengthy text telling us what to make of what we see, and outlining the different ideas at work here: hand-craftedness, the hippy aesthetic, futurism, the space race, the way in which Western sculpture celebrates idealised forms, and how people today sculpt their bodies in the gym.
That puts a lot of pressure on a body of work which is, in some quarters, quite slight. Besides which, too much explanation makes me uneasy. If the work is doing its job, it shouldn’t be necessary.
However, both Adams and Evans seem to be generally at ease with making things, something which can’t be said of German artist Jutta Koether, who has her largest Scottish show to date at DCA. Koether is a musician, performance artist, theorist and painter, though this last seems to be the cause of much angst. This show is riven with questions, particularly: what does it mean to use paint as a contemporary artist?
Koether had an epiphany about painting five years ago when she visited the National Gallery of Scotland. She saw Poussin’s Seven Sacraments, and decided that painting, while generally outmoded in contemporary art terms, “could have a renewed life”. It galvinised her to create this show, a modern response to Poussin’s Seven Sacraments and his Four Seasons.
Her Sacraments are really seven different approaches to that question about painting and contemporary art. Marriage is a pair of paintings, Ordination is a series of narrow painted strips hung at door-lintel height and a pile of LED lights on a chair. Extreme Unction is a pile of planks scattered with kitschy objects and drizzled with clear liquid acrylic, the kind of art that becomes an urban myth when an over zealous cleaner comes along and throws it out. The most interesting is Confirmation, three panels containing slashes of pressed fabric encased in glass (echoing the bright colours of Poussin), with more liquid acrylic holding other objects: cheap jewellery, a piggy bank, electronic pass cards. It is big enough and substantial enough. to take on the challenge of Poussin’s originals.
If the other works struggle to do this, perhaps we can hardly blame her. She is responding to a suite of works made in a world where the old order still stood. Now everything has crumbled: church, ritual, our faith in painting itself, our willingness to conclude anything with certainty. What is left is an uncomfortable fusion of high and low culture, in which Derrida rubs shoulders with Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel.
Her Four Seasons make their European debut here, having been shown in the Whitney Biennial in New York 2012, when they were mounted on windows. Here, they occupy an awkward structure on clear free-standing mounts, which all but forces you to walk round them in the wrong order. They seem deliberately unskilled, the paint anaemic, sloppy, provisional. There are hints at mythology and symbolism – Adam and Eve, ubiquitous fruit – but they are suggestive, unsure and often disappear into the background. This, perhaps, is the point. If familiar structures have crumbled, all that is left is vagueness. Koether’s take on painting is uncomfortable, and not in a good way. Perhaps she is right and the white space between the feeble brushstrokes creates gaps into which the reader can find meaning, but that doesn’t compensate for a poverty of execution. She treats painting like a performance – ephemeral, inexact – when in fact the end result will long outlast the process. Poussin knew this, and his work has stood the test of more than 400 years.
After all Koether’s fretting about the relevance of paint, it was a relief to walk into the Park Gallery in Falkirk and see the new installation by Olivia Brown. In fact, I would defy anyone not to smile when confronted by the tableau of more than 100 ceramic dogs clustered intently at the ringside in Reggie’s Roller Palace, where other pooches rollerskate, pose and get ready to perform stunts.
Brown has made a wide variety of dogs – from mournful-eyed bassett hounds to a gang of Staffordshire bull terriers with mohicans slouching menacingly off to one side. She has also applied herself to every detail of the installation, from the signage to the retro ringside advertising, and the pampered pooch with the pink bouffant hairdo on the admissions booth. She has even made retro TV ads to support a range of “products” (“Elvis no. 27 – smell like the whippet with this cologne”).
There is something about the meticulousness of her approach which makes this work fun to be around, as confirmed by the Park Gallery’s visitors. Children can be telling in their approach to art: I watched several respond spontaneously to Nick Evans’ sculptures. And, unsurprisingly, they love this.
It isn’t all laughs. Reggie’s Roller Palace recalls the dance marathons of the 1930s, the roller discos of the 1970s or 1980s, and the obsessively watched celebrity talent shows of today. “Stay trim with slim-a-pill,” boasts one sharply ironic advertisement. “Drop 10 sizes in just 2 hours.” All this it achieves without forcing the issue. And you’re still smiling with you leave.
• Nick Evans continues until 31 March; Rachel Adams until 24 March. Jutta Koether and Olivia Brown until 21 April.