Visual arts review: David Sherry, Sense Makes No Sense

Last chance: David Sherry's installation. Picture: Ruth Clark
Last chance: David Sherry's installation. Picture: Ruth Clark
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It’s difficult not to see David Sherry’s aptly named show as a mournful farewell to Stirling’s Changing Room Gallery

VISITING the Changing Room Gallery in Stirling this week, I was struck by the gorgeous winter light. In the hour before sunset the two simple Georgian rooms in the city’s historic Tolbooth building glowed. Sadly though, it was twilight in more ways than one, and the artist David Sherry’s drawings of dark shadows, each the distinctive silhouette of an alpine peak, seemed ominous. Following a decision last month by Stirling Council to close the gallery, this show will be the Changing Room’s last ever ­exhibition.

Sherry is an artist best known for his performances: absurd, sometimes on the verge of painful, usually hilarious. In a performance in Glasgow this week I saw him read Dostoyevsky in the style of Bob Dylan. “Dylaning,” he said. It looked easy. I don’t think it was. Later he covered his face in tomato ketchup whilst reciting the litany of an exhausted parent, who would love to meet his friends for dinner, but can never quite get away. “Tell them we’re sick, tell them the children are sick. Can we meet for coffee?”

The Stirling show focuses largely on Sherry’s drawings: a landscape made of teeth, the grimace of someone practising pelvic floor exercises. While the humour is writ large, it’s hard not to read the works through the sad coincidence of the gallery closure. In one short film, Experience Certain Death, Sherry has his head in a large bag, screaming – he’s imagining jumping off high buildings such as the Eiffel Tower. In another he wears a painted-on beard and wrestles with an imaginary box. Art is one thing, but it’s also part of a life which is an unnecessary struggle with invisible forces.

In the Changing Room’s case it’s not entirely clear what it’s struggling against or why Stirling Council thinks that it and a Visual Arts Development Officer post in the city are expendable. The gallery was nothing fancy, but at its best it had a real energy – an energy that made Stirling a better, livelier and more rooted place for artists and audiences. I’ve been thinking about the artists who have showed there in the past decade-and-a-half and it begins to sound like a roll call of Scottish art’s significant talents. Early shows by Turner Prize nominees Nathan Coley and Karla Black. Significant solo exhibitions by painters Victoria Morton or Janice McNab. Experimental moments from innovators like Craig Mulholland and Torsten Lauschmann.

At a time when the art world in Scotland is looking back at decades of vitality, the gallery’s archive needs to be preserved urgently and safely housed in a major collection where it will be part of the national cultural story. But it was also a place where ­local artists from different generations – such as the young Falkirk-based artist and designer Christine Jones or the established artist Peter Russell – found common ground.

Founded in 1997 in the burst of ­energy when Stirling commemorated the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, the gallery began life in the city’s much underrated Victorian Arcade, a breath­takingly beautiful structure whose individual shop units had often seen better days.

In a period when we are wondering how to revitalise our shopping streets, this still serves as a wonderful example. It was a space that was in the centre of town, but given over to culture. It had a small reading room that gradually became a magnet for young people, a public space that wasn’t a pub or a shopping centre. ­Local students and schoolkids would hang out there. Young artists and designers found like-minded folk. Skater kids would visit and gradually absorb the languages of art and the possibilities of creativity.

When the city’s Tolbooth was redeveloped as a flagship building, the Changing Room moved in. But a wee gallery like the Changing Room is not just about bricks and mortar nor, councillors should note, just about expenditure. Projects it supported were a channel for other kinds of partnerships. Staff, volunteers and interns reached out to their art school mentors. The gallery joined town and gown, most notably when artist Stephen Sutcliffe worked with the archive of film director Lindsay Anderson, which was based at Stirling University.

The Changing Room’s notable alumni include curator Kirsteen Macdonald, now an academic researcher interested in Scotland’s vibrant story of art curation. Artist Jenny Brownrigg, a volunteer at the gallery, went on to transform the exhibitions department at Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee and is now building a fantastic programme at Glasgow School of Art. Jenny Crowe, who volunteered as a gallery assistant in 1999, went on to become a key figure in public art commissioning in Scotland and is now a project manager at the National Galleries of Scotland. The gallery provided professional experience and the kind of energy and community that can be hard to find in a small city that has big cities on its doorstep.

Sherry’s show is called Sense Makes No Sense. And sadly Stirling’s decision doesn’t make much sense. One wonders if Creative Scotland, with its emphasis on themed years and flagship public projects, has failed to help modest organisations like the Changing Room articulate their vision and achievements to elected councillors and senior council officers. I’ve visited Stirling regularly over the last dozen years to see what the Changing Room was up to. I can’t imagine I’ll be jumping on that train now. «

Twitter: @moirajeffrey

• David Sherry: Sense Makes No Sense is at The Changing Room, Stirling until 30 March. Sherry will give a talk at the gallery on 22 March at 6.30pm