LUCY SKAER *** FRUITMARKET GALLERY, EDINBURGH
IN THE short explanatory film which accompanies her exhibition, Lucy Skaer says that the show is "about what an image is, and how it's different from reality". It's what Rene Magritte drew attention to in his seminal work The Treachery of Images in the 1920s: a drawing of a pipe, with the caption "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (This is not a pipe). It wasn't a pipe, it was a picture of one.
What is perhaps most intriguing about this is that art had gone on being made for many centuries prior without anyone losing sleep over this distinction. Sometimes the things in the pictures were "real", often they were the stuff of myth or imagination. People knew that they were looking at a picture of the god Zeus, not Zeus himself, but no-one felt the need to say so.
All that changed with Modernism, which taught artists to scrutinise their practice and their relationship with their audience. One result of this is that visual culture has started to be about visual culture, critiquing how images are employed and understood. This is the context in which to understand artists such as Skaer.
One the current new wave of contemporary artists coming out of Glasgow, Skaer graduated from the city's School of Art in 1997. Since then, she has taken part in shows, residencies and biennales around Europe (including last summer's Venice Biennale) but this is her biggest solo show to date. Bringing together work from the past seven years, it is the first time we've had a chance to see her working out her concerns at length.
Skaer's works always begin with an existing image which she copies, appropriates, dismantles and reconstructs. Sometimes, it's an image by another artist, such as Hokusai's iconic Great Wave, which she reworked as a vast drawing for Venice, the sheets of paper flowing down on to the floor like surf. More often it is a photograph, sometimes politically charged, such as a newspaper image of a riot, or a wounded soldier. Other times it is seemingly nondescript.
In her reworking of it – often in immense detail, on a heroic scale – she removes it from the frame of reference which originally gave it meaning. She mirrors it, repeats it, rotates it, breaks it into fragments, overlays it with other images, uses the outline to make three-dimensional segments which fit together rather like a chocolate orange, subjects it to her own system of code.
Her film Flash in the Metropolitan, made with Rosalind Nashashibi after-hours in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, works out similar ideas. Ancient artefacts filmed using a strobe light flash briefly before our eyes, devoid of their context, demanding a new set of meanings.
There are two new works in the Fruitmarket show – an immense three-sided drawing, Three Possible Edges and Room of Lines, an installation inspired by etchings Skaer saw in Basel of the "danse macabre", the night when the dead dance with the living to remind them of their mortality.
For this, she has made a series of monochrome prints of the surface of a Georgian table, remarkably resonant images in which the marks made down the centuries on the table's surface create the texture of the print, much as Rachel Whiteread seems to sculpt a sense of time and history by casting the space beneath a bed.
However, I found the "spectres" which populate the room less successful. Based on the outlines of dancing cadavers, produced on the "chocolate orange" model, they are positioned in a way that suggests the might be sliding into the room through the walls and floor. Yet, to me they were solid rather than spectral, more like Grecian urns than ghostly whirling dervishes.
Be sure not to miss the film of surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, whom Skaer tracked down, in her dotage, in Mexico. Skaer's film focuses on her hands, gnarled but vividly expressive. Around her, Skaer groups other objects – an inlaid coffee table, a sculpture based on a riot photograph, a drawing of a whale skeleton – Carrington's presence seeming to bestow confidence on a whimsically random grouping. I wonder if Skaer also feels an attraction to surrealism, and what would happen if she decided to pursue it.
There is a great deal to see, and to admire, in this show. But a viewer's instinctive response to images is to try to decode them, which is exactly the process which Skaer is trying to undermine. The more we try to "read" her work – and therefore engage with it – the more it eludes us. This is the point, of course, but it doesn't make for easy viewing.
• Until 9 July