Art review: Glasgow International

The annual Glasgow International art festival features a host of fêted prizewinners, but few have real star quality

















In 1949, retiring as president of the Royal Academy, Sir Alfred Munnings made a speech condemning Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne, those foreign johnnies who had corrupted art. Now Tracey Emin, who really cannot draw, has been appointed professor of drawing at the Academy over which Munnings once presided. Munnings was an old reactionary, but his hostility to modern art was widely shared. If it ever appeared in a public place, a row was inevitable, and this continued well into the 1970s.

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Gradually, things changed, but as though embarrassed at having once got it so wrong, we now accept without question whatever the art world offers us. The problem is not with contemporary art but our lack of a critical standard in dealing with it. Once an artist emerges from the swamp of obscurity into the blessed light of the media’s day, they can do no wrong. They are always stars, never just so-so, and we treat them with unquestioning, craven adulation. The Turner Prize reflects this. Nobody believes it brings us the best in contemporary art, yet it carries on regardless. Glasgow artists seem to have established quite a rapport with this dubious art event, however, and its winners and nominees feature largely in the current Glasgow International.

The city’s biennial contemporary artfest, GI is bigger than ever this year with more than 40 venues scattered throughout the city and three times as many artists. Unless you want to spend the day in a taxi, you walk it. So I walked miles taking in as many Turner Prize stars as I could in a day.

I started, though, at the Hub, GI’s central venue, where Rosalind Nashashibi is showing Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies), a short film of the dancers at Scottish Ballet in rehearsal. The dancers pirouette and flex their elegant limbs. Then members of the public file in to watch them. Good Glasgow folk, they stand and gaze in admiration, but, mostly somewhat stout and lumpy, they might be from a different species. A couple of policemen appear enigmatically at the end. Has some dancer put a foot wrong somewhere outside this enchanted dancing world? It is charming, but in truth it would be unremarkable on YouTube and there is nothing about it, except the status we have granted the artist, to explain why it should be presented any differently.

Karla Black was a Turner Prize nominee last year. She has been given the ground floor of the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). It’s a huge room and the roof is supported by a double colonnade. One work, Empty Now, an enormous, rectangular layer cake of sawdust, fills the entire space between the columns. The top layer is below eye level and is ordinary yellow sawdust. Beneath this, the dust of darker woods creates the layer cake effect. Here and there around the pile the artist has kicked a hole and put little bits of worked wood nearby as though the sawdust had playfully reconstituted itself, or this whole huge pile was a by-product of making these tiny objects. At various points, too, handfuls of brush-on makeup beads are scattered on top of the pile. They contribute very little, however, except as the artist’s signature use of makeup and bathroom products. Although visually inseparable, Will Attach, hanging above, consists of draped wreaths of polythene, stained with various unguents from the dressing table, is nominally a separate work.

Nearby in a cupboard hidden in an alcove, with a distinct echo of Damien Hirst’s medical cabinets, lines of make-up bottles are ranged above a drawerful of sawdust. I suppose it is an epitome of the whole thing, but it doesn’t add much. Without any of the cutesy bits, the sawdust layer cake could be quite a grand piece of minimalism, but even that is really just because of its scale. Like Dr Johnson’s talking dog, what is actually done is less remarkable than the fact of it being done at all.

Kelvingrove is showing Richard Wright, Turner Prize winner in 2010. He has been given a corner gallery among the old masters for a display of drawings. He hasn’t actually painted the walls, as is his habit, but he has hung his drawings in an odd array suggesting the way Malevich and Mondrian liked to hang things high. It works with their bold, geometric paintings, but not with Wright’s framed and glazed drawings. Those hung high are simply invisible. The Malevich-Mondrian theme is echoed in a number of the drawings too. These are elegant essays in the geometric manner of de Stijl and much better than what he generally puts on walls and ceilings. But then he does drawings that are entirely different and use flame-like shapes. A third group seem to use the technique of the Rorschach blot and have been folded when the ink or paint was wet to make symmetrical images. Some of these are elegant, but overall this show is all a bit miscellaneous. You don’t really get the feeling that there is a driving artistic vision unifying it all.

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Wolfgang Tillmans won the Turner Prize in 2000. I remember his show seemed rather slight at the time. Clearly he has moved on. Some of his works at the Common Guild are really impressive, especially several purely abstract photographs and one almost abstract picture of the night sky over Kilimanjaro. The other Turner Prize winner whose work I wanted to see was Jeremy Deller. I was in Glasgow on Thursday. I was told it was strictly embargoed and would not be visible till Friday morning, but there was his Stonehenge bouncy castle, Sacrilege, on the ten o’clock news that evening. Irritating. Still, I suppose one bouncy castle is much the same as another, although Stonehenge does give this one novelty value. Maybe he’ll market it.

Douglas Gordon, another Turner Prize winner, will be performing at the festival and his house is host to the Wolfgang Tillmans show. It is not all about the Turner Prize, however. I also saw Is there anything to do here, anything to see? at CCA, an exhibition by Rob Kennedy that includes work by Colin Cook, Július Koller, Kostas Sfikas and Walter Sickert. In spite of a lost looking Sickert hanging on the wall, the short answer to the question in the title is “No there isn’t.” With a pile of rubbish at the entrance – how ancient a cliché is that? – this is one of those shows where random juxtapositions, or in the accompanying film, random cutting, masquerade as inspiration. It never works.

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Nairy Baghramian’s show at the Mitchell Library is also a non-event. It is a single work, Spanner (Stretcher/Loiterer), a cable clad in chrome piping stretched across the library’s main hall. There’s nothing else, no cause to linger. Folkert de Jong’s show, The Immortals, at Glasgow School of Art is much more lively. His title is the name Mackintosh and his friends gave themselves. De Jong’s resin sculptures have echoes in them of portraits of Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald, but of other people and other things too, including the Three Graces. Among his sculptures stand casts of two of Michelangelo’s Slaves and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, real immortals. In one of his works, there are two figures up on a high scaffolding platform. There are also ladders against the walls. The ladder was for William Blake a symbol of aspiration – here aspiration to immortality perhaps?

At Glasgow Print Studio, Adrian Wiszniewski has a show of recent paintings and drawings. They are typically enigmatic and quite beautifully painted. It is a while since he had a major one-man show like this, but these new works have a richness and intensity that show his work is evolving very strongly.

• Glasgow International runs until 7 May. For full programme details, see