Art review: Pittenweem Arts Festival

In the unusual/unlikely venue stakes, Pittenweem Arts Festival rivals Edinburgh's Fringe. With the focus here on visual arts, the East Neuk village's 70-odd 'galleries' include the fishing-fleet's net loft, mediaeval underground vaults, a former communal laundry and the harbourmaster's office, together with local homes, garages, conservatories and summerhouses, adding a wholesale doors-open aspect - paradise for the nosy - to the event's myriad charms.
We Were Never So Cold by Derek RobertsonWe Were Never So Cold by Derek Robertson
We Were Never So Cold by Derek Robertson

Among over 150 participating artists, three are officially invited, plus an annual up-and-coming bursary winner. As with the Fringe, everyone else pays for a programme entry, and organises their own venue. Of this year’s headline trio, Glen Onwin’s imposing and intriguing mini-retrospective The Art of Memory complements the festival’s prevailing figurative mode with bracing conceptual boldness. Objects including a miniature blasted landscape of charcoal and salt, a perfect inky-black hemisphere, darkly reflected in glass, dual crystal gardens and flasks of used motor oil, mounted on fossil-rich limestone, encapsulate explorations of genesis, entropy, elements, archetypes, cosmic/geological time and humans’ place in nature.

Well-kent wildlife painter Derek Robertson’s Migrations draws on recent journeys along the shared routes of avian and human migrants in lovingly-rendered, overlaid images of birds and refugee life, from the desert to urban shanty-towns. As the accompanying text acknowledges, however, “often the stories I heard and the things I saw were difficult to express and too hard to portray,” and his predominantly traditional, illustrative style and soft palette are awkwardly incongruous with their subjects.

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Purporting to reference “the elemental and transformative nature of light and fire”, along with the imprint or passage of time, ceramic artist Lucy Dunce’s small sculptural installations proved decidedly unenlightening in reality, but bursary winner Sophia Pauley supplied an arresting counterpoint to the surrounding plethora of realist seascapes and light/water studies, with her largely abstract, geometric acrylics vividly evoking both African and Scottish settings.

Crowds at the Pittenweem Arts FestivalCrowds at the Pittenweem Arts Festival
Crowds at the Pittenweem Arts Festival

Outwith the official selection, previous bursary winner and East Neuk native Jill Macleod also combined acrylics with geometric and deconstructive techniques, distilling mainly local scenes - from the Forth bridges to Pittenweem itself – into felicitous juxtapositions of diagrammatic forms, diverse brushwork and sensuously deployed colour. Sydney Clare Checkland’s unique photographic method - high-definition, near-microscopic close-ups of unnamed everyday objects, printed via dye sublimation on polished aluminium – magically renders the familiar strange, variously suggesting flames, lush fabrics, ice crystals, sunset or sunrise, while accompanying poems, from Shakespeare to Kathleen Jamie, trigger yet more teasing associations.

Marrying oil paint’s depth of hue with watercolour-style fluidity, Sarah Knox’s impressionistic paintings and prints gorgeously conjure coastal and mountain vistas, often of the Highlands and Hebrides, while intense summer shades and strong draughtsmanship make Fiona Douglas’s floral works equally covetable. Highlighting the multifarious artistry on display, Keny Drew’s impishly whimsical stained-glass creations – some dreamed up collaboratively with local musical hero King Creosote - unite elements of East Neuk lore, photography, screenprinting, eco-activism and superhero adventure; young master craftsman Frazer A Reid’s luscious wooden wares encompass furniture, wall-hangings, tableware and surfboards; Moyra Stewart and John Scott respectively ring the changes on virtuosic raku pottery, and Julia Cowie casts metal vessels and spoons palpably redolent of ancient landscapes and peoples.

Until 12 August