Art reviews: Travelling Gallery at 40 | David Evans | Ravi Agarwal

The Travelling Gallery is still providing a vital service after 40 years, while a David Evans solo show is a rare treat

The Travelling Gallery bus PIC: courtesy of the Travelling Gallery

Travelling Gallery at 40, City Art Centre, Edinburgh ***

David Evans, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh ****

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Ravi Agarwal: Nàdar/Prakriti, Edinburgh Printmakers ***

The Maybury, by David Evans PIC: Open Eye

In the remoter parts of the north and west, if you are lucky there’s a visiting van that brings fresh fish. As fish, so art, or at least that was the logic of the Travelling Gallery, initially a converted Glasgow bus, launched in 1978 by the Scottish Arts Council, the precursor of Creative Scotland. Since then, the gallery has covered thousands of miles, negotiating ferries and single track roads to bring art to some of the remotest parts of the country. Long ago too the Gallery’s staff realised remoteness did not necessarily mean physical distance. Psychologically some parts of our big towns and cities, though no more than a bus ride from an art gallery, are as far away as the remotest islands of the north and west. So the gallery visits urban areas in the Central Belt as well as the more far-flung parts of the country. An exhibition at the Edinburgh City Art Centre, partly documentary and partly installation, and curated by Claire Craig, one of the Travelling Gallery’s present curators, celebrates this achievement.

Though it has been much admired and no doubt imitated, the Travelling Gallery was not actually the first. A dealer, Nicholas Treadwell, had run a converted bus as a gallery in the 1960s, but his objectives were commercial. The Scottish Arts Council’s project was certainly the first publicly funded project of its kind. In 1997 it was handed over to Edinburgh City Council which in an imaginative piece of outreach has run it ever since.

Over the years its achievement has really been significant, too. There are no precise attendance figures, but in the first two and a half years there were roughly 30,000 visitors, thus averaging about 12,000 a year. That has now dropped to around 7,000. I fear this may be because the gallery’s programme, originally diverse, is now rigorously “contemporary,” OK for a captive audience in schools, but less attractive to a general audience. Nevertheless, the overall figure cannot be much less than 300,000 visitors over 40 years, many of them schoolchildren and adults who have never been in an art gallery before. Nor is the gallery just a passive presence wherever it rolls up. Each exhibition has a programme of talks, films, workshops and events. Learning packs and interpretative materials are provided in advance for schools.

As well as being versed in the business of art, perhaps uniquely the first curators, Katriana Hazel and Elizabeth Anne McGregor, also had to have HGV licences so they could drive the bus and its successor, a more sophisticated vehicle which replaced it after three years. In 2007 it was replaced again by the present vehicle designed by architects Sutherland and Hussey. It has also always been painted in a striking and distinctive way so there’s no mistaking it when you see it on the road. Now, too, the Gallery has a team of six, including curators and a driver, to cover the planning and often complex logistics as well as presenting the shows on the road.

Fleeting Landscapes by Ravi Agarwal at Edinburgh Printmakers

The present exhibition offers a mass of documents and photographs and a slightly random selection of artworks from shows over the years, but there is really not enough simple narrative to get the story across to the uninitiated. With schools, the gallery can often go right into the playground and to judge by archival pictures of eager children queuing to get in, the welcome is often warm. Works by artists like Will Maclean and Fionna Carlisle are on show here from the early, more varied programme when there was even a show of work by the Colourists.

From later shows there are some striking drawings for a film by Rob Churm. There is also an entertaining use of paint for a film by Jacco Olivier. Since the mid-90s, however, the emphasis has tended to be rather too exclusively on installation and new media, the kind of non-art art which is fashionable with curators, much less so with the public. It probably also bears no relation at all to what children may encounter in the art room. That may indeed be stimulating, but it is limiting too. The gallery should perhaps not simply be an evangelist for one kind of art.

The public however and especially the school children for whom it is such an asset are immensely forgiving. They clearly take whatever they are offered with courtesy and unquestioning enthusiasm and make what they can of it. Nevertheless a hanging in a bold abstract pattern made by Craig Coulthard with pupils from Liniclate School, Benbecula, is actually quite beautiful. It is also a wonderful symbol of the creative collaboration and exchange which the gallery can stimulate, of its mission indeed.

I couldn’t see work by David Evans in the massed publications from the Travelling Gallery’s history in the exhibition, but I have no doubt he appeared somewhere in the early years. He is an artist whose work has certainly been a familiar presence on the scene for many years and regularly in the RSA and other groups shows, but one-man shows have been less frequent. Now, however, at the Open Eye there is a chance to see a wide selection of his distinctive paintings, usually of buildings, but also including some still-lifes of fruit and interiors. His pictures are enigmatic but intense in mood, conjured by stillness, shadow and often by emptiness. A scene in South Carolina, for instance, is just a low building in bright sunlight with sharp shadows. It is exquisitely painted. The way Evans paints light and with it subtly suggests urban alienation recalls Edward Hopper. There are also echoes of the Surrealists and especially Magritte, though Evans’s reality, however suggestive, always behaves itself. The beautiful drawings that are seen here for the first time and that he has evidently always done in preparation for his paintings are witnesses to the precision and delicacy of the observation on which they are based.

Finally at Edinburgh Printmakers, Ravi Agarwal is a distinguished Indian photographic artist. He was given an opportunity to visit Scotland by the John Muir Trust, fittingly because like Muir himself he is an ecological campaigner. The results of this visit and of a subsequent residency at Edinburgh Printmakers, as they can be seen in his exhibition, are a short but rather beautiful film of a struggling piece of urban forest in Delhi, which could equally be Scotland, and a series of photographs of Scotland rendered as lithographic prints. They seem principally concerned with water, but some that are particularly beautiful are of forests under snow.

Travelling Gallery at 40 until 4 November; David Evans until 17 September; Ravi Agarwal until 20 October