Art reviews: Will Maclean and Graham Rich, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh

Will Maclean and Graham Rich are showing together at the Fine Art Society. It is not a joint show, but both are artist-poets and both find much of their inspiration in the sea, so they do have common ground. They also both use found objects. Nevertheless they are very different artists.
Detail from River Yealm Diptych by Graham RichDetail from River Yealm Diptych by Graham Rich
Detail from River Yealm Diptych by Graham Rich

Will Maclean: Narratives, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh *****

Graham Rich: Anchored Under Red Rock, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh *****

For Rich, the things he finds become essentially the support for paintings, though his show also includes the ghostly skeleton of a small rowing boat. Maclean on the other hand makes assemblages. He also uses found objects, but they are frequently remade, though so well that they keep their aura of mysterious association. In Birth of Uraisg at Garyvard, for instance, a figure seated on a scallop shell and the shell itself seem to be found objects remade, but there are nevertheless signs of wear as though they really had been handled over the years, opening an unspoken history. All in white, the whole piece is like a little shrine. The Uraisg of the title is a lonely supernatural being. Garyvard is a small settlement on Lewis. But we don’t need to know any of that to feel the poetic force of this lovely piece. The same is true of much of this work. It suggests but does not dictate. Black Tide, for instance, is another beautiful box construction. A boat sits on the waterline. Beneath, all in matt black, are sunken boats and fish in relief suggesting the submarine world. Above a half-legible drawing against white hints at a stormy sea and a rainbow.

Lament For a Clearance Village by Will MacleanLament For a Clearance Village by Will Maclean
Lament For a Clearance Village by Will Maclean
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Even though the show is called Narratives, it is visual things, here, for instance, the contrast between textures, between drawing and modelling, between matt black and graphite on white, that make the poetry as much as any subject matter. Lament for a Clearance Village, though it has a clear pointer to narrative in the title, manages to be evocative without being any more specific. There is a hint of landscape, a fragment of wood as though roof timber from an abandoned house, and three ghostly sheep horns sketched in white. That is all, but the effect is wistful and elegiac encapsulating what it feels like to stand in a house where once people lived, but now the wind whistles and the sheep roam at will.

Both artists work like this, through suggestion, not description. Rich works with driftwood, pieces of weathered timber with vestiges of paint or other traces of a former existence. By introducing his trademark ketch, lug-rigged with main mast, mizzen and foresails, he turns this undifferentiated detritus into a location and a moment in time. Worn surfaces become space, flaking paint and weathered wood, weather, sea and sky. It is alchemy, magical appropriation. The title piece, Anchored by Red Rock, for instance, is a battered, red-painted boat’s rudder. A little ship sails across and it becomes the sea in a crimson sunset. In North Wall, a little ship in the middle of big piece of sea-weathered marine plywood becomes a ship at sea, but also a metaphor for the ultimate isolation of the human condition.

Nor does the artist leave it there. He also works on the surface. In Window, for instance, scumbled white paint becomes the light in the sky. In Waiting for the Tide, black paint becomes approaching darkness above sliver evening light. White Painting, River Exe is simply a luminous rectangle of white light, the little ketch lost in its brilliance. This picture, the black square in Sailing Past a Black Square, or the white square in Sailing with Malevich point to the direction of his thought. It is as though he has opened up an imaginative space through which Malevich’s Suprematist shapes can drift at their ease, not abstruse and difficult art, but an easily accessible part of our poetic reality.

These two lovely shows complement each other beautifully: the best art leads us from apparent simplicity to imaginative complexity.

Until 12 May