Art reviews: John McLean | Printmaking 1920-1930 | SSA Tides Changing/Changing Tides | SSA 30/30

The abstracts by the late John McLean at the Fine Art Society are pure visual music, writes Duncan Macmillan

Pennant, by John McLean

Forza: Works on paper by John McLean, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh *****

Printmaking 1920-1930, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh ****

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Tides Changing/Changing Tides, Society of Scottish Artists ****

Cantrip, by John McLean

30/30, Society of Scottish Artists ****

The eye has its music. Artists have long understood this, but since the Renaissance, if not before, the burden of representation, of having to make an image with a recognisable link to the perceived world, got in the way. Musical memory allows solo musicians to perform remarkable feats of sustained and faultless recall. It can endure undimmed, too, in people whose other memory is quite gone. These things suggest that music is lodged in some deeper part of the brain and was formed long before speech. Poetry can have the same gift, but for the visual arts direct access to this deep response only really became imaginable with the advent of abstraction, when the burden of representation was finally shed.

Even so there have been a lot of dead ends. Referential imagery, at times even language got in the way and it took a while for would-be abstract artists to clear the decks and work unburdened. Gestural abstraction, the free association of gesture, colour, form and texture, has been one of the most successful forms to evolve since then. Forza, a show of works on paper by John McLean who died two years ago, is online at the Fine Art Society and, if it can reopen in time, on the walls too. It demonstrates how he was a supreme master of this liberated form; how his art is pure visual music. Indeed he thought of it that way, too, not ponderously, or with the painful earnestness that makes so much contemporary music hard to enjoy, but with the joyfulness of song and dance. Like music, like dancing was how the put it himself and that is what you see here even in the tiniest works.

Forza, for instance, the work that gives the show its title, is just seven inches by ten, while one of the loveliest, Strunz is less than six inches high. (The title is a rude word in Italian. Though not a natural linguist, John determinedly learnt Italian and loved his Italian classes.) It is just a half moon of white in a pink rectangle, a contingent white rectangle, a collaged ticket that might just be a reference to his language class, and a bit of scumbled pink, but it is quite lovely. On a bigger scale, Circus is in two fields, one yellow, the other black, divided by an elbow-shaped line. A squashed circle of black with red centre sits against the yellow. It is mirrored by a similar circle of blue with black centre against the black, but this circle has decided to leave the scene and is only half visible. Shapes are approximate, nothing is hard edged, brushwork is free and casual. These things sing together, perfectly in tune. Untitled from 1996 is a tangle of vermillion brush strokes that seem to chase three blobs escaping across the bare canvas. It is like a playful piece of counterpoint, or, as humour was never far away, a comical account of some little drama in the school playground long ago.

Flam by John McLean

Stasera, on canvas, not paper, is the one really big work here. It is a reminder that McLean was not limited either to chamber music or to song. In irregular, interlocking triangles of red, orange, yellow, black and blue, its like one of those spine tingling moments in Mahler, all tympani and brass, but then the title, Stasera, a casual “Tonight” in Italian, keeps it tangible and human.

Also at the Fine Art Society is a group of prints principally by the three artists of the print revival in Scotland the late 1920s and 30s, James McIntosh Patrick, Ian Fleming and William Wilson. The first two began printmaking in Glasgow when still at art school. Though his etchings are brilliant, McIntosh Patrick did not continue to make prints on any scale, but Fleming and Wilson, encouraged by master printmaker ES Lumsden, went on to produce some superb prints in the 1930s. Wilson is especially well represented here with several of his mighty prints of the Highlands, his magnificent print, Sutherland, for instance. It is vertiginous view of the mountains of the west and is itself as craggy as a rock face. His dark and lovely Loch Scavaig is a true masterpiece. Wilson turned to stained glass and produced some of the finest windows of the time, but Fleming went on printmaking and, after his appointment as principal of Greys’s School Aberdeen, became the prime mover in establishing Peacock Printmakers, an organisation which has been one of the ornaments of the city ever since. His Thistles in the Sun from 1989, a very big and complex etching, is apparently just a farmyard scene, but with its towering thistles it is also a wonderful, emblematic vision of Scotland. There is a storm in the background, but the thistle prevails. It is an eloquent and much-needed piece of optimism for these trying times.

The Society of Scottish Artists should have held its annual exhibition at the RSA over the Christmas period but that was out of the question. Instead the society has put online as one, what began as two complementary shows. Both were collective soliloquies on the Scottish coastline and are now jointly titled Tides Changing/Changing Tides. There are around 40 artists in the combined show, and with so many involved, the responses to the subject are bound to be very diverse.

Some are straightforward enough. Alex Gillford paints a fisherman in oilskins while Rhodri Evans paints the view from his studio in North Uist, a high sky above the wide Western Isles landscape with its unique mix of land and water. Saul Robertson paints beachcombers on a surprisingly clean, debris free beach. Perhaps they have been very busy. Meanwhile Jenny Pope has herself collected flotsam and jetsam to make a wooden sculpture, curiously titled Nurdle Extractometer. Teresa Hunyadi has carved a piece of bog oak into a swelling wave and then has floated a little wooden boat on this wooden sea. It is rather beautiful. Mary Morrison’s work is also rather lovely. She captures in spare images the simple beauty of the water as it moves at the tideline. In similar vein, Samantha Clark paints the flurry of breaking waves while Rhona Graham and Sally Jennings paint waves breaking on the rocks.

View From my Studio, North Uist by Rhodri Evans

A regular feature of the Society of Scottish Artists’ annual show is SSA 30x30. It is a selection of members’ work, but limited to the dimensions of a 30cms square, priced at under £250, and usually displayed unframed on open shelves. This too is currently online. It is great place to browse.

Forza: Works on paper by John McLean and Print-making, 1920-1930 both until 13 February at www.thefineartsociety.com; Tides Changing/Changing Tides and 30/30 both until 31 January at www.ssa.viewingrooms.com

Spido 2019 by David Cass