SOME art doesn’t lend itself naturally to galleries. Julie Brook makes sculptures in the landscape: bowl-shaped cavities to catch rainwater, handbuilt sections of curved wall.
Julie Brook: Made, Unmade
Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh
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Dunbar Town House Museum and Gallery
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Carol Bove: The Foamy Saliva of a Horse
Common Guild, Glasgow
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She works in remote places – her recent bodies of work have been made in the deserts of Libya and Namibia. How, then, does she make a show in a gallery back home?
One can take photographs, of course. One can send back a consignment of desert mud and stone and build something in situ. Brook has done something bolder: she has made a show which is almost exclusively film. It’s a bold move for her, her first show in this medium, and for Dovecot Studios, for whom this is also new. It’s a gamble, but it works.
Brook’s second daring – but clever – decision is that instead of simply showing a camera panning over the works she has built, she shows them under construction. The larger of the two Dovecot galleries is fitted with seven screens, immersing the viewer in the swirling of sand and the metallic, percussive sound of a shovel at work. Up close to the raw material, you can almost feel the heat and graft, the wind and the isolation, much more so than if she had simply built a sculpture in the gallery.
The art is about Brook’s experiences of these landscapes, the red dust and dramatic light of Northern Namibia, the desert of the Jebel Acacus mountains, and the lunar, otherworldly, volcanic desert at the centre of Libya. She immerses herself in the landscape, and the landscape shapes the work. To take the work out of the landscape would make no sense. Better to bring the landscape to the gallery.
It is necessary, however, to surrender yourself into Brook’s hands. Both galleries show a looping programme of short films with no titles between them. You may not be sure at any given moment which film you are watching, or even which desert you’re in. Sometimes, one screen appears to be showing something different from the others. But if you are prepared to go with it, you will find yourself on a journey.
Human presence in the films is used very sparingly; occasionally we glimpse Brook manhandling a wheelbarrow full of stones, or hear the laughter and voices of the local Himba women with whom she collected red pigment in Namibia. Yet the human presence is all the more powerful when we do see it, in a work like Passeggiata, which studies the light playing on a figure walking through a rock passageway, hands and naked shoulders brushing the red stones.
In a way, she has shown us her process, which she continues to do in her drawings, formal, abstract outworkings of those patterns of African light, drawn with the red Himba pigment as a kind of pastel. And there is a tufted rug, inspired by the drawings, produced by Dovecot weaver Jonathan Cleaver, a further study in colour and texture. Next to all this, the documentary photographs dotted around the building look alarmingly two-dimensional, confirming the rightness of her bold choices.
The question of how artists respond to landscape is also present in Steep Trail, the current show by Dunbar-based curatorial team Polarcap, which is coming to the end of its tour, having shown in St Andrews with Fife Contemporary Art & Craft, and in Edinburgh at the all-new Sculpture Studios. Taking its title and theme from explorer and pioneering environmentalist John Muir, it finishes off in Dunbar, a stone’s throw from his birthplace.
Scottish artists Jonathan Owen and Graeme Todd and Chinese artists Rania Ho and Wang Xieda took part in an exchange, echoing the fact that Muir also spent time in China. Muir himself is also part of the show, represented by facsimile drawings of glaciers from his sketchbooks. They are deft works, made with a kind of scientific unselfconsciousness which the contemporary work does not have. He becomes the cement which holds the bricks of the show together, the still centre around which the others dance.
And dance they do. American-Chinese artist Rania Ho has designed a bespoke wallpaper, with patterns made by loaves of sourdough bread (an oblique reference to the bread Muir took with him on his 1,000-mile hike across the United States). Todd’s paintings are multi-layered imaginary landscapes, responding in part to his visit to China, in part to a wide sweep of other influences, from Durer to pop art.
Wang Xieda’s sculptures perhaps take most account of the landscape and of Muir, with their allusions to treeroots, topography, Chinese pictograms and abstract modernism. Owen shows three of his “erased drawings”, in which he removes statues from photographs printed in books. Perhaps the idea of slow removal connects distantly to climate change, but these are works from Owen’s ongoing practice rather than a response either to Muir or to China.
Polarcap’s aim was to create a show of subtle connections, one which allows the artists to be themselves but links them in a fine web of curatorial threads. This, too, is a gamble. Insist on too much conformity to a theme and you risk being heavy-handed, but, equally, if the artists don’t lean into the theme enough, the show can lack direction, and this is occasionally an issue here.
The work of American artist Carol Bove at the Common Guild is also, in a way, a response to an environment. Bove’s installations feature objects found near her home in Red Hook, the industrial shipping district of Brooklyn, on the banks of the Hudson. The work was shown at the Arsenale in Venice two years ago, in what was once the boat-building heart of a maritime state, and has a fresh set of resonances in the Common Guild, looking down on the Clydeport crane and the former shipbuilding areas of Glasgow.
The show takes its title from a Greek myth about the painter Apelles, who drove himself to distraction trying to paint “the foamy saliva of a horse”. In frustration he took the sponge he used to clean his brushes and hurled it at the painting – thus creating, by accident, the effect he desired. What can be achieved, Bove seems to be asking, by the chance placing of objects?
Yet, there is very little here that is accidental, apart from the finding of the objects themselves: the rusty metal oil drum still stinking of oil, the spar of driftwood, the block of half-decayed polystyrene stained with rust and dirt. Placed in the gallery, arranged in groups or explored for their sculptural qualities – size, weight, what they do in a space – they cease to be rubbish found on a beach and start to become sculptural objects. How can this be, Bove seems to be asking? When, exactly, does this transformation happen?
Part of the transformation seems to be the meticulous attention paid to what is around them: 500 peacock feathers laid on the floor to create a rug; a suspended net, which looks at first glance to be an old fishing net, but is actually an exquisite thing made of very fine chains. Small objects are placed next to large, and so much care is taken over their placing that we begin to think of them as precious before we have even really looked at them.
While Julie Brook’s desert work needed to find a form which could contain it and carry it into the context of a gallery, Bove’s work relies on the gallery as the crucible for transformation. It requires a more determined engagement on the part of the viewer, and yields meaning more sparingly, but if you are prepared to take the time it has interesting questions to pose.
• Julie Brook until 1 June; Steep Trail until 12 May; Carol Bove until 29 June