Art reviews: Kenny Hunter | Anthony Schrag | A Passion for Art

Kenny Hunter’s show in Aberdeen interrogates the meaning and purpose public sculptures and monuments, while Anthony Schrag’s exhibition in Perth explores museum collections and what people really think should be in them. Reviews by Susan Mansfield

Installation view of the Kenny Hunter exhibition at Aberdeen Art Gallery
Installation view of the Kenny Hunter exhibition at Aberdeen Art Gallery

Kenny Hunter: Sculpture Court, Aberdeen Art Gallery ****

Anthony Schrag: Kill Your Darlings, Perth Museum & Art Gallery ****

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A Passion for Art: Matilda Hall, Collector and Curator, MacRobert Arts Centre, University of Stirling ****

Horse and Rider (Ancient Model) by Kenny Hunter at Aberdeen Art Gallery PIC: Mike Davidson

A gallery show by Kenny Hunter is a rare and splendid thing. With much of his time spent working on public (or private) commissions for site-specific sculptures, he uses his gallery practice to reflect on this work and bring to the fore the ideas he is confronting. This show, in Aberdeen Art Gallery’s beautiful but idiosyncratic sculpture court, elegantly addresses many of the issues around public sculpture which the world has been wrestling with since monuments started to topple in the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

Even Hunter’s title is a gentle provocation. The sculpture court, with its chequerboard marble floor and coloured pillars, is far from a neutral space. It is also loaded with history: classical plastercasts once stood in its niches to be sketched by art students. It has a way of out-glamourising many works which are placed in it. Even Hunter’s elephant – a lifesize resin version used in the making of the one now in Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park – doesn’t look particularly big.

But Hunter’s work is not interested in showiness. It has a thoughtful, understated aesthetic, informed by the clean lines and deft forms of modernism. And it has plenty to say.

Horse and Rider (Ancient Model) is a sculpture of a young woman riding bareback on a kind of proto-horse. It is a quiet but determined challenge to everything we know about equestrian monuments: typically male and military, mounted high on plinths, works about authority and status. The girl looks us in the eye. Her olive skin is a provocation too, a reminder that the Greek cradle of Western civilisation owes more to the Mediterranean and the near East than it does to northern Europe.

Anthony Schrag

Father of Dread is a large-scale version of Napoleon’s nose, sliced into fragments. Even complete, it would have an Ozymandias quality: the giant, fallen and in pieces. Viewed from some angles, it is abstract; from others, its nose-ness is clear. But this is sculpture with the workings revealed, the hollowness made plain. The illusion of weight and permanence is stripped away.

There is a chance to see versions of other public sculptures too: As Above so Below, made for Lerwick, exploring the theme of oil and gas extraction, and a larger than life-size stylised skeleton, similar to The Unknown, made for Borgie in Sutherland. It’s human, but without gender, without race. The message seems devastatingly simple: reduced to bones, we are not so different. Banners, and a print made at Aberdeen’s Peacock and the Worm, take the argument a bit further using words. “Clear history” might be a description or an invitation, or even an exhortation. Faith in Flux might, in the end, be positive: the only thing certain is change, but maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Meanwhile, down the road in Perth, Anthony Schrag has been asking equally penetrating questions about museum collections. His show, Kill Your Darlings, created after a two-year residency at the museum, is delivered with a characteristically light touch, but it still packs a punch.

Visitors entering the exhibition space are handed a circular token. Once inside they are invited to use it to vote for one of 11 objects carefully chosen from Perth’s huge and diverse collection: which would you save from a burning building? Which is the most important to conserve?

Work by Eduardo Paolozzi and Alan Davie as part of the Mathilda Hall show at the MacRobert

The mind becomes focused immediately on concepts of value: should it be the papyrus fragment from the third century AD, simply because of its age? Or Sichel’s bronze sculpture, for its artistic merit? Or the Monart vase, because it’s a piece of local history?

The questions go on. The Persian tile or the St Johnstone football shirt? The Inuit snow goggles arguably shouldn’t be here at all, brought back by some acquisitive Victorian explorer. Is it still acceptable to exhibit stuffed birds, even (or especially) if they are endangered or extinct?

Another group of objects drawn from the collection draws attention to the complexity involved in caring for them: the moth-eaten seal’s head, the intricate glass replica of a sea creature, the photograph of the local cricket team in the 1890s. What stories do these tell? Are they still appropriate for the world as it is today? And, if they are not – if they are overburdened, for example, by the presence of rich, white men – how can that be changed, and what does that mean for the people tasked with caring for the collection?

Schrag’s work is immediately graspable, it is also incisive, laying bare many questions about museums and their purpose while still remaining sympathetic to the challenges faced by those who work in them. Public engagement in the show has outstripped all expectations so far, suggesting that he is succeeding in what he set out to do: opening up these questions for a wider public.

The history of collecting is complex, but collectors are also to be celebrated: it is largely thanks to them that works of art are preserved, looked after and exhibited. As Stirling University celebrates its 50th anniversary, a show at the MacRobert Arts Centre, A Passion For Art, celebrates the work of Matilda Hall, the PA to the first principal, Tom Cottrell, who helped establish and grow the university’s art collection.

In the early years of this modern campus, the university collected, commissioned and borrowed work to create striking contemporary exhibitions. There are works from that collection here, along with work from the collection of Art in Healthcare, of which Hall was a founder in Scotland, and works from her own collection, built up with her late husband, Douglas Hall, the first keeper of Scotland’s National Gallery of Modern Art. It’s a wide-ranging group of works, mainly Scottish, mainly paintings and prints, ranging from MacTaggart and Eardley through to Andy Goldsworthy and Lys Hansen.

Imposing any unity on such a diverse group is a challenge, but Hall and Jane Cameron, the university’s current curator, have done a wonderful job of linking up pairs of works which talk to one another. Works by Eduardo Paolozzi and Alan Davie, for example, appear to be deep in conversation, suggesting that a more in-depth comparison of the two is well deserved.

There are many gems here. The MacTaggart is glorious. There are two fine Margaret Mellises, resplendent prints by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Jon Schueler, David McClure’s Red Studio. Much has been done in the past 12 months to remember Eardley, and bring her works back to prominence, and rightly so. This show is a reminder that there is, in fact, a plethora of fine Scottish painters deserving of a similar revival.

Kenny Hunter until 30 October; Anthony Schrag until 8 May; A Passion for Art until 28 May

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