There is an assumption which the politicians do nothing to discourage that the terrible death toll from coronavirus in this country, the severe disruption to our lives and the impending economic meltdown are all the sad but inevitable consequences of any pandemic. They are not. They are inevitable perhaps, but only as the result of political incompetence. Others have done far, far better than us. Nevertheless, we must now live with those consequences and this is true of the small corner that is the visual arts in Scotland as of everything else. For our artists and for our galleries, the long-term impact of loss of income, cancelled programmes and the disruption of wider public engagement are unpredictable, but will surely be tough in an already tough world. When finally we come out of lockdown, it is clear that resources will be scarcer than ever and it is always the tender green shoots of culture that first feel the icy blasts of recession.
Nevertheless, because of the internet there have been opportunities in all this, opportunities to widen public access and engagement in ways which might not have seemed urgent once, but which are now. Some have seized them and, by exploiting the internet, galleries can be open to a world-wide public as never before. Most major galleries now have their collections online. That is a huge asset if you know what you want to see. They also all have other facilities, but you might have thought that among them virtual tours would be a priority in the present circumstances. Some do have them. You can take a virtual stroll around the Courtauld Galleries in London, for instance, and admire that wonderful collection. You can also take a virtual tour of the National Gallery in London. Others have put exhibitions online in a comprehensive format. If you missed it, for example, you can now visit the Royal Collection’s Leonardo exhibition.
After taking an admittedly somewhat haphazard tour of Scotland’s major public galleries, however, none seem to offer the really engaging experience of this kind of virtual tour, nor in-depth exploration of current or recent exhibitions. This kind of initiative has so far been led in Scotland by the private galleries. Writing on this page two weeks ago I mentioned how the Fine Art Society was using virtual reality to invite you in and show you round. Though the virtual access doesn’t seem quite as smooth, the Union Gallery deserves credit for doing the same thing now with the impressive, but rather chilly naked figures in compromising positions of Kevin Low (***). In one of the best pictures, Woman in a purple skirt, the sitter is actually fully dressed though only the middle part of her figure is visible.
This is also an opportunity for galleries further afield or even right off the beaten track to make themselves known. The Kilmorack Gallery in a handsome Georgian church near Beauly, for instance, is showing a wide range of work online. New arrivals on the website are works by Christine Woodside and Robert McAulay (both ****). McAulay paints in acrylic on a gesso ground. The effect is a little like watercolour, but the main business of these three pictures is the way he renders the uncompromising blocks of the housing estate which is his subject. Two are called Revisiting the Estate. He lives and works in Glasgow which has always been his home. Nevertheless there is no indication that the pictures are in any way autobiographical. The geometry is as austere as the architecture, but the line is loose and broken and the surface is enlivened by accidental splashes and blobs. There is poetry everywhere if you look.
Christine Woodside’s poetry is real, but perhaps given her choice of subject more to be expected. Three of her colourful landscapes are identified as Fife. She favours sunsets over snowy scenes inhabited by birds and animals. The exception to Fife is a view in Andalusia, but here too the sun is low and the sky is golden. Her pictures are freely painted and poetic in mood and are in the nicest possible way, decorative. Helpfully the Kilmorack Gallery also keeps its back catalogue online. It its a distinguished list. You can browse the wonderful drawings in stone of Mary Bourne, Robert Powell’s intricate and ever-entertaining satires on human folly and Ian Westacott’s superb prints of great trees, trees that for the most part also stand or stood in the north where he works.
Though it’s not the slickest website, if you are patient, the Roger Billciffe Gallery in Glasgow also keeps its back catalogue online and it is extensive too. Here you can see the work of Duncan Shanks, for instance, an artist still insufficiently recognised as one of Scotland’s finest and most inventive landscape painters. The most recent additions to Billcliffe’s ongoing online show are works by Lachlan Goudie and Peter Howson (both ***). Goudie is becoming a familiar face on television. Most recently I saw him gently encouraging people to improve their life drawing. He is also a considerable painter, however. Among the most interesting pictures here is a small group of works on copper. In the past, copper was generally favoured as a vehicle for the delicacy of finish that its smooth surface allowed, but the polished surface even when primed also allows the pigment to shine in its full glory. Goudie eschews minuteness. Indeed he paints quite broadly, but he does get full value for his colour in works like Night Transit. It is dominated by the red painted girders of an arched bridge lit from beneath in the dark. In Nightlife, too, a tall building looms above the brilliant lights in the street below.
Peter Howson’s work has long been haunted and the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have bred some new bogles for him. A group of ink and watercolour drawings, done apparently after a period in isolation, offer a new phantasmagoria, only identified in time and place by one drawing of a figure in a face mask. In a different context, the Lonely Hero, one of a great series of woodcuts that Howson did in 1987, is on view in Glasgow Print Studios show at the London Original Print Fair. The whole print fair is online at its excellent website and the print studio’s show (****) is a highlight. It includes work by Elizabeth Blackadder, John Byrne, Alasdair Gray, Philip Reeves, Ken Currie, Adrian Wiszniewski and many other distinguished contributors to the history of modern Scottish printmaking making.
Kevin Low, www.uniongallery.co.uk; Christine Woodside and Robert McAulay, www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk; Lachlan Goudie and Peter Howson, www.billcliffegallery.com; Glasgow Print Studio at Longon Art Fair, www.londonartfair.co.uk/galleries/glasgow-print-studio
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