Art reviews: Quiet World at Compass Gallery | John Bellany at Open Eye | Landscape of Place at An Talla Solais

Three new online shows illustrate how Scotland’s land and seascapes have exerted a powerful influence on generations of artists, writes Susan Mansfield

Detail from Helen by Peter Thomson, part of Compass Gallery's Quiet World exhibition

Quiet World, Compass Gallery, Glasgow ***

John Bellany, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh ****

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The i newsletter cut through the noise

Landscape of Place, An Talla Solais, Ullapool ***

How do we actually feel about silence? There’s no doubt that lockdown has brought about a quieter world. At times, it feels like a pleasure, hearing birdsong instead of the drone of traffic, but it can also be unsettling. Places normally full of noise – high streets, cafes, playgrounds – are eerily silent.

Compass Gallery’s Quiet World exhibition, an extensive online show bringing together 75 works by artists who have shown with the gallery over the years, aims, the curators say, to “soothe the mind.” But there are different kinds of quietness on show here, from the relaxation of Jack Knox’s Bottom of the Garden and the sun-soaked stillness of an Italian village square by Lesley Banks, to other more uneasy kinds of silence which border on strangeness.

There are welcome surprises, particularly in the opportunities to enjoy the work of artists who have showed with Compass in the past. There are colourful works by Knox, and an exquisite still life by Bet Low. By The Shore, a beautiful long-format painting by Margot Sandeman, edges towards the elongated figures and symbolism of Aubrey Beardsley or Margaret Macdonald.

Landscapes are an important element, from Adrian Wiszniewski’s brightly coloured Postcard from Japan to David McClure’s celebration of Anstruther Harbour in the 1950s, done in muted greys, pinks and browns. His grandson, Calum McClure, is here too with an monotype capturing foliage and weather, and there is a fine study of birds and flowers by Naoko Shibuya.

However – and perhaps it can be blamed on the times we are living through – the works which made the strongest impression on me are those which capture vestiges of unease. Peter Thomson has half a dozen works in the show, among them cityscapes such as Ice Cream Van and White Bridge, in which the inhabitants seem dwarfed by the scale of the emptiness around them.

Anna Geerdes is very good at conveying strangeness in her meticulously realised paintings Border Post, with its sinister forest and small conical fortification, and The Scar, a traumatised beach populated by stones wrapped in ribbons with a darkly ominous horizon. Andrzej Jackowski’s larger-than-life fox in a night-time street has menace about it, while Sandra Collins’ mixed media Murmuration contemplation is a finely realised moment of uneasy stillness.

Glasgow painter James Tweedie is master of a kind of surrealism of the suburbs. The pleasant houses in Oasis are offset by the three sinister figures with black umbrellas who seem to be encroaching on them. Tweedie’s works often suggest a narrative, poised on the cusp of ordinariness but gesturing to something beyond it. And these, perhaps, chime the most with the uneasy quiet of lockdown, a reminder that however fine it is to have respite from noise and busyness, we will be relieved to have it back.

Edinburgh’s Open Eye Gallery has had several important shows of John Bellany’s work since the artist died in 2013. Their latest exhibition, of largely unseen work, is a welcome reminder of Bellany’s own remarkable ability to conjure the uncanny.

The largest work here is Pilgrims, a diptych from 1999 in which a solemn congregation stand on a spit of land with a boat drawn up alongside them. Islands and ruins are in the distance – are these Scots leaving during the Clearances for the New World? Celtic Supper, from 1978, is a ghoulish dinner scene where the fourth wall of the domestic interior seems to open onto a stormy sky and the candles flame blood red. The figures at the table, as in several of the other works here, are humans with animal features, animals with human eyes.

Throughout his long career, Bellany drew on a seemingly bottomless well of inspiration from by his seafaring background, worked over by the imagination into a kind of personal mythology. This is classic Bellany, sad-eyed sea maidens with animal or bird familiars, as bewitching as the lady in Listening to the Sea, or as unsettling as Agnes the Mole Catcher, standing over her black velvet trophies. There are sunnier pictures, too, of fishing boats at Eyemouth, and a superbly detailed drawing of Eyemouth Harbour done in 1966, when he was in his early twenties.

If this show is specifically selected to focus on his relationship with Scotland, it is also a reminder of how profoundly the seascapes and mythologies of Scotland permeate almost everything he did.

How contemporary artists engage with the landscape around them is the concern at the heart of Landscape of Place, the exhibition which was to launch the 2020 season at Ullapool’s An Talla Solais and is now taking place online. The show features the work of four recent graduates from the art degree courses at the University of the Highlands and Islands, all exploring ways to work with the highland landscapes they inhabit.

Louise Allan hails from Plockton, one of the most picture-perfect villages of the West Highlands, but her paintings are concerned with a much harsher, more unpredictable landscape, and how to evoke it and explore her perceptions of it. Lar MacGregor explores it physically, through walking. Her Wayfaring Chair sculpture is a challenge to a world more concerned with staying indoors and worrying about its wi-fi connection. She has also made Rescue Knots from natural foliage gathered on different walks.

Morag Smith draws on experiences of sailing, using found materials such as concrete and perspex to build an installation. Kim Welch creates prints which look like dream landscapes by shining blue light through paper, and makes sculptures from oak staves. She hoped to create an interactive project too, but that “must wait till another time.”

While there are elements of this exhibition which remind us of the challenges of showing three-dimensional work to its best online, however well it is photographed, it is also a valuable reminder that Scotland’s landscape is still giving artists plenty to wrestle with and they are continuing to enjoy pitting their skills against it.

Quiet World, www.compassgallery.co.uk; John Bellany, www.openeyegallery.co.uk; Landscape of Place, www.antallasolais.org