Arts review of 2020: Susan Mansfield and Duncan Macmillan on the year in visual art

Scotsman art critics Susan Mansfield and Duncan Macmillan pick their shows of the year

Artist Alan Hunt with masks from the Kwakwaka’wakw community of Canada's Pacific coast - part of the Pine's Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery. PIC: Neil Hanna Photography
Artist Alan Hunt with masks from the Kwakwaka’wakw community of Canada's Pacific coast - part of the Pine's Eye exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery. PIC: Neil Hanna Photography

Alasdair Gray: Omnium Gatherum, Glasgow Print Studio Alastair Gray died on 28 December 2019 and Glasgow Print Studio began the year with an exhibition planned as a retrospective that sadly became a memorial. Working till days before his death, Gray was really our own modern William Blake. His talent and energy couldn’t be confined to a single art form. Nevertheless, like Blake, he was a visual artist first and his remarkable literary output was always intertwined with his illustrations. He was also a key member of the Glasgow Print Studio from its beginning. Recording that relationship, the range and richness of the work on view was really impressive, idiosyncratic but always engaging, and by turns touching, comic and fiercely political. DM

Pine’s Eye, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh Open in March for just a few weeks before being forced to close in lockdown, this ambitious group exhibition curated by James Clegg took on some big issues, principally climate change and post-colonialism, with a lightness of spirit. Clegg cast his eye beyond mainstream western viewpoints: the first room housed a “gathering” of figures made by the Kwakwaka’wakw people of the Pacific North West. The drawings of Cuban American performance artist Ana Mendieta and the mushroom spores planted in the Round Room by Austrian artist Lois Weinberger extended the conversation in different directions. It was exactly what a themed group show should be – meaty and rambling, with something surprising round every corner. SM

John Halliday: The Monkey Palace, Fine Art Society, Edinburgh Born in 1933, John Halliday is a veteran, but his art is not as well known as it should be. Perhaps this is because he has lived and worked in Kirkcudbright almost all his life. It is also true, however, that he has had a very successful career as a painter of architectural decorations which by their nature can’t be put in exhibitions and so, while no doubt delighting their private patrons, they have remained largely unseen by the wider public. The Fine Art Society helped put the record straight, however, with a retrospective which, although it was small, gave a real insight into his art. It showed it to be often poetic, sometimes witty and always very skilful. Examples of his tromp l’oeil painting, for instance, gave a hint of why he has been so successful as an architectural painter. DM

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    Trompe l'oeil by John Halliday from his exhibition at the Fine Art Society PIC: John McKenzie

    Susie Leiper: Library, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh Credit cards have largely replaced cash during a dreadful year that has suspended so much that was once normal, but if you do happen to have an RBS fiver in your pocket, on it two lines of Gaelic poetry by Sorely MacLean are exquisitely written in a 16th-century script called Scottish Secretary. Susie Leiper was the calligrapher, but Library, a show of her work at the Open Eye Gallery, was a reminder that like an oriental artist, the beauty of her calligraphy is only part of her work. Indeed in spite of its name, Library was not really about texts at all, but more about the poetry of books as physical things and of libraries as seed beds for the imagination from which the trees of knowledge can grow. DM

    Eastern Approaches, Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh In July, the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood was the first public gallery in Edinburgh to come back to life. It did so with Eastern Approaches. Even if the story of the Raj is a shameful piece of imperial history and there had to be some ambivalence about a show of what is to a large extent imperial loot, it did include some gorgeous things. An absolute star among them was a volume of The Padshahnama or Book of Emperors, commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan. He built the Taj Mahal and this is the equivalent in book form. He commissioned it as “as a propagandist celebration of his reign and dynasty” – an idea neatly adapted to the British Raj perhaps. DM

    Mary Quant, V&A, Dundee The opening of the V&A’s much-delayed Mary Quant retrospective felt like a welcome blast of optimism at the end of the summer. Full of colour and verve, and looking splendid in the museum’s airy exhibition space, the show celebrates Quant’s achievements without ever becoming po-faced and ponderous. It reminds us that Quant was less about rising hemlines than about creating comfortable, stylish clothes for women who were moving into the workplace in large numbers for the first time. It uses the clothes to tell the story, while also telling the individual stories of many of the outfits and the women who wore them. (Runs until 17 January 2021) SM

    Stuart Whipps: If Wishes Were Thrushes, Beggars Would Eat Birds, DCA This new film installation by Birmingham-based artist Stuart Whipps took its starting point from his lockdown obsession: gardening. But the work – a seamless blend of film and slide-show – cheerfully headed off down a rabbit hole of research taking in history, literature, botany, mineralogy and much else besides. Guided by Whipps’ personable voiceover, we discover disgraced duchesses, eccentric garden designers and Swiss folk tales, while visiting a limestone quarry in Ireland and a surrealist sculpture park in Mexico. It’s art tailor-made for all who enjoy pursuing trivia down the byways of internet, and all fans of Only Connect. SM

    John Mackechnie MBE, Director of Glasgow Print Studio, with the work of artist, Alasdair Gray at the Omnium Gatherum exhibition PIC: John Devlin

    Caroline Walker: Janet, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh This beautiful show was a rare chance to see the work of Scottish painter Caroline Walker on home soil. After creating a major series of paintings of women at work in the hospitality industry in London, Walker decided to turn her attention to her mother, Janet, engaged in surprisingly similar tasks looking after the house and garden of the family home in Dunfermline. In these highly accomplished paintings, we see Janet changing pillowcases, cleaning the bathroom sink, watering rhododendrons. A quiet celebration of one woman’s choice, and of the beauty which can be found in the everyday. SM

    Ray Harryhausen: Titan of Cinema, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh Intended as a summer blockbuster, this celebration of the work of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen finally opened its doors just in time for Halloween. While it seems, in some ways, a strange choice for a gallery of modern art, it wins over sceptics by telling its story so well. Inspired by seeing King Kong when he was 13, Harryhausen went on to become a Hollywood legend, with fantasy film-makers from George Lucas to Peter Jackson among those queuing up to pay tribute. The exhibition unpicks the skill, craftmanship and vision behind the B-movies and creature features he worked on, the real hero of which was man behind the models. (Runs until 5 September 2021) SM

    Angus Reid: Parallel Lives, Summerhall, Edinburgh Parallel Lives at Summerhall is a show put together by painter Angus Reid. It combines documents, film, painting and drawing. Their common theme is the history and continuing struggle for gay rights, but also how political that struggle has been and still is. There are documents about the life of Harry Whyte, a Scottish communist who took the struggle for gay rights to Stalin himself in the 1930s, and Reid’s work is also inspired by Tomasz Kitlinski, a Polish friend of the artist who is currently being prosecuted by the right-wing government in Poland for his stand on gay rights and his public criticism of the homophobia of the Minister of Education, Przemislaw Czarnek. All the documentation is framed by two large paintings and related drawings by Reid himself. They are of naked men celebrating friendship and unaffected intimacy, all perfectly non-political. (Until 20 December) DM

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    The Mary Quant Exhibition at V&A Dundee PIC: Michael McGurk

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    Making Fishcakes, Late Afternoon, December 2019 by Caroline Walker
    Detail from Quartet, by Angus Reid PIC: Courtesy of the artist