Arts review of 2021: 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

Muhammad Ali, by Archie Brennan
Muhammad Ali, by Archie Brennan

Archie Brennan: Tapestry Goes Pop!, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh This retrospective of the late Archie Brennan was an eye-opener for me. I knew in general about Brennan but had no idea how rich and inventive his art really was. He revolutionised tapestry and his ingenuity and sheer skill was astonishing. Who else could make a tromp l’oeil image out of woven wool? Tapestry had always been a slow and expensive art form, but he really did make it go Pop. He worked with the leading artists of the day and with his drive and imagination turned Dovecot Studios into a powerhouse of the art form. DM

Marine: Ian Hamilton Finlay, Edinburgh City Art Centre Marine, a selection of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay on his favourite subject, the sea and ships, at Edinburgh City Art Centre was a gem of a show. Finlay always worked in collaboration and with a wide range of artists and craftspeople, but the show was arranged with such exquisite care that it demonstrated beyond dispute the sheer beauty of much of the work that he achieved working this way. He was a concrete poet, but this show made it clear that he was a very visual artist too. DM

Emma Talbot: Ghost Calls, Dundee Contemporary Arts Made during the first lockdown and installed before the second, Emma Talbot’s work waited in the dark through the spring until galleries could reopen. Though its origins reach further back, her fable of a society in which the familiar world crashed and burned and a group of keening women sought to make something beautiful from the wreckage struck a chord in the summer of 2021. Painted silk banners and evocative fabric and papier-mâché sculptures wove a story with a message about being kinder to ourselves, one another and the planet. SM

Installation view of Ghost Calls, by Emma Talbot, at Dundee Contemporary Arts PIC: Ruth Clark

Louise Hopkins and Paule Vézelay, 42 Carlton Place Opening with a packed programme just a few weeks after lockdown ended, Glasgow International felt like a triumph in the most challenging of circumstances. This quiet gem of a show, curated by the artist Merlin James for GI’s unofficial fringe, brought together work by Scottish contemporary artist Louise Hopkins and Paule Vézelay, a Brit who joined the Parisian avant-garde in the 1920s. As both artists work with abstract shapes and colours, this was a chance to compare and contrast, inviting us to understand something new about each of them. SM

Thomas Joshua Cooper, World’s Edge, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh Thomas Joshua Cooper’s extraordinary, lifelong project is to take photographs along all the edges of the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to America and from Pole to Pole. This show was a selection of the remarkable images he has made on his extraordinary journeys, often following where the early explorers led and frequently in conditions as extreme as those they knew. All that is there in these beautiful pictures. But in them time is as much his subject as geography. It is there in the camera’s exposure, in the weather, the movement of the tides and the geology of the rocks. DM


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Christine Borland: In Relation to Linum, Climate House, Edinburgh

Christine Borland’s adventure with flax was originally scheduled to reopen Climate House (formerly Inverleith House) in summer 2020. The delay gave Borland a year in which to grow another crop, and experiment with digital installation for the first time. But the real highlights of the show are her sculptures made using the flax itself, referencing traditional processes but also transforming them into something mysterious and beautiful. She draws on a wealth of history with a delicate touch, never allowing the research to overburden the work. SM

L'Anse Aux Meadows by Thomas Joshua Cooper

Whistler Art and Legacy, Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow

The sale of Whistler’s portrait of Thomas Carlyle to Glasgow was his first to a public collection and in acknowledgement of this and other support from the city the contents of his studio eventually passed to Glasgow University. Whistler Art and Legacy made a brilliant show from the range of prints, paintings and drawings that this bequest included. With later judicious additions made by the Hunterian, where the work now resides, it ranged across his entire life. As both painter and printmaker he was a marvellous artist and this was a unique and wonderfully personal way of telling his remarkable story. DM

Dislocations: Territories, Landscapes and Other Spaces, Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow Dislocations was created as the contemporary companion to a larger historical show about the mapping and exploring of the Scottish landscape which then moved online. But this show remained, a rare gem gathering work by Scottish contemporary artists and others around a theme: the use and abuse of landscape. Including work by Margaret Salmon, Charlotte Prodger, Andy Goldsworthy, Minty Donald and Nick Miller, as well as Fay Godwin and Paul Nash, it invited works to shed fresh light on one another, exploring the multifarious ways we experience and represent landscape. SM


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Reflections: the Light and Life of John Henry Lorimer, Edinburgh City Art Centre

In Relation to Linum by Christine Borland at Climate House, Edinburgh PIC: Keith Hunter Photography

Edinburgh City Art Centre has an admirable record of bringing forgotten artists back into the light. They did this twice this year with shows devoted to Charles Mackie and to John Henry Lorimer. Both were first-rate, but of the two perhaps, John Henry Lorimer was even more neglected than Mackie. Certainly he emerged from this show as a master of light, but its real charm was its domesticity. Almost all the settings were his family home of Kellie Castle and the people in them were his mother and sisters, his nephews and nieces. The whole thing had real warmth and intimacy. Until 20 March 2022. DM

Jeremy Deller: Warning Graphic Content, The Modern Institute, Glasgow

The first ever survey show of Jeremy Deller’s prints and poster works made a splash at the end of the year at Modern Institute’s Aird’s Lane space. A kind of social history of the last 30 years, from the rave movement to the Brexit vote, it’s pithy, poetic and political, and is accompanied by Deller’s own annotations on giant post-it notes. From documentation of larger projects to work conceived for billboards and bumper stickers, it confirms Deller’s genius for encapsulating ideas and nailing a moment with an aposite slogan. Until 22 January 2022. SM

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Installation shot of the Jeremy Deller exhibition, Warning: Graphic Content, at the Modern Institute, Glasgow

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