Visual art review: David Mach: Precious Light | Tony Cragg: Sculptures and Drawings
The many-figured compositions of the great Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder are universally popular, but if I was to call him the real father of modern art, I don't think many would agree. Nevertheless, I think it is true. Brueghel went to Italy. He saw the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, went back home to Brussels and, clearly, said to himself: "That is not for me." Instead he painted ordinary people in the familiar world around him and that was how he painted the stories of the Bible, too. He does not privilege great events. He sees things as they might have been before memory, history, or, in modern terms, the media have given them dramatic shape. For instance, when he paints Mary and Joseph arriving in a wintry Bethlehem, an old carpenter with his pregnant wife on a donkey, they are just part of the crowd. David Mach's vast, crowded collages inspired by the Bible immediately make me think of Brueghel. Indeed when he takes the Tower of Babel as his subject as he does in two of these works, he seems to have Brueghel directly in mind. The jumble of stacked up houses and ant-like figures are just like Brueghel's vision of the Tower of Babel, more like a gigantic ruin than a building under construction.
There are more than 30 of these collages altogether and the biggest are five metres across. They have hundreds of figures in them. Scissored from every conceivable kind of contemporary printed image, the detail is endless and fascinating, but somehow it remains coherent. All the tiny fragmentary scenes link up to create a dramatic whole. Altogether it is a colossal amount of work. He will be continuing it during the show, too, working with his assistants in a temporary studio in the gallery.
Where Mach meets Brueghel most closely is in the realisation that, although it is what high art always does, an artist cannot give an adequate account of scenes like those in the Bible narrative by choosing a few stars and focusing the drama on them. The true texture of history is far denser, more crowded, more chaotic and more anonymous. It is without any such order and that is exactly what David Mach gives us. But there is also more to the analogy. Brueghel's painting fitted the new world he lived in. Sixteenth-century Flanders was the first modern, urban society.
New then, it is still recognisably akin to our own.
It was part of the growing pains of that new society that in 1536, when Brueghel was a boy, William Tyndale was burnt at the stake in Brussels for having the temerity to translate the Bible into English; and Tyndale's ambition to make the bible available to ordinary people has a close affinity with what Brueghel was to do in his art. As translation made the Bible common property, so Brueghel's pictures set its great events in the perspective of ordinary life. Within a generation Tyndale's view triumphed, too. It was the idea that everybody should be able to read the bible for themselves that prompted the Scottish Kirk to promote universal education - an ambition that was to give generations of Scots an edge in the world - but what bible were they to read? How do you establish an authoritative translation of the word of God? It was to resolve that dilemma that the King James Bible was produced. Called the Authorised Version, it was published in 1611 after years of work by several scholarly committees. Mach's exhibition marks its Quatercentenary. The top floor of the exhibition includes a display of early bibles as well as great chunks of the glorious language of the King James Bible displayed on the wall. Much of that language was originally Tyndale's, but as we read these texts, Derek Wilson reminds us in the accompanying book, the words and phrases were chosen for their impact on the ear. It was written to be heard. Here the visual matches the aural.
These collages represent a project Mach has been working on for some time. Nevertheless it is an inspired choice of exhibition to mark the centenary. His pictures make the bible stories topical again, not because he is some kind of bible thumper in a time in need of faith. On the contrary, he expressly denies any faith-based motivation. It is rather that, like Brueghel and the King James Bible itself, whatever the motivation, the effect is to reach beyond a particular religious creed to a wider kind of faith: faith in the power of the imagination to produce great art, whether it be the language of the King James Bible, the stories it tells, the paintings of Brueghel, or David Mach's own collages.
David Mach hails from Fife and he points out in the exhibition that it was in Fife at Burntisland at the General Assembly of the Kirk held there in 1601 with James VI presiding that the ambitious project to create an authoritative translation of the Bible actually began. Petitioned by his Scottish subjects, the king took the project south with him when two years later he became King of England. Ten years later it was complete.
These narrative collages are a new departure for Mach. Within the exhibition are two works in a more familiar mode, a head of Christ and a head of the Devil, both made of unstruck matches. Fittingly, the devil is due to go up in a puff of smoke on Thursday when the artist sets him alight.
There is also a series of monumental figures made of coathangers, crucified on tank traps and bristling with spikes. As an image of human suffering the Crucifixion seems ever more topical. It was with a work on this scale, a Parthenon of rubber tyres in 1986, that David Mach first hit the headlines. He is therefore a near contemporary of Tony Cragg who won the Turner Prize in 1988 and who is showing concurrently at the SNGMA. Indeed in their use of recycled materials back then, they shared a similar point of origin. There still is an affinity between Cragg's Under the Skin, a semi-figurative installation bristling with hooks, and Mach's coathanger crucifixions, but otherwise they have taken very different roads.
Cragg's show covers the past 20 years. He has moved on from the sculpture assembled from rubbish and found objects that made his reputation and come much closer to the classical language of sculpture.In earlier work here, like In Camera from 1993, for instance, he still uses industrial ceramic forms. Then he manipulates geometric shapes, distorting them by implied movement. This is a clue, perhaps, to Cragg's inspiration, for if Mach makes me think of Brueghel, Cragg makes me think of the Italian Futurist Umberto Boccioni. His free-flowing figure called Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is one the most successful attempts since the Baroque to capture movement in the static form of sculpture. Cragg has developed this idea, following human profiles as they move through space. The strange swirling figures that result, a series of giddy dancing spirals, dominate his show. Some of them are truly monumental too. Wooden Crystal, a huge red phallic shape made from stained wood, is four metres high. Luke, is almost as big. But if these are street monuments gone wild, some of the more recent work turns inward. See You and Lost in Thought, for instance, are complex shapes cut from layered wood where the internal spaces suggested by the interlocking forms seem as important as the outer profiles. Echoes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, perhaps, but if we expect contemporary art to be forever new, both these shows suggest that continuity can matter just as much as novelty in giving it meaning.
• David Mach until 16 October; Tony Cragg until 6 November