Sometimes I disappear, Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh ****
Victoria Morton: Treat Fever with Fever, The Modern Institute, Glasgow ****
Emmie McLuskey: these were the things that made the step familiar, Collective, Edinburgh ***
There is a sub-genre in the field of self-portrait photography which one might call escapology. Cindy Sherman is the best-known exponent. While she is, ostensibly, the subject featured in her pictures, she performs, through elaborate costumes and disguises, the artistic equivalent of the Indian rope trick. We forget that we’re looking at her; she disappears in plain sight.
Sometimes I disappear (the title comes from Sherman) at the Ingleby Gallery brings together four women artists for whom the self-portrait has become something else altogether. Sherman’s Untitled (Madonna) is its linchpin. Though the show is moderate in scale, it opens up a fascinating set of comparisons and contrasts.
Francesca Woodman, who created an extraordinary body of photography and film prior to her early death in 1981, is another well-known exponent of this way of working. Her pictures feature herself (and sometimes other female models), often in the interiors of semi-derelict houses in which they seem to blur or half-disappear into their surroundings.
It is a rare thing, and a joy, to see a group of her photographs – small-format, intimate and unsettling (all the more in light of the artist’s suicide at the age of 22) and shrouded in mystery. Is she making a comment about the invisibility of women? Creating images which suggest psychological states? The intentions of these works shift in plain sight, as do the women in the photographs.
South African artist Zanele Muholi is more forthright. She describes herself as an ‘artist and visual activist’, and her past work has included documentary projects about African queer culture. However, in her striking series Hail the Dark Lioness, she uses her identity as a black woman to critique the preconceptions about black African identity in the western world.
In these self-portraits, Muholi dons an impressive array of costumes and headdresses, styled, perhaps, as a tribal princess, though her props are made from the stuff of everyday life – ropes and clothes pegs and cheap plastic sunglasses. Graceful and elegant, she sends up the fetishisation of the exotic, donning alter egos with a Shermanesque shape-shifting power.
The youngest of the group is contemporary Romanian artist Oana Stanciu, whose work owes something to Woodman in its composition and settings, but is seasoned with a heavy dose of humour. She sculpts her body (and waist-length hair) into a series of shapes and poses. By making herself into a scarecrow or her hair into buffalo horns, she also performs the escapologist’s trick of diverting our attention away from the person in the picture – herself.
Meanwhile, Victoria Morton presents an important new body of work at The Modern Institute, continuing to cement her place within the world of contemporary painting. Morton has, in recent years, branched out into three-dimensional works and found objects, and moved away from her signature abstract style to include figures and forms in her paintings. But this show seems to affirm her commitment both to paint and to abstraction.
The majority of the works here are either very large or very small. The small paintings are dense and highly textured, some of them almost pointillist, the large ones more fluid, with vivid, transluscent fields of colour soaking and melting into one another (at times, from a distance, they actually blur).
They show a confidence in scale, a bold juxtaposing of colours, particularly in paintings such as The Opening Sex and Broken Waveform. The longer one looks at these larger works, the more they reveal. Trying to ascribe meanings to them feels counter-productive; it is almost as if we are witnessing the outcome of a private performance to which the artist is absolutely committed. Perhaps, in that sense, they are more like music (Morton is also a musician, the bassist with the band Muscles of Joy) and we should simply sit back and appreciate the movement of merging, shifting colours as the artist herself seems to have done.
There is a strand in contemporary art practice in which the artist becomes less a creator of visual material and more a researcher or investigator. A project typically begins with an open-ended question, and accrues research and ideas around it, usually resulting in some form of visual interpretation which sits alongside a presentation of the research.
Glasgow-based Emmie McLuskey, the first artist to show on Collective’s Satellites Programme (for emerging talent) since the gallery opened in its new home, addresses the question of how movement is communicated in forms which are static. She looks at systems of teaching movement, including Rudolf Laban’s choreography and British Sign Language, and collaborates with researcher Freya Field-Donovan, poet Millicent A A Graham, and (posthumously) with film-maker Maya Deren and anthropologist Katherine Dunham. A children’s book proposed (but unrealised) by Deren and Dunham in 1941 about the origins of dance sits like a ghost behind the show.
McLuskey has made a strong series of photographic prints which pair images of movement with lines from Graham’s poems. She has also made wooden “furniture” – a bench and two bars, suggestive of a gymnasium or dance studio, and a sound work which seems to consist of a Laban teaching manual read aloud. McLuskey and Field-Donovan have together edited a book of related material, A Strange American Funeral.
If the central question is of any interest at all, this show will be a rewarding experience, an inviting pond of selected research in which one can happily swim for a while. In terms of distilling these ideas into one piece of visually impactful work, is it perhaps less satisfying. Sometimes, research-based practice can feel like an archer firing at everything in the vicinity of the target in the hope that an arrow might inadvertently hit the bullseye.
Sometimes I disappear, until 13 April; Victoria Morton until 9 March; Emmie McLuskey until 10 March