Art review: Generation, Various Venues, Glasgow

Artists engage with the past ' their own and that of Glasgow ' in impressive exhibitions under the Generation banner. Picture: Contributed
Artists engage with the past ' their own and that of Glasgow ' in impressive exhibitions under the Generation banner. Picture: Contributed
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AT Glasgow’s Tramway, the small gallery space overlooking the street known as Tramway 5 is home to a talking sculpture.

An inverted and truncated letter S that is cheerfully painted in rainbow colours, and adorned with conical protrusions and human features, is squeezed into the corner. The work, by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, emits a sonorous spoken word soundtrack, a ragbag of found texts that recount (not entirely accurately) the history of Glasgow’s artistic community as seen, largely, from the outside.

Artists engage with the past in impressive exhibitions under the Generation banner

Artists engage with the past in impressive exhibitions under the Generation banner

The issue the work addresses is the very context of the exhibition: Generation, the nationwide programme of contemporary art which will roll through some 21 venues in Glasgow alone this summer. It elegantly, though perhaps rather too mildly, skewers some of the persistent mythology around art-making in the city, suggesting that the layer of story-telling and journalese that has accrued serves to obscure rather than illuminate the work at times. The artists also revisit their powerful work HK from 2001, in which the words “Heroin Kills” in vast black sculptural letters filled Tramway’s main space. HK was something of a meteor strike at the time: huge and intractable, it blew a large crater in the deceptively smooth surface of Glasgow’s art community by dividing opinion, exposing fractures and fissures. Now it is something else – a piece of history once set adrift and now tethered anew by the artists for a fresh purpose.

Many of the Glasgow shows for Generation wrestle with these issues as artists revisit their recent pasts. If the major institutions in Edinburgh are largely home to set historical pieces of Generation in the grand spaces of the Scottish National Gallery, there is an autonomy to the works in the west, scattered as they are amongst smaller galleries and institutional spaces, contending with the remarkable legacy of a city that has had a historically ambiguous relationship with the artists it is now seen to embrace.

The dance studio at Platform in Easterhouse holds Mary Redmond’s lovely work Cross Split Block, which renders some of her more lyrical recent sculptural imagery of tumbleweed and tangled ropes in the bright blue hues and synthetic orange materials of the modern building site. The floor is a roiling sea of tangled nets and pipe work, the flotsam and jetsam of an endless tide of building and redevelopment to be seen outside the window.

At The Common Guild this summer, the gallery will host a reprise of its three Scotland + Venice exhibitions from 2013, bringing the work back home. First up is Hayley Tompkins, whose Digital Light Pools comprise her abstract paintings made on the surface of plastic trays with stock photography in elegant orchestration. In Venice the painted works were laid out on the floor; here some of them are mounted on the wall. Painting’s sometimes diffident relationship with the real world is indicated by the incongruous addition of plastic novelties in the shape of simulated slabs of meat, bread and sandwiches. Ever understated, Tompkins’s work belies its apparent ordinariness by constantly claiming the painter’s sovereign right to shape and reshape the visible world.

Artists engage with the past in impressive exhibitions under the Generation banner

Artists engage with the past in impressive exhibitions under the Generation banner

At the Modern Institute in Aird’s Lane the painter Richard Wright has revisited his recent commission from Tate Britain by transforming the gallery’s roof lights with leaded glass. When the sun shines the work casts a beautiful river of light on the gallery wall. At the Modern’s main HQ in Osborne Street, a major exhibition by Scott Myles, Mummies, is a sly if scattergun mediation on making, meaning and artistic inheritance. The Mummies themselves are a series of sculptures consisting of suitcases that have been clad in plastic by secure airport wrapping services. They bear luggage tags that show they have been flown under the artist’s name from Paris to Glasgow. Now boxed in coloured and decorated Perspex, they are rich in implication. Can art’s potential meaning remain in transit continuously, or now that it is shrink-wrapped and elegantly enclosed, does it become ossified?

At Glasgow Print Studio, a terrific show by Michael Fullerton uses every weapon in his considerable arsenal, including lasers, strobes, large-scale prints on newsprint, small sculpture and traditional oil portraiture, to unpick the implications of the internet age, from the notion of encryption technology as munitions to the history of Hollywood, the self-image of weapons brand Lockheed and the modern policing of the internet.

At Street Level, Wendy McMurdo’s superb small retrospective Digital Play reprises a career that has seen her anticipate and rehearse the issues raised by digital manipulation of images in a way that reminds us that most of us are playing catch up long after the fact.

In any view of the city’s artistic history, Douglas Gordon casts a long shadow. Gordon is both long gone from the daily life of the city, after many years in New York and now Berlin, and a constant unstated presence through his deep entanglement with artists and art institutions in the city. If his art deals with doubles and demons, then Gordon himself is a kind of ghost in Glasgow. At the Gallery of Modern Art, it turns out he is a quarrelsome one who still won’t be laid to rest. Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work From About 1992 Until Now is what it says on the tin, a vast installation of 101 old-fashioned televisions comprising some 80 film and video installations from more than 20 years of work. Noisy, relentless, inescapable in the darkened room, it suggests that history won’t go away, though it is a more messy and disordered place than we would like.

The problems of artistic inheritance are set out movingly by Graham Fagen in Cabbages in an Orchard at the Reid Gallery at Glasgow School of Art. Invited to draw analogies between his use of watercolours and images of the natural world with those of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the contemporary artist at first balked, for the architect had seemed to him an oppressive presence in his youth at GSA. Fagen defuses the risks of hubris in an elegant essay, a handful of sculptures and a large and an emotive sequence of ink drawings of a skull-like face featuring the artist’s own tombstone-like teeth. The show is given additional resonance by its relocation after the recent fire. Across Renfrew Street, the Mackintosh Building looms like a skull, recognisable but stripped of its friendly features and familiar flesh.

Back in Tramway 2 there aren’t really adequate words for Cathy Wilkes’ small sculptural tableau that resists any temptation to fill the vast hall, instead presenting a scattering of small, stooped or sleeping figures in wool and felt. They are draped in antique textiles so faded and frayed they serve as a visceral reminder that the material world is not seamless but constructed and perilously frangible. The images seem like references to global displacement and refugees but may also owe something to more local dialogues of movement and loss. In recent years Wilkes has displayed artefacts scraped from Glasgow’s industrial past, the kind of places migrant workers from Ireland and displaced crofters from the Highlands might have gathered to earn a new living. Wilkes’ new work skates perilously close to melodrama, but her ghosts are real and impressively persistent.