Art review: NOW, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

Untitled, 2018 by Monya Flannigan PIC: 'Courtesy of the artist, photography by John McKenzie
Untitled, 2018 by Monya Flannigan PIC: 'Courtesy of the artist, photography by John McKenzie
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If any proof were needed that time flies, we have it in the fact that the National Galleries of Scotland’s NOW series of contemporary group shows has just revealed its fourth iteration, marking the halfway point in the three-year programme. So far, these shows – each one focusing on a single artist and radiating out in a range of directions – have proved surprising and revelatory, never pandering to the predictable. NOW 4 is no exception. Here, the central artist is Monster Chetwynd (formerly Marvin Gaye, Spartacus and Lali Chetwynd). She sets the tone for the show straight away, having designed wallpaper for the main corridor which splices together images from the NGS collection. Against this, and in good-natured argument with it, are prints from Goya’s Los Disparates series, because, for all its wacky contemporaneity, this NOW show is in more obvious dialogue with art history than any of its predecessors.

Now | Monster Chetwynd, Henry Coombes, Moyna Flannigan, Betye Saar, Wael Shawky, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh ****

Cat People by Monster Chetwynd PIC: by Robert Glowacki

Cat People by Monster Chetwynd PIC: by Robert Glowacki

Chetwynd is best known as an orchestrator of performances, featuring large numbers of people and elaborate home-made costumes and props, which revisit moments in history (there will be a performance as part of this show in April). They have an anarchic, improvised energy, as the exhibition’s central “showreel” demonstrates, but, like so much performance art, feel ephemeral – the impact depends on being there.

Artists who major on performance can struggle with the transition to a static exhibition, which makes this show all the more revelatory. For the rooms on either side of the showreel room, Chetwynd has made large-scale works which transform some of the performance props and costumes into sculptural reliefs using images from the art history as backdrops: giant papier mâché moths perch on Boucher paintings, a family of red and yellow salamanders (Chetwynd has a thing about salamanders) crawl about on an abstract by Sonia Delaunay, a wizened mandrake figure is posed against a golden architectural facade.

They are visually powerful objects in more than just scale, assured in their occupation of the space, and all were made this year, as if she just rustled them up for this show. While they are not without humour, there is also a rigour which causes one to reconsider the homespun, improvised nature of those performances. Meanwhile, a room of photocollages lays out some of the ideas Chetwynd draws on and, if one can stand the lurid red light long enough, one starts to realise how broad her base of interests is: high and low culture, science, politics, women’s rights, film, and a fierce engagement with the art of the past.

The biggest surprise, though, is saved till last: a room of paintings from Chetwynd’s ongoing “Bat Opera” series (she has a thing about bats too). These modest oils – said to be inspired by the miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard, and by Constable’s cloud studies – remind us that she started out as a painter and a good one, by the looks of it. It’s an important reminder that, behind all the mayhem, the splicing and dicing and parading about in costumes made of tinfoil, there is an exacting artist’s eye and hand at work.

Bat Opera, by Monster Chetwynd PIC: courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London and Massimo de Carlo, Milan

Bat Opera, by Monster Chetwynd PIC: courtesy of Sadie Coles HQ, London and Massimo de Carlo, Milan

The artists grouped around Chetwynd continue to surprise. Edinburgh-based painter Moyna Flannigan would not seem to have much in common with Chetwynd, but her recent work is a quiet revelation. She has started to work in collage, cutting up existing drawings and paintings, with striking results. Her female figures who seemed poignantly trapped in their own narratives have been freed to move on to a wider stage. A shift of medium has changed the focus of the work. Now, her figures seem to regard us with at least as much rigour as we regard them.

Henry Coombes’ 2009 film The Bedfords, about the visit of the painter Edwin Landseer to the Scottish estate of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, is not exactly Chetwynd-esque either, though it is given a fresh context here with collaged wallpaper made from his sketches and storyboards. Meticulously filmed and acted (with a cameo by Alasdair Gray at his most twinkly), and anticipating a feature-length film by Coombes on a similar subject, its placing here reminds us of its playful edge, its creative dialogue with the art and ideas of the past.

As creative approaches to history go, they don’t come much odder than Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s Cabaret Crusades films, a complete history of the crusades from the Arab perspective told using 17th century Italian marionettes. The attention to detail is meticulous, as are the ambitious crowd scenes, and there is something mesmerising about these old, featureless puppet faces. The scale of the narrative would benefit from a complete viewing, with the three long films rotating during the show, but the time investment required to do so means this will be limited to the most dedicated of viewers.

Shawky will be new to many in Scotland, as will Betye Saar, an African American artist now in her nineties, who was a key figure in the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s. Mojotech, made in 1987, is an altar-shaped installation which brings together elements of voodoo with aspects of technology. Votive offerings sit alongside spanners and circuit boards, and viewers are encouraged to add offerings of their own. More than 30 years on, it seems extraordinarily prescient. Two decades before the invention of the smart phone, Saar could see that humanity would increasingly worship at the altar of technology, in thrall to “magic” we don’t understand but come to depend upon more and more.

It’s likely Saar’s work would be interesting wherever it was shown, but it is a credit to the curators at NGS that it is included here, in a series of shows which take as their starting point contemporary art in Scotland, but which are not confined by that. How easy it would have been to follow well trodden paths, to bring together artists with similar concerns and tell us what we already know. The NOW exhibitions don’t do that, they make unexpected links, introduce us to new things, looking beyond Scotland and outwith our present decade to show a broader, more varied context, and the results continue to be surprising and enlightening. - Susan Mansfield

Until 28 April