Art reviews: Daughters of Penelope | Charlotte Barker | and per se and | Age of Oil

View from Market Street, Aberdeen Harbour, 2015 by Sue Jane Taylor at the National Museum of Scotland
View from Market Street, Aberdeen Harbour, 2015 by Sue Jane Taylor at the National Museum of Scotland
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From rugs to woven reeds, the Daughters of Penelope at Dovecot Studios celebrates weaving in all its forms, while the Age of Oil at NMS charts the inexorable decline of the fossil fuel

Daughters of Penelope Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh ****

Charlotte Barker: Flotilla Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop ****

and per se and Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh ***

Age of Oil National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh ***

The Three Fates were women. Mistresses of life and death, they spun the thread of life and from time to time would reach for the scissors and snip it off. The umbilical cord is life’s thread and women, spinning and weaving and their intricate involvement with life itself have been intimately associated from long before history. Indeed in Berber society, the oldest continuous culture in the Mediterranean, weaving is a sacred and exclusively female mystery. One of the heroines of antiquity most closely identified with this female art is Penelope, patient and long suffering wife of the absent Odysseus. To keep her unwelcome suitors at bay, Penelope undid her work every night so that it was never finished. Its completion was to be the signal that she was released from her marriage vow and Odysseus deemed lost.

Dovecot has taken Penelope’s fame as a weaver as inspiration for the title of its current exhibition, Daughters of Penelope. Unlike Penelope, however, the 15 women involved have finished their work, we may hope without the consequences that would have faced Penelope. There are some beautiful things in the show. One of the finest is by Sonia Delaunay, whose Pierrot Lunaire is so remote from weaving in the manner of Penelope that it is actually a manufactured tufted rug. A geometrical image in bright colours and laid flat as the floor covering it was designed to be, it is beautiful nevertheless. Julie Brook’s Untitled nearby is also a tufted rug, but hanging on the wall and made by Dovecot’s own master tufter, Jonathan Cleaver. Brook’s contribution is the simple design of two interlocked rectangles and the marvellous rich and close-toned reds of the wool. These reds, we are told, were inspired by red ochres she found being used by people in remote parts of Libya and Namibia.

Unlike these two, Caroline Dear is actually a weaver and she invokes the immense antiquity of weaving by using grass and reeds, for these were presumably the weaver’s material long before pastoralism provided wool. Living in Skye, she has used local vegetation to create two works, Moss circle/square and Soundings iv, Hearing the reed’s voice. The first is a wonderful spider’s web, a memory of Arachne turned into a spider for her temerity in challenging Athene to a weaving contest and thus giving her name to the genus of arachnids. In the second work, the sound of the reeds recalls the myth of Syrinx turned into reeds to escape the attentions of Pan and turned by him into pan pipes, the music of the reeds. Fields of Endeavour, Territory II is a major work commissioned from Maureen Hodge for the Parliament Building and woven by her with two companions, just like the Three Fates. It is a beautiful thing, with variations on several small motifs, including the Saltire, worked in. Predominant warm earth colours are set off by black and the Saltire’s blue.

Another really beautiful work is For Irena Sendler, one of two works by Joanne Soroka, artistic director of Dovecot back in the 1980s. Sendler was a Polish nun who worked with others to smuggle 2,500 children out of the Warsaw ghetto. Woven in warm, golden colours, a web across the surface invokes the web of life itself while with wonderful delicacy, ash keys, the seeds of the ash tree, each bright with gold leaf, represent the lives that were saved.

Aino Kajaniemi also uses traditional weaving and extends its association with women by creating 16 little vignettes in shades of ochre, grey and pinkish buff, each with a woman or a girl apparently alone with her dreams, her nightmares or her aspirations. It is a little reminiscent of Paula Rego, but the associations of weaving add a different dimension of real poetry. Fiona Matheson takes a more familiar view of a woman’s experience and brings in the kitchen sink, woven and complete with washing. In Clean Sheet she also hangs the washing out to dry. One of the oddest works is by Hanna Tuulikki. She takes the idea of a thread and translates it to the spiral thread of sound on a vinyl record with voices singing Gaelic spinning songs.

At the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, Charlotte Barker has turned to another of the most ancient crafts, pottery. She makes variations on the traditional Korean form of the spherical moon jar, but in matt black, not the moon’s translucent white. She also makes tall “vessels” in white, then sets these two forms together on primitive benches made from split logs and simple legs. The arrangement of these pots with their surfaces that seem to absorb light as much as reflect it is deliberately reminiscent of Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes. As it happens, an actual Morandi still life is also currently on view at the Ingleby Gallery, where it takes its place in a long sequence of artistic pairings that the gallery has mounted. They have been presented under the collective title ‘and per se and’, once the last symbol in the alphabet which through constant repetition by rote gave us the word ‘ampersand’, or ‘and’, the word that pairs the artists. The present pairing is a very odd one. Morandi’s little painting is teamed with a A Lot of Sorrow, a film by Ragnar Kjartanson. He asked the American band The National to play their song Sorrow continuously for six hours. As they got wearier, their performance became less and less uniform. The point of the comparison with Morandi is that he too appears to repeat himself endlessly, but of course he doesn’t. Each painting is individual. I am not sure that the endlessly repeated song quite makes that grade, but that’s the idea anyway.

Finally, at the National Museum, Sue Jane Taylor documents the production of North Sea oil and its current decline in Age of Oil. The show consists mainly of her precise but elegant drawings, but also includes a number of items of oilmen’s equipment displayed like relics. She records for instance the closing of the Brent Field and the decommissioning of the Murchison platform. She also compares past and present as she does so with memories of visits made years ago during the height of production. She also documents the rise of a new source of power, however, in preparations for the Beatrice Offshore Windfarm. It’s all very topical.

Daughters of Penelope until 20 January 2018, Charlotte Barker until 26 August; and per se and until 2 September; Age of Oil until 5 November