Art reviews: Jesse Jones | At the Gates | John Byrne

The Owl Trainer by John Byrne at the RSA
The Owl Trainer by John Byrne at the RSA
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The Talbot Rice Gallery is home to two shows offering a female response to gender inequality. By Susan Mansfield

Jesse Jones: Tremble Tremble, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh ****

Installation shot of At the Gates, Talbot Rice Gallery

Installation shot of At the Gates, Talbot Rice Gallery

At the Gates, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh ***

John Byrne: Rogues’ Gallery, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ***

In May, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal the country’s controversial Eighth Amendment which effectively made abortion illegal. Following an unsuccessful challenge to the repeal, the change was signed into law in September, and is considered by many to be an important continuing step towards modernisation and secularisation.

Jesse Jones made her work Tremble Tremble, which represented Ireland at the 2017 Venice Biennale, in the light of the nascent referendum campaign. Curated and commissioned by Tessa Giblin, who has since become the director of the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, the work is now being shown there accompanied by At the Gates, a group show by women artists from around the world on themes to do with protest, resistance and empowerment.

Installation shot of Tremble Tremble at Talbot Rice

Installation shot of Tremble Tremble at Talbot Rice

Tremble Tremble has been somewhat extended for the Georgian Gallery, a larger and more self-contained space than it had in the Arsenale in Venice. It looks splendid here; the figure of actor Olwen Fouéré, appearing on screens at both ends of the room, towers over us as the witch/giantess conjuring an ancient and anarchic sense of womanhood in this orderly, neo-classical hall.

Jones’ work is part installation, part performance – she calls it “expanded cinema” – in which a young performer sweeps gauze curtains to and fro and scrapes a circle on a board. One feels as if one is witnessing a powerful, angry, living work of resistance, with centuries of history behind it. As much as Fouéré’s performance reclaims the female by drawing on the ancient past, she also reminds us how women have been oppressed, forced to submit their bodies to the rule of male authority, medical and legal. Read in the context of the Eighth Amendment, in this space at the heart of Edinburgh University’s Law Faculty, we are left in no doubt why she is challenging the machinery of justice.

Tremble, Tremble lends its energy to At The Gates, a group show in the rest of the gallery which begins with embroidered banners made by the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. In fact, needlecraft runs through the exhibition, a “feminine” craft employed subversively, channelling the Suffragette and Trade Union banners of the past.

Around the banners are grouped works by artists from around the world, some of which are more immediately accessible than others. Navine G Khan-Dossos’ Bulk Targets, cardboard versions of the body targets used in US shooting galleries decorated with coloured shapes, were part of a larger show in Greece about society’s response when women are perceived as a threat, and need to be seen in that context. Suzanne Treister’s Alchemy drawings rework newspaper front pages, reshaping the news from the time – the war in Iraq, the misdoings of the George W Bush administration – in shapes and forms associated with magic and the occult. Olivia Plender’s sound work, Learning to Speak Sense, draws powerfully on her own experience of learning to speak again after an illness, as well as bringing out the political aspects of finding one’s voice.

Embroidery is used powerfully by Mexican artist Teresa Margolles who took a piece of cloth stained by the body of a woman assassinated in Guatemala City and gave it to Mayan women to embroider with pictures and symbols. Both the cloth and accompanying film convey the profound way in which they engage with the project, honouring the dead woman and investing the work with their own hopes for a more equal world.

Maja Bajevic’s film in which a woman (the artist herself) is prodded and harrassed while being asked, continually, “How do you want to be governed?” makes its point powerfully and succintly. Glasgow-based Georgia Horgan worked with a costume-maker to create a pair of beautiful 17th century outfits embroided with words from the 1683 book The Whore’s Rhetorick, reminding us how women’s bodies, and how women dress, were – and still are – a battleground.

Some of these works require us to consult the gallery’s detailed 32-page booklet before we grasp their full significance. However, the show as a whole reminds us how alive these issues still are. The same year as Ireland voted to repeal its amendment, Brazil elected an anti-abortion president; freedoms continue to be restricted as well as extended in many parts of the world.

Meanwhile, at the RSA, new work by John Byrne celebrates a particularly prolific six-month period in the artist’s Edinburgh studio. Throughout his 50-year career, Byrne’s signature style has been unmistakable, as has his imaginative world, a kind of Paisley-Gotham populated by rogues, teddy boys and spivs.

As a playwright, artist and filmmaker, Byrne has always worked across genres – he creates physical worlds for his plays, drawing all the characters, and embeds performance in his art: the figures in his paintings dress up, play-act, perform. He appears to do the same himself in self-portraits in a variety of guises.

Byrne is an outstanding draughtsman, and his paintings, drawings and prints create narratives which continue far beyond the picture plane: what of the teddy boy with the owl on his arm, seemingly shrinking from it at least as much as it shrinks from him? Or Blind Date, New York, showing a clinch on a parapet; the woman holds a knife behind her back, while a set of fingers clench the ledge at the couple’s feet.

However, the largest painting here is The Song of the South, a young black musician with the Paisley’s Anchor Mills behind him, his arms tattoed with names from black history and culture, from Malcolm X to Beyoncé. Here, Byrne is probing Scotland’s involvement in slavery and the history of the American South, the segregation which also lies, in part, behind the birth of rock’n’roll. It shows his readiness to address, within his imaginative universe, one of the more complicated parts of our history, and might hint at a fruitful seam for future exploration.

Tremble Tremble and At the Gates until 26 January; John Byrne: Rogues’ Gallery until 23 December