Art reviews: Lucy Skaer | Tacita Dean | Gunnie Moberg & Margaret Tait

The Green Man by Lucy Skaer at Talbot Rice PIC: Ruth Clark
The Green Man by Lucy Skaer at Talbot Rice PIC: Ruth Clark
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It shouldn’t matter that female artists dominate at this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival, but it does, writes Susan Mansfield

Art reviews: Lucy Skaer: The Green Man, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh ****

Tacita Dean: Woman with a Red Hat, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh ****

The days never seem the same: Gunnie Moberg and Margaret Tait, Stills, Edinburgh ****

If there is a recurring theme in this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival, it is to do with the prominence of female artists. There are too many to list comprehensively: Barbara Rae at the RSA, new work by Joana Vasconcelos and Phyllida Barlow at Jupiter Artland, Victoria Crowe at the Scottish Gallery. Even this year’s Platform show for emerging artists is showing the work of four women.

One wonders if this should still be worthy of report; after all, an art festival with a preponderance of men would hardly be newsworthy. But perhaps that’s the point. There is plenty in the world to remind us that we are still further from gender equality than we might hope, so a band of women occupying major art spaces is well worth celebrating.

At Talbot Rice Gallery, Lucy Skaer is occupying all the available space with a substantial, rambling show. She has had the run of Edinburgh University’s collections, once housed in the gallery building which was designed by Playfair as a museum, and has clearly been revelling in it. This is not one body of work but several, stretching through the Talbot Rice round room and Georgian Gallery like an archipelago of installations, including works from the collections, by Skaer and by four other artists invited in to enlarge the conversation.

Skaer’s title is The Green Man, referring to the folkloric figure who appears, a face surrounded by leaves, in the stonework and wood carvings of medieval cathedrals, an earth sprite or version of the god Pan, a Dyonisian, anarchic spirit which is the subversive counter balance of organised religion and formalised learning. Skaer has embellished a series of botanical prints by Henry Bradbury from 1855 with vestiges of the Green Man’s leering face, a challenge to the museological urge to document and preserve lifeless specimens. What would it look like, she seems to ask, if it were done differently?

Skaer’s own practice usually involves reworking existing pieces, sometimes her own, sometimes from art history. La Chasse, downstairs in the main gallery (very likely the first work you encounter) includes elements of both: pieces of an earlier sculpture, as well as references to a 14th century painting Le Livre du Chasse, by Gaston Phebus, and a weather almanac from 1785. Shaped pieces of wood and stone are laid on the floor like sculptural sentences, interspersed with copper animals.

The floor of the Georgian Gallery is occupied with Sticks and Stones, large sculptural panels which explore a range of materials. The first two are in aged mahogony, inlaid with porcelain, limestone, metal. The subsequent ones copy the form in ceramic, marble and aluminium, each one a reworking of the one before.

Other pieces set up conversations with and around these works such a group of paintings by Hanneline Visnes, exquisite renderings of pattern and colour on irregularly shaped board which explore how artists and designers use and order the raw material of the natural world to their own ends. Fiona Connor has opened up some of the gallery’s behind-the-scenes spaces and mounted the doors on the gallery walls. A film from Skaer’s ongoing collaboration with Rosalind Nashashibi, Why are you angry?, shows Tahitian women in tableaux which reference the paintings of Gauguin. Will Holder makes a reprinting of HD’s 1926 novel, Palimpsest. A papier-mâché medical model painted to illustrate the nerve sections of the skin presides over the Round Room, legs splayed like some kind of fertility god.

It’s a rich and, at times, puzzling show, rambling through ideas as it does through different physical spaces. The gallery clearly thinks supporting information is required and has produced a 36-page booklet. Few will have time or inclination to follow all the leads and references in the work, but the exhibition has a pleasing energy nonetheless, and prompts many lines of creative thinking.

Meanwhile, the Fruitmarket Gallery brings together a body of work exploring the theme of performance in the work of Tacita Dean. The show circles around a central work, Event for a Stage, a 50-minute film made with actor Stephen Dillane, which involves a performance devised with Dean and filmed over four nights in a theatre in Sydney in 2014.

All the artifice of film-making is exposed: Dillane changes his hairstyle every night, although the edit cuts between all four, and calls the boards at the end of each reel (Dean works exclusively on with analogue technology). We can see the workings, and yet we’re still utterly absorbed by the performance. It’s as if Dean has done the equivalent of cutting open the songbird to find the song, only to find the bird is still singing.

Her 1996 work Foley Artist works in a similar way. Dean films the work of two Foley artists, making the soundtrack for a fictional film from a range of props and objects – yet their art is not demystified, seeing it in action makes it becomes all the more fascinating.

The other works in the show circle around this theme: an impressive 9m-long blackboard drawing of a thunderstorm, When first I raised the Tempest; an early print series, The Russian Ending, in which Dean annotates found photographs so they become visual storyboards for fictional disaster movies; a new series made with found postcards of past Hollywood stars.

Recently, Dean has become increasingly interested in working with actors, creating visual portraits using a masking technique which brings together in the same frame two different times and locations. His Picture in Little is a portrait miniature featuring three actors who have played Hamet, Stephen Dillane, David Warner and Ben Whishaw. A Muse shows Whishaw waving to the poet Anne Carson (actually on another continent); Providence does something similar, placing David Warner in a field of hummingbirds. Realities are merged, illusions are created. Yet, even if we know they are illusions, they are no less magical.

I don’t know whether Dean – like a lot of artists working in film today – owes a debt to pioneering Scottish filmmaker Margaret Tait, but her contemplative approach and carefully directed eye might suggest that she does. Stills provides a rare chance to see a rotating programme of Tait’s films, spanning 40 years, from a portrait of Rose Street in the 1950s where her company, Ancona Films, was based, to the experimental Garden Pieces she made in the 1990s, and her beautiful “film poem,” Where I am is here.

Her work is presented in conjunction with a selection of photographs by Gunnie Moberg, the Swedish photojournalist and photographer who moved to Scotland in the 1950s, settling on Orkney in 1976. The show brings together examples of different bodies of work: photographs of Orkney

itself, portraits of Scottish writers, abstracts from her “Stone” series, and a series of double-exposed photographs of flowers made in her garden in the 1990s, capturing the colour, delicacy and movement of flowers. It is a joy to see these two are acknowledged, even posthumously, in this year’s strong line-up of women artists. n

Lucy Skaer until 6 October; Tacita Dean until 30 September; Gunnie Moberg and Margaret Tait until 28 October.