Art reviews: Rachel Maclean | David Claerbout | Marcelo Brodsky | Calum McClure

A still from The Pure Necessity, by David Claerbout
A still from The Pure Necessity, by David Claerbout
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Rachel Maclean’s Venice Biennale film seems more timely now than when it was first shown, while Calum McClure is establishing himself as an important painter

Rachel Maclean: Spite Your Face, Talbot Rice, Edinburgh ****

David Claerbout, Talbot Rice, Edinburgh ****

Marcelo Brodsky: 1968 – The Fire of Ideas, Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow ***

Calum McClure: Somewhere becoming rain, Glasgow Print Studio ***

It has become customary that the work which represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale returns home for a victory lap the following year. Rachel Maclean’s acclaimed film, Spite Your Face, is beginning a tour which will take in London, Dublin and Cardiff, but begins at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, which was a partner in commissioning the project along with the Alchemy Film Festival.

Installed in the tall, white, pillared space of the Georgian Gallery, Maclean’s film – in portrait format, like a medieval altarpiece – looks superb, as it did in the dark interior of the deconsecrated Chiesa di Santa Catarina in Cannareggio. What is interesting is that Maclean’s savage little fairy tale about greed, materialism and the abuse of truth just seems to get more timely. Made in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the Trump election, it glitters just as darkly with resonances of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo.

Structured like a medieval painting with a “heavenly” world of celebrity and designer shops above and a dark underbelly of poverty beneath, Maclean’s Pinocchio tale is on a 37-minute loop: rags become riches become rags again. Somehow, she manages to blend a DIY aesthetic (she plays all the parts, using elaborate prosthetics, make-up and costumes), Disney-esque visuals and a big musical number with a savage – and sometimes violent – critique of contemporary society which doesn’t pull any punches.

Talbot Rice curator Tessa Giblin has chosen to show Maclean’s work next to a substantial selection of work by the Belgian artist David Claerbout, who also works principally in film, allowing each to shed light on the other.

The biggest space in the main gallery brings together four works by Claerbout, made over a period of 20 years, shown on different sizes of screen. The largest is The Quiet Shore, a slideshow of still black and white images of a group of people on a beach in Brittany. Frozen in time, the images – a child with a ball, people paddling in the waves – become melancholy, contemplative, unsettling. Intruding quietly into this is Long Goodbye. At first it appears still, but as you watch you become aware of very slow movement: a woman laying tea things on a table in front of a house and waving goodbye as the camera pans away.

Cat and bird in peace seems to bristle with potential energy, but the cat doesn’t pounce, the budgerigar doesn’t fly away. The newest work (which can also be viewed independently from the adjacent space) is The Pure Necessity, a reworking of footage from Disney’s The Jungle Book. With their human voices and mannerisms removed, the animals become more reflective, more melancholy, behaving, in fact, like animals in captivity.

Radio Piece (Hong Kong) uses a similar technique to Long Goodbye, a slow panning back which reveals more of the picture. So, what appears at first to be an oriental garden is in fact a picture on the wall of a studio high in a run-down apartment block. Travel is a journey through a “natural” environment which is created entirely digitally, shifting apparently seamlessly from forest to jungle, lakes and fields.

Claerbout is interested in how we consume film, and in confounding our expectations. We expect action, he gives us stillness. We expect real-time, he slows things down. We expect narrative, he gives us questions: what are the people on the beach looking at? Who is the woman waving to? And, for that matter, is the forest “real”? Yet he does this not by being coldly conceptual, but through creating compelling images which draw us in while making us ask questions about how we’re looking.

How we understand photographic images is also at the heart of the work of Argentinian artist and activist Marcelo Brodsky, currently on show at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow. Brodsky has collated images of student and worker protests from all over the world in (or around) 1968, annotated them with background information and hand-coloured some elements to draw out certain features, particularly the messages on the banners.

He draws attention to the differences and commonalities. The causes vary: marches against the war in Vietnam in London and Tokyo, against dictatorial regimes in South America, against Russian invasions in Prague and Bratislava, for free speech and civil rights in the USA. After a while, one protest looks much like another, but some images are particularly telling: photographs by the Australian intelligence services, with key “persons of interest” numbered for identification purposes; a single picture Dakar, Senegal showing not the pro-democracy protest – which was suppressed using violence and tear gas – but the aftermath, a street covered with discarded shoes. Brought together, the images convey a powerful worldwide sense of popular uprising, invested with hopes of a better, fairer world, however great or small the impact of this on the situation in hand.

Meanwhile, at Glasgow Print Studio, Calum McClure continues to establish himself as one of the important young painters of his generation. Since winning the Jolomo Award for Scottish Landscape Painting in 2011 shortly after graduation, he has continued to develop, experiment and innovate, moving towards a looser, more abstract style.

This work is his most abstract to date, and it’s interesting to speculate about whether his experience of making monotypes – some of which have a Japanese minimalist quality – is feeding back into his approach to making paintings. The show takes its title from the last line of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, and McClure is picking up less on specific forms of trees or lakes than on weather, mood, time of day. Large-scale paintings, such as Two ovals in rain and April showers, are worked in large, semi-transluscent layers, full of light and atmosphere.

Whether this is another avenue of experimentation, or a more permanent shift, it’s too early to say. But you can be sure that an artist with McClure’s talent and application will learn a lot from it, and it will make whatever he does next all the more interesting. n

Rachel Maclean and David Claerbout, both until 5 May; Marcelo Brodsky until 8 April; Calum McClure until 18 April