Art reviews: Victoria Crowe at the SNPG | Eve Fowler at DCA

Professor Peter Higgs 2013 by Victoria Crowe
Professor Peter Higgs 2013 by Victoria Crowe
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In an art world in which so much is posited on the self, portraiture might start to look like an old fashioned form. However, there are welcome reminders that it is alive and dynamic: the recent show of film portraits by Tacita Dean at the National Portrait Gallery in London is one; this collection of Victoria Crowe’s portraits is another.

Victoria Crowe: Beyond Likeness, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh *****

Eve Fowler: What a slight. what a sound. what a universal shudder, Dundee Contemporary Arts ***

Bringing together more than 50 paintings and drawings from a period of more than 30 years, it is both a chance to see the significance of what she has achieved in the form, and an opportunity to see how her practice has evolved.

Here are scientists, physicians, writers and composers: psychiatrist R D Laing, physicist Peter Higgs, politician Tam Dalyell, and many more about whom we know less, to whom this exhibition is a valuable introduction. There is also a small selection of works from her popular series, A Shepherd’s Life, which studied over several years the life of Jenny Armstrong, her neighbour in the Pentlands, and portraits of herself, her husband and childen.

With a few exceptions, her sitters are not household names, nor are they (and no slight is intended here) particularly interesting to look at. Here lies the challenge for the portrait painter. How to portray an individual whose physical appearance (often middle-aged, conservatively dressed) gives away little of the significance of their achievements. How to move beyond likeness, to show the vitality of their creative, intellectual or imaginative life.

Including in the painting objects, artefacts and books is one way of extending its field of reference. Crowe quickly starts to add other elements: the view through a window, a painting on the wall. But she is reaching for more than that. In a portrait of the Jungian psychoanalyst Dr Winifred Rushforth (whose work included the analysis of dreams), she includes beyond the window a dream-scene of floods and dinosaurs, a bold step she felt more comfortable taking, she says, partly because Rushforth was almost blind at the time of the sitting.

With the poet Kathleen Raine, she uses a mirror behind the sitter in which lines from her poems and portraits of her younger self, are included. Raine’s eyes are averted – she was a reluctant sitter. There is something about her which is unreachable, and the best portraits capture this too: an acknowledgement that we can never fully know another person.

In a few works, colour is the key. Theologian and former Moderator of the Church of Scotland Professor John MacIntyre, is painted in the scarlet robes of a Knight of the Order of the Thistle. Composer Thea Musgrave is shown against a backdrop of rich, vivid blues.

In later paintings, there is a significant shift, perhaps most clearly seen in her self-portrait November Window, Reflecting, painted in the aftermath of her son Ben’s death from cancer. She meets our gaze from the very right of the picture, as if looking out through a window, but the painting collapses planes and states of being: day and night, inside and outside, movement and stillness. Crowe describes how her own sense of reality was so challenged by the circumstances that the painting had to accommodate these contrasts.

Her later portraits show a greater freedom to conflate inner and outer worlds. The canvas becomes a palimpsest on which we read not only the likeness of the sitter but memories, thoughts, ideas. By the time she paints Professor Timothy O’Shea, former principal of Edinburgh University, in 2017, she makes a long-format portrait divided into seven vertical planes, incorporating indoors and outdoors, the public and private self. She has found a way to portray not only likeness, but the multifaceted selves we present just beneath the surface.

Eve Fowler’s engagement with the work of the writer Gertrude Stein is not a portrait, but it is an extended tribute to another artist, and a reanimation of her work nearly a century after it was produced.

This the LA-based artist’s first major show in Europe, and a coup for DCA, showing a body of text-based works going back eight years. Lines and phrases from Stein’s idiosyncratic prose run across the gallery walls and floors, appear as paintings, prints, posters and collages, and spill out of the gallery onto billboards and bus shelters around Dundee.

Fowler trained as a photographer and is best known for her portraits of men and women in the LGBT community. There is a sense in which the text works continue this oeuvre, giving a platform to Stein as a lesbian writer who had to conceal her sexuality during her lifetime. But the phrases Fowler chooses are much more open-ended. They play with words, create ambiguities and allusions: “Please a pease”; “I want to tell about fire”, “How can you sleep so sweetly. How can you be so very well. Very well.” The title of the show, for example, from Stein’s book Useful Knowledge, is something Fowler long thought of as personal and sexual, but has taken on fresh resonance for her as a comment on current US politics.

The meaning of these lines shift depending on our mood when we read them: “In the morning, there is meaning” is one poster which can be seen on the streets of Dundee. And so the show becomes not only about Stein’s words but about the way in which all words are maleable. They can be the building blocks of power structures, but they can also encode secret meanings, and resist or challenge structures of power.

The show is anchored by a 30-minute film, With it which it as it if it is to be (Stein again), beautifully shot in black and white 16mm film, portraying a series of female artists (Fowler’s contemporaries) at work, while several of them read aloud from Stein’s text, Many Many Women. Like much of Stein’s writing, it has a repetitiveness which verges on the nonsensical, while occasionally spitting out phrases laden with meaning. But it has a cumulative power, circling around ideas of work, love, art, courage, which resonate deeply with these intimate portraits of women striving, laughing, being fulfilled in their art.

The warmth and depth of the film somehow shows us what we are missing in the other works. The text works are slick, always produced with careful reference to colour and typeface. They are affirming, provocative, puzzling, but are somehow more superficial than they should be, given the depth of Fowler’s engagement with them. Perhaps, like the advertising billboards they imitate, only in repeated exposure do they reveal a greater power.

Victoria Crowe: Beyond Likeness until 18 November; Eve Fowler: What a slight. what a sound. what a universal shudder until 26 August