Arts review of 2017: Susan Mansfield and Duncan Macmillan on the year in visual art

The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio, part of the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery PIC: The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio, part of the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery PIC: The National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
Share this article
0
Have your say

Susan Mansfield and Duncan Macmillan reflect on the shows that caught their eye in 2017

The Sky is Falling, CCA, Glasgow, April and May

This group show of five artists, curated by Ainslie Roddick, did a superb job of getting under the skin of what it means to live in cities, how we navigate them, and the divisions inherent in urban life. From Carol Rhodes’ paintings of the urban fringes, criss-crossed by rivers and motorway flyovers, to the psychogeographical journeys of Laura Oldfield Ford, and the films of Brazilian artist Clara Ianni, this was an insightful show about how we dream cities into being, and what happens when the dream turns sour. SM

Hugh Buchanan: New Town, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, June and July

2017 was the quarter millennium of Edinburgh’s New Town. It all began with James Craig’s plan, and nearly 70 years of building followed the city’s initiative. Instead of celebrating this momentous anniversary, however, the city has been quite dumb. It was left to others to mark the occasion. One of the most striking ways in which they did was the exhibition at the Scottish Gallery of Hugh Buchanan’s remarkable paintings of Georgian Edinburgh. All watercolours, though often on a much bigger scale than watercolours usually are, his pictures were geometry informed by light, both artificial and natural. Light as a metaphor gives us enlightenment. The New Town is one of the greatest monuments to the Scottish Enlightenment, so there could have been no better way to mark this anniversary. DM

Beyond Caravaggio, Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, June to September

Caravaggio was an absolutely key figure in the history of Western art. He changed its direction from the elevated to the actual, brought it down to the world of real people. He never painted a dull picture either, so any show that boasted four of his paintings was always going to be interesting. Beyond Caravaggio did indeed have four of his pictures, two of them major ones, but it had much else as well, great paintings by well-known artists like Orazio Gentileschi and Gerrit Honthorst, but also work by almost unknown artists. There was, for instance, one called simply Saraceni’s Lodger – we have no idea who he or she was, but the work of these and many other artists showed how Caravaggio’s example inspired them to build a new art. DM

Kate Downie: Anatomy of Haste, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, August

Kate Downie’s contemporary landscapes have something of the poetry of the urban and post-industrial about them, but her true passion is infrastructure, the systems we build to make modern life possible. This extensive show of paintings and prints takes her from Norway to the USA, from the blinking neon of Shimbashi, Tokyo, to the building of the new Forth Bridge. Her work balances superb draftsmanship with a bold expressiveness. As the title suggests, everything in her world, from the trucks thundering along Route 66 to the raindrops streaking a train window, is in a kind of motion. SM

The Pittenweem Arts Festival, Various venues, Pittenweem, August

This year’s Pittenweem Arts Festival was notable for two lovely shows. Graham Rich makes art out of flotsam and jetsam and paints boats on sea-weathered wood, but the results are not simple. Rather he uses limited means, but out them makes a distinctive, complex and beautiful poetry of the sea. The busy fishing port of Pittenweem was the perfect place for this show. It was partnered by Paul Furneaux’s woodcuts. They are abstract, but the delicate layering of colour and texture that he achieves also seemed appropriate to the place. DM

Alastair MacLennan: Air A Lair, Summerhall, Edinburgh, August and September

Scots-born Alastair MacLennan settled in Belfast in 1975 at the height of the Troubles, so perhaps it’s no surprise that his work is informed by themes of war, loss and the possibility of healing. He works principally in performance, making substantial exhibitions of his work quite rare. Nevertheless, this show – a kind of modest retrospective – brought together sculptural works and documentation from across his 40-year career. Thoughtful, penetrating and reflective, it was an important introduction for many to the man who might be the most important Scottish artist we’ve never heard of. SM

Margaret Hunter: Duality, Maclaurin Gallery, Ayr, August to October

Margaret Hunter was a Glasgow School of Art contemporary of artists such as Peter Howson and Adrian Wiszniewski, but while they were making waves in The Vigorous Imagination, she was in Berlin, studying with German painter Georg Baselitz. She stayed on in Germany, developing a style in painting and sculpture which fused her interest in the figure with influences of European expressionism and tribal art. This rare chance to see an extended selection of her work in Scotland revealed the power in simple forms which become infused with meaning and emotion. SM

Hiwa K: Nazhad and the Bell, Hospitalfield, Arbroath, September, and part of NOW at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until February 2018

This dual-screen film by Iraqi artist Hiwa K is a contemporary take on the idea of swords-to-ploughshares. One film shows Nazhad’s scrapyard in Northern Iraq, where scrap metal from armaments and vehicles from 30 years of Middle Eastern wars is gathered and melted down. The other shows some of the same metal, in a workshop in Italy, being used to make a bell, a symbol of community, memorial and peace. Hiwa K juxtaposes these two groups of craftsmen without comment. None is needed. When the bell is finally rung, it’s a spine-tingling moment. SM

Ages of Wonder, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, November until January 2018

Ages of Wonder tells the remarkable story of the Royal Scottish Academy, our national academy of art and architecture. It shows how it was the RSA that first built up the nation’s collection of Scotland’s own art, but for the sake of the example they could provide for the young, the Academy also acquired major Old Master paintings and drawings. Much of the collection was given to the nation in exchange for the RSA building which was to be for its exclusive use, a deal which for whatever reason no longer holds. The Academy existed primarily for living artists, however, and one thing which the show demonstrates above all is just what a high standard they have maintained over most of two centuries. DM

A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, December until June 2018

Scottish artists have always had a lively interest in modernism. They have also made an invaluable contribution to the British response to radical new ideas. A New Era traces that story through the work of well-known artists like JD Fergusson, for instance, who were in at the beginning of these momentous changes, down to Scots like Eduardo Paolozzi and William Gear, who first made the vital reconnection with Europe in the post-war years. In between, the show presents the work of a great many individuals. William Johnstone, William Gillies and John Maxwell have always been celebrated, but others, like the painters Benjamin Creme or Charles Pulsford, for instance, or the sculptors Norman Forrest and Tom Whalen, have been almost forgotten. Their reputations now revived, the story of Scottish modernism will have to be revised. DM