Festival review: Pittenweem Arts Festival, various venues, Pittenweem

Boats in a harbour by Malcolm Cheape
Boats in a harbour by Malcolm Cheape
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Pittenweem is a small village with a big art festival, celebrating 30 years of turning any space into a gallery



RATING: ****

EVERYONE loves a good nosy, and one of the great attractions of the Pittenweem Arts Festival is getting to explore some of the nooks and crannies of this picturesque seaside town that are ordinarily hidden from view. With what seems like every second building pressed into service as a makeshift gallery, visitors are invited into otherwise off-limits industrial spaces, as well as into artists’ studios, homes and gardens – many of which are works of art in themselves, tumbling down the steep, terraced slope that divides the high street from the harbour. In spite of this increased level of access, however, it can be hard to get a handle on the true character of the place, particularly when its streets are humming with hundreds of art-lovers from out of town. Pittenweem may feel like a chic Mediterranean artists’ colony on a sunny day in August, but what must it be like to live here in January?

For anyone interested in finding out what the town is like when it isn’t hosting one of Scotland’s biggest arts festivals, a good place to start is the Net Loft at the foot of Water Wynd, currently playing host to an exhibition by a multinational group of photographers calling themselves the Beautiful Loot Collective. In among the store rooms where the town’s fishermen stash their nets when they’re not in use are pictures produced by members of the collective during a residency in Pittenweem in October 2011. Florence Royer took a documentary approach during her stay, producing an evocative series of reportage-style pictures concerning the town’s shellfishing industry. At the more poetic end of the spectrum, meanwhile, Celine Marchbank took photographs of washing lines, the clothes, towels and other assorted items dangling from them, hinting at what their owners might have been up to, or what they might have planned for tomorrow. Mela Piekacz is similarly effective in her attempts to get under the skin of the town and its residents.

“This is my perception of an unknown community, an unknown place, through the windows,” she writes, by way of introduction to an exquisite series of pictures documenting the multifarious knick-knacks Pittenweemers keep on their windowsills, from sparkly Christmas wreaths and ornamental dishes to toy dogs and china figurines. One image depicts a couple of fronds of a spider plant poking out from between the slats of a Venetian blind, like a sinister scene from The Day of the Triffids.

The festival is open access, in that anyone who is able to find themselves a venue can exhibit, but each year the festival organisers also invite a handful of high-profile artists to show work. This year’s invitees are multitalented writer and artist John Byrne, sculptor Jake Harvey, painter David Mackie Cook and members of the Association of Danish Printmaking Artists.

The highlight of Byrne’s show, which occupies the prime location of the Old Town Hall, is a large oil painting entitled East Coast Apocalypse, in which it seems the end of the world has come to somewhere that looks a lot like Pittenweem. Huge skeletons attack the town’s inhabitants with tridents and flaming swords, while the tentacles of a giant squid – perhaps the mythical Kraken – rise menacingly out of a stormy sea. Other major works include a large canvas entitled Nemeses, which shows Byrne flanked by Death on one side and a black cat on the other; and three hand-painted acoustic guitars, two with roses winding their way around the sound holes, the other depicting a woman rather precariously holding the moon and stars aloft using her hands and feet.

Formerly head of sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art, Jake Harvey has found an ideal location for his meditative works in stone, wood and metal at the Old Men’s Club down by the harbour. Inside the exhibition space a piece called Anvil 2, made of the same volcanic rock as the cobbles just outside on the pier, provides a nice link between work and setting. Outside in a little walled courtyard, meanwhile, slow-burn works like Yett, in which two Kilkenny limestone slabs are cantilevered out over a base of corten (weathered) steel, and Nostalgic Place, with its twin humps equally reminiscent of mountains and mammaries, speak quietly to each other, and also to the assorted lumps of stone that make up the walls that surround them.

Showing at 23 High Street, David Mackie Cook is inspired by the environs of his home in the abandoned fishing hamlet of Seagreens in North-east Scotland. Cook studied under Alberto Morocco at Duncan of Jordanstone, and the influence of the older artist is perhaps most evident in his vibrant palette. Some of the paintings here – Cattle in Psychedelic Field, for example – will be too much like sensory overload for some tastes, but when he tones things down a notch, as in Moonlight at Seagreens, the results are nothing short of stunning.

Devoid of context or explanatory material, some of the pictures in the Association of Danish Printmaking Artists group show at Lesser Church Hall appear to be experimental doodles or decorative, wallpaper-style patterns, more concerned with exploring the possibilities of a certain style of printing than with the substance of the resulting image. A few stand out from the crowd, however, notably Johanne Foss’s etching of a cryptic landscape with what appears to be an archaeological dig going on in the foreground, and Martin Askholm’s striking woodcut of an ancient monument held up by Doric columns.

The Pittenweem Arts Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and the programme is vast, with over 120 exhibiting artists. Ideally you could do with a couple of days to see it all properly. If you’ve only got a single day to see it all, though, prioritise the following: Malcolm Cheape’s nautical mixed media pieces, packed with intriguing details at 24 Mid Shore; Tim Cockburn’s brilliantly observed paintings inspired by the ridiculousness of everyday life next door at number 23; Duncan Macleod’s wistful landscapes, built up using layer upon layer of finely cut paper at 25 High Street; Jan Fisher’s atmospheric St Kilda paintings at Fisher 2; Claudia Massie’s moody Highland vistas at the same venue; and Anita E Hutchison’s textile squares, inspired by the patterns on found fragments of china, at 13b Water Wynd. Aimless wandering from venue to venue is also highly recommended.

• Until 5 August