Susan Mansfield: Generation shows Scots lead way

Toby Paterson - The Red Tavern
Toby Paterson - The Red Tavern
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THIS summer, the largest exhibition of Scottish art ever mounted will be unveiled. The aim is to encapsulate 25 years of Scottish art, and the gallery is the whole country.

Generation is unprecedented in its scale and ambition: over 60 galleries, over 100 artists. What began as a discussion between the National Galleries of Scotland and Glasgow Life about celebrating Scottish contemporary art in the year of the Commonwealth Games, widened out to include local galleries from Orkney to Dumfries.

Though openings are staggered throughout the summer, major shows will open this week at National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh and GoMA and Tramway in Glasgow. These have been put together by a board of curators from NGS, Glasgow Life and Creative Scotland, along with Generation associate curator Katrina Brown, but organisers have also invited galleries across Scotland to join the programme with shows of their own. So the variety is endless, from Louise Hopkins in Linlithgow to Anthony Schrag in Aberdeen, to a survey show of Jim Lambie’s work at the Fruitmarket, and 20 years of Ross Sinclair’s Real Life at the Collective. “It hasn’t been a top-down curatorial approach or an entirely porous open-ended approach,” says Brown. “We had to make sure there weren’t 15 exhibitions by the same artist, but mainly we were just looking at achieving as much diversity and depth as possible across the whole programme.”

The last major survey show of art in Scotland was The Vigorous Imagination at the National Galleries of Scotland in 1987, best known for showcasing the work of young figurative painters such as Peter Howson, Adrian Wisniewski and Steven Campbell. Generation aims to celebrate those artists who have come to prominence since, though its emphasis on artists under the age of 50 with a conceptual bent to their work has prompted some criticism. Simon Groom, director of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, who is on the curatorial board for Generation, says: “There are a lot of artists who are making fantastic work now who are not in the exhibition because they achieved national international recognition in the 1980s. The only line we draw is that date line. Drawing a line is always difficult but we have tried to be as scrupulous and as inclusive as possible.”

The boundaries of the show must also be porous enough to take into account the fluidity of the contemporary art world, where many artists live and work internationally. Brown says: “The show wasn’t about looking at artists who were Scottish by birth, but those who came to prominence when living here. It was important that Generation reflected something of that really incredible and dynamic flow of people that has happened in the last 25 years.”

Groom says the art world has changed so much since the mid 1980s that a new curatorial model was needed: “The Vigorous Imagination was one exhibition in one place curated by one person, but that is impossible now as a model because it doesn’t do justice to that plurality of views and the mobility of people. I think what’s interesting about Generation is that no one movement predominates. If anything were to characterise the art of the last 25 years, it is its lack of unity and uniformity, its incredible breadth and range and depth.”

Such a breadth also brings challenges. If there is no single curatorial thread, how does one give the show coherence? What it aims to do, its makers say, is tell a story: the story of how Scotland came to be a world leader in contemporary art. While our achievements are well known in the art world, it’s a story that needs to be told back on home turf, Katrina Brown says. “The sense of artists having vibrant, dynamic careers all over the world is a fantastic thing, but it’s meaningless [for people in Scotland] if they’ve never had an opportunity to see their work. That’s one of the big tasks for Generation, to introduce many of the artists that have had that international success to more people in more places in Scotland, and maybe just shift perceptions a little bit about what contemporary art looks like.”

There is an emphasis on restaging key works, some of which may have been shown only once in Scotland, such as Martin Boyce’s seminal installation Our Love is Like the Flower, the Rain, the Trees and the Hours, made for Tramway in 2003 and recreated as part of the show at NGS, or never shown in Scotland at all, such as Christine Borland’s L’homme Double. Alison Watt’s Shift paintings have been reunited at NGS for the first time since they were shown in 2000, and Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan revisit their Heroin Kills exhibition at Tramway.

Only one artist whose work appears in Generation was also part of The Vigorous Imagination: the late Steven Campbell. His seminal show On Form and Fiction, made for the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow in 1990, will be recreated at National Galleries with the help of his widow, Carol. Simon Groom believes he is a crucial figure in linking the two generations: “On Form and Fiction was really important because it was a total environment, it encapsulates that shift from painting as a representative object that hangs on a wall to something that completely envelops you. That was hugely influential on a whole generation of artists. It’s not that all these artists came from nowhere and turned their backs on what went before. Incredible, that whole show has been in a basement in London since 1990, it’s phenomenal to be able to recreate it.”

It’s not that artists have abandoned traditional forms either, these have simply become part of a greater diversity. Katrina Brown says: “It’s not that people were all making figurative paintings in the 1980s and then that all changed and they started making video installations. There’s continuity, there’s everything from figurative painting and abstract painting through to performance and events and everything in between. That explosion of forms is incredible, and it’s amazing to be able to see it all together at one time – albeit in one country rather than one gallery.”