ANGUS Reid explores Scotland’s psyche, and Frances Walker – a great, overlooked talent – its geography.
Angus Reid: Home Rule Here: Domescstatic
31 Heriot Row, Edinburgh
Frances Walker: Coastlines
Tatha Gallery, Newport on Tay
In the introduction to A Modest Proposal for the agreement of the people, a call for a constitution, (written with Mary Davis, Luath Press 2014)) artist-poet Angus Reid writes “in the run-up to the Independence Referendum... the hard carapace of state authority has momentarily softened and there is an opportunity to define a new and better country.”Although his ambitions are more far-reaching – he proposes a new constitution for the UK as a whole, constructed ground up by the people, not top down by the politicians – he does identify the opportunity that the referendum offered. It was bigger than politics and that surely was what powered the Yes campaign. The real issues were neither political, nor economic, but cultural. Correspondingly they were also collective, not individual; about the things we share, not our own private welfare. The No campaign, however, tried constantly to pull the debate off that high ground to grubby private self-interest. Although in the end they won the vote, this lack of vision, this failure to grasp what the issues really were leaves a deficit which sooner or later will have to be made good. There can be no doubt that now the artists and others like them will continue to work to that end. That was what happened after the 1979 referendum. There was a new seriousness about Scottish cultural affairs, a new depth in its productions. To take just two examples, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark was published in 1981. Steven Campbell appeared on the scene that same year.
Angus Reid published A Modest Proposal (its title borrowed from Jonathan Swift) after a two year tour of Scotland. As he went round, he presented his ideas in the form of poems installed on the walls of venues throughout the land; the ideas in it were discussed and then endorsed by people putting their hand marks on the wall. This is a gesture as old as the art of the caves where hand prints of the ancient artists – recent research suggests both men and women – endorse their art. So its use to endorse a demand for a constitution was a vivid way of identifying that ambition with real people. Reid has now extended this idea with Home Rule Here: domecstatic, an installation in the stairwell of his flat in Edinburgh, timed for the referendum. This stair once belonged to a big house. Now it is the disproportionately grand access to a modest top flat. Reid took advantage of Doors Open Day to invite people to see his installation in the stairwell. He was a little taken aback when crowds of uninvited people trooped through his flat as well, but Doors Open Day is really the Festival of Nosiness.
The installation is the thing, however. Written across the walls is a selection of his poems. Split sonnets, he calls them: short poems with a caesura cutting through the lines from top to bottom. This gives them a common visual form and also adds a certain gentle hesitancy to the verse. In the installation the corner of the stairwell neatly provides this caesura. The poems on the wall are also punctuated by the painted silhouettes of visitors, however. They are doing things like reading, playing the fiddle, or just looking, but thus the whole installation comes to be about the presence of people, not only in the stairwell, but in the poetry itself and so engaged with it. All this then frames a single picture, No & Yes 2014, a double portrait of Donald and Anna MacPherson. They are sitting close together holding hands and apparently indivisible, but he was a No voter and she was a Yes. Perhaps at its heart, the picture, like the painting and writing on the walls, suggests the referendum did not divide us. It united us in a new sense of community and so of identity. It’s worth hoping.
One artist who has sought Scottish identity in the very bones of the landscape throughout a long career is Frances Walker. She is currently showing at the Tatha Gallery in Newport on Tay. A new venture, the gallery directed by Helen Glassford opened in April and is part of the Newport, the redevelopment of an old hotel that once served people waiting for the Fifie, the ferry that plied between Newport to Dundee before the bridge was built. Losing its customer base, the hotel fell on hard times. The redeveloped Newport will face directly across the water to the new V&A when it is built on Dundee’s foreshore. It already includes a pub as well as the gallery, a restaurant is being built and rooms are to be added above. With a gallery in a commercial enterprise like this, experience suggests that it would be just a cosmetic addition, a glorified shop for unadventurous consumer art. Here, however, the programme is distinctive and ambitious and the gallery, beautifully but simply fitted out, occupies the prime position on the ground floor. It also has superb views westwards up the Tay towards the rail bridge and, the evening I was there, towards the setting sun. It could be a serious challenge to some artists to have their art confronted by nature and the outside world so dramatically, but not to Frances Walker. Her images of the sea on the gallery walls simply seemed to distill the essence of the world beyond its windows.
The sea, the coast and Scotland’s islands have been a preoccupation in Walker’s work for many years and so the exhibition is called Coastlines. It is not exactly a retrospective, but an informal selection of prints, paintings and drawings. They range in date back to 1980, but are unified by their subject matter of beaches, coasts and islands. They also include some striking new work, however. There are several oil paintings. Dark Evening Clouds Skye, for instance, is a small, powerful picture, sombre in mood. Summer Day in the Dunes, Tiree, in contrast is big, light and sunny and records a place that has been a second home to the artist. Another large oil, Leaving Roan (Pentland Firth), is a view down to the sea from high up on the island to where a boat is making a track in the blue water below.
The painting records a moment in one of the many voyages the artist has made through Scotland’s coastal waters visiting its islands. Indeed some years ago she devoted a whole exhibition to Scotland’s deserted islands, places where there were once communities but which are now empty. A beautiful collograph (a kind of printed collage), Autumn Evening, Ardwall Island is an example. So too is View from Boreray, North Uist. It was a wonderful enterprise to go to these remote places, record their beauty and so reclaim them as part of our world and part of our history. But it is her art that gives them back their significance and it is at its very strongest in her prints. Her drawing is incisive and strong enough to match the rocky geology of Scotland’s coasts and it finds its perfect vehicle in the etched line. Outstanding here are Storm Beach Fank (North Uist) and Storm Beach Boreray. Both are etchings, but she has worked on them directly too so that they have an immediacy that is quite her own. A founder member of Peacock Printmakers, working with them over the years she has become one of Scotland’s outstanding print-makers and one of the most striking prints here, Shore Pool Achmelvich, was made this year. She is an artist who should be celebrated nationally, but you will search for her in vain in our national collection unless you count a lithograph made nearly 40 years ago. It was acquired when the Scottish Arts Council Collection was dispersed.
•Angus Reid: Home Rule Here until 20 October, noon-2pm daily; Frances Walker: Coastlines until 25 October