Visual art review: Lucy Skaer: A Proposal for Mount Stuart

A chapel sculpture by Lucy Skaer, this year's artist in residence at Mount Stuart
A chapel sculpture by Lucy Skaer, this year's artist in residence at Mount Stuart
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Lucy Skaer is the latest artist to use the glorious country house and estate at Mount Stuart as the backdrop for their work.The results are startling

Lucy Skaer: A Proposal for Mount Stuart

Mount Stuart, 
Isle of Bute

Star rating: * * * *

This summer at Mount Stuart in Bute, artist Lucy Skaer has been raking through rubble. Buried in the grounds she has found granite columns that match those on the building’s artful, neo-gothic exterior. No-one knows much about them, but the builders probably left them during construction.

It took a horse-drawn railway to get the materials from the nearest village to the construction site of the grand pile, built in 1880 by the Third Marquess of Bute after the family’s Georgian home burned down. The house, designed by Rowand Anderson, is deceptive. It may have looked medieval but it was actually a radical modern machine wrapped in fetching historical dress.

Perhaps the polished grey stone columns were faulty and didn’t fit. Perhaps they were spares, excess materials paid for and easier to leave behind than remove. This summer, thanks to Skaer, they lie piled up incongruously beneath the magnificent dining table, which is set with beautiful silverware beneath glittering French chandeliers. You don’t notice the stone at first and then abruptly, jarringly you see it. It is as though the house is turning itself inside out.

In the chapel great blobs of crimson glass are lying on the floor as if the stained glass in its red-tinted lantern was melting and dripping onto the ornate marble floor below. They seem to be in different evolutionary stages: fragments of crude-looking cullet (glass fragments broken off in the kiln) and blown forms like little globes and symmetrical spun plates.

In the drawing room, the woodland has moved indoors, a dozen pieces of carved wood from a windfall yew are laid out in symmetrical patterns. Each is shaped in a distinctive “emerald cut” so-called because it’s the form of facet best suited to mitigate the structural weaknesses of that gemstone. The yew is handsome but pockmarked. It’s a convention in sculpture to talk about uncovering a form “hidden” in a piece of marble for example, but Skaer’s approach with its schematic discipline is an off-kilter displacement of such an idea.

Each year curator (and sister of the current Marquess) Sophie Crichton Stuart invites an artist to work within the context of the house and estate. When, in 2006, Nathan Coley placed a large illuminated sign in the grounds stating, “There will be no miracles here,” the work led to his nomination for the Turner Prize. But it also became part of the lore of the house. That summer I spotted a cheeky wee handwritten note that the estate’s gardeners had pinned to one of the greenhouse doors: “There will be no miracles here either.”

Skaer’s immensely successful show is a series of poetic and precise interventions that seem to make the house momentarily tilt on its axis. For such an imposing house the private rooms at Mount Stuart are surprisingly intimate. It was built, albeit on a grand scale, as a home. For the artist the exhibition is a homecoming of sorts – Skaer is returning to Glasgow, where she trained in the environmental art department at Glasgow School of Art, after four years in New York.

A decade ago, in an ephemeral action, Skaer placed a diamond and a scorpion side by side on an Amsterdam street. You could read this as a little essay on relative values or, in the long tradition of Dutch genre painting, as a homily on the perils of temptation.

When she was nominated for the Turner prize in 2009 she made a series of reproductions of the famous Brancusi sculpture Bird in Space. But instead of the marble or bronze of the originals they were made in compressed coal and resin.

Bird in Space was the subject of a famous court case over the definition of an art work, back in 1926. Declared as art it could pass through American customs without charge. But officials wouldn’t recognise its modern abstract form as a sculpture and charged it as an expensive piece of metal.

Skaer’s work is full of such slippages in materials and allusions to the values we ascribe to them. She seems to suggest that like the diamond and the scorpion we too are made of carbon. But how do we understand the difference between the living and dead, the animated and the inert, the worthless and the highly prized? At Mount Stuart where it’s impossible not be dazzled by the layers of pink marble, the fine paintings, the near hysterical details in every ceiling or parquet floor, Skaer brings this slippery sensibility and a grasp of the fact that in gothic architecture it’s the elaborate ornament that both orientates and disorientates the visitor.

Piled in the centre of the marble hall are four large wooden triangles, made from windfall oak gathered from the estate. They look like setsquares and you wonder if they might help navigate under the vaulted ceiling that is painted with stars. In the bright upper floor conservatory that was once used as an operating theatre when the house was used as a wartime hospital, the same form recurs again, this time rendered in polished steel.

On the floor of the elaborate horoscope bedroom Skaer has placed a copy of an Audubon print of a blue crane heron. The real print would be very valuable. She has hand-coloured it. It is slightly too garish. There’s a complex loop here about originals and copies. There was the live bird, then the dead specimen, then the ornithologists drawing, then the printmaker’s plate, then the original print edition, then the cheap copy, made new again by Skaer’s own hand.

Soon, you feel you are in a hall of mirrors. It is as though the house is dissolving in some way, the outside is coming in, the glass fabric dissolving, dead trees have come back to life and dead birds too. And then you remember that gothic houses such as this are never empty, they always have ghosts. This summer Skaer has ensured that Mount Stuart is haunted, not so much by spectres, but by its own self.

• Lucy Skaer: A Proposal for Mount Stuart 2013, Isle of Bute, runs until 31 October