Visual art review: Scott Myles | Bobby Niven

Scott Myles's giant wallet folders, Elba
Scott Myles's giant wallet folders, Elba
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NOW an international arts star, one of the former skateboarders ousted from the DCA’s site makes a welcome return



Rating: ***



Rating: ****

WHEN DCA raised its head from the ruins of the Nethergate in the late 1990s, at least one group of people was far from happy. The skateboarders who had colonised the old brick building known as The Factory had invested time and money making it their own. It was only after a purpose-built skatepark was developed elsewhere in the city that the hackles went down.

Scott Myles, a native Dundonian, was one of the Factory skateboarders. Now an artist with an international career, and works in collections such as the Tate and MoMA, New York, he is back on the site, occupying the DCA galleries with his biggest show to date in the UK. While acknowledging that it is a homecoming of sorts, he is keen to stop anyone reading too much of that into the work. To anyone who threatens to get autobiographical, he quotes Milan Kundera: “Given that the novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel, how tenuous must be the validity of those who set themselves to undo what a novelist has done and redo what he undid.”

There is a lot of constructing and deconstructing, building and rebuilding in this show. The largest work in the show, Displaced Facade (for DCA), a sequence of three fragments of brick wall, has been built by apprentices from Angus College. It references the Factory, perhaps, but also a work by American postmodern architects SITE in Miami in the 1970s. The “meaning” may lie in either, or both, or in something else altogether, it’s fluid, and Myles likes to keep it that way.

It’s really an optical illusion, though this is somewhat spoiled by the fact that in order to reach the point from which the fragments line up into a single wall, you have to walk past (or between) all three. This may be intentional, but it does seem like a lot of work has gone into producing an effect which is fairly insignificant.

Analysis (Mirror) is more rewarding. This sculpture is made from two bus shelters, one upside-down on top of the other. They still bear the marks of use: graffiti scratches, cigarette burns, but the whole thing is coated with mirror paint. Sculpturally, it manages to feel monumental, while making no secret of its mundane origins. Inside, it doubles as a hall of distorting mirrors.

Myles is greatly interested by shapes and surfaces, remaking and transforming. The glass of a bay window is painted over, losing its transparency. A bus shelter, once transparent, is made to reflect. He makes clean, rigorous forms, then subverts them: two symmetrical wall-mounted wedges are softened by a marble finish; in his text works, precise printing is slightly offset to suggest layers. He enjoys the humour of subversion: giant wallet folders are made absurd by their scale.

One of the most intriguing works here is Habitat, a flat-pack unit from the now defunct furniture store, with its component parts painted black and mounted on the wall. Out of context, they start to look like abstract reliefs from Russian constructivism, in context they express succinctly the idea of a high-street retailer of modern design which has now itself become a thing of the past.

Myles has a rich frame of reference, from the early abstractionists through Carl Andre and Joseph Beuys, but the work requires that the viewer shares this. Like his sequence of prints – about a fight on a Glasgow building site where a man was attacked with a spirit level – you need to know the background. Certainly, the use of an instrument of precision and balance as a weapon is imaginatively interesting, but we need the exhibition guide to tell us that this is what the images show. Myles now operates on an international stage, but perhaps his coy, cool, clever work functions more easily in that world than in a public exhibition space in Dundee.

Emerging artist Bobby Niven, enjoying his biggest show so far at Peacock Visual Arts, is more ready to wear his fascinations on his sleeve. The body of work on show here is the result of a year spent exploring the island of Inchgarvie in the Firth of Forth, physically, historically, imaginatively and from all available angles.

The island, clearly visible from the train as it crosses the Forth Bridge, has interested Niven since he made the journey daily as a schoolboy. It has housed, in its rich and varied history, a castle, a plague hospital and military operations aiming at confusing enemy fire. Niven’s work draws on these elements, but also uses them as a jumping off point for his own imaginings.

At the centre of the exhibition is a film which draws together the various elements. It’s a series of impressions of the island, its ruins and its resident seabirds, capturing on its soundtrack the way in which its tranquillity is shattered by sudden bursts of noise: a train overhead, a ship’s horn. It also shows Niven’s own interventions: a series of bird sculptures and masks installed in one of the island’s buildings, striking forms, half primitive, half modern; and an imagined human inhabitant, directing his semi-naked wrath at the might of an immense cruise liner.

An intense “orange room” shows sculptures similar to those in the film, along with found objects from the island, displayed on salvaged metal brackets. The quieter “grey room” contains monumental objects cast in concrete, echoing the concrete structures on the island. These, too, draw on found objects – three tennis balls, a melon slice – but their size and solidity renders then both absurd and strangely serious. The concrete “wave” is particularly clever.

These objects seem to suggest the culmination of Niven’s process, not the start, so it is odd that they are the first that we see. But this is a rich, unified body of work which makes an intense investigation into one piece of earth, and then does its own thing, managing to be both earnest and absurd. It suggests Niven may be a name to watch.

• Scott Myles runs until 10 June; Bobby Niven until 7 July