Our relationship with clay is as old as our humanity. It was one of the first things to distinguish us from the other animals. Others use tools, but to take the earth itself and to make things that are useful, and which from the very start were also beautiful, set us apart. It is a witness that we are not just a toolmaking species, but one to which the aesthetic is fundamental, an integral part of our nature. In his art, Damián Ortega uses clay to reflect on themes like these, though always with a light touch.
Damián Ortega | Rating: ***** | Fruitmarket, Edinburgh
Paper Trail | Rating: **** | City Art Centre, Edinburgh
Raphael Rubenstein: The Miraculous | Rating: ** | Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop
One of the most elaborate works in his show at the Fruitmarket, for instance, is a long bench laden with models of every conceivable kind of human tool. There are a hundred or more of them and not just from now but from all our history. They range from stone axes to angle grinders by way of agricultural implements, hammers and saws, to laptops, cameras and mobile phones. On the wall behind, too, are drawings of the same objects. It is a wonderful discursive essay on how our practical interaction with the world around us may have evolved into the electronic age, but remains essentially manual. Of course, modelling clay is the most elemental form of that interaction – literally so for clay is just earth and water – and so, quite logically when you think about it, these model tools are made of clay. It is unfired, however, and simply dried to a leathery texture. The inference of this is that at the level of hand tools our relationship with the world is still simple. If the clay had been fired it would be quite different. Fire opens another dimension, adds another element to create in metamorphosis the miraculous world of ceramics.
A similar theme is explored from a very different angle in a large work. Descriptively titled Eroded Valley, it is at once an essay in the power of clay as a modelling material and a demonstration of the geological processes of the interaction of earth and water from which it comes. The work consists of five neat, rectangular piles of fired bricks. A shallow Y-shape has been roughly cut into the top layer of bricks in the first block. From block to block this cut gets progressively deeper till in the second last, cutting through three quarters of the layers of brick, it resembles two convergent valleys cut by rivers to leave a tall, narrow hill between them. In the final block the sides of the valleys have gone and this is just a free standing hill, a model of a mountain created by erosion, a model made by mimicking the processes of geology.
There is more lighthearted mimicry in a wall drawing called Tripas de Gato. The title is the name of a Mexican children’s game, played by joining up numbered dots, but, in a much freer form than the usual business of joining dots, it ends up producing shapes that mimic the cat’s innards of its name but also the isobars of weather maps. It is as though there was some subliminal link between the children and the weather.
In other works, Ortega rejoices in the clay itself. Broken Sac, for instance, consists of rough balls of clay scattered around a hollow pot and is inspired by the behaviour of Mexican burrowing crabs. Elsewhere hundreds of little balls of clay are suspended on strings to look a bit like a spatial model of the asteroid belt.
In a series of sculptures called Icebergs he has not only fired roughly modelled clay, he has also glazed it in blue and white. The resulting blue-white shapes do vaguely resemble icebergs, but they are mostly just satisfying as intriguing, chunky objects. Best of all though are his Lava Waves, waves modelled in fired red clay. (The clay all comes from Oaxaca in Mexico.) They have all the drama of waves breaking on a stormy shore, but are fixed as though not made of water, but of cooled lava. So he evokes both the oceans and the volcanoes, two of the great forces that have shaped the earth.
Across the road from the Fruitmarket, Edinburgh City Art Centre is home to one of the finest collections of Scottish art. Hitherto, however, it has been too rarely seen and if this is true of the paintings in the collection, it is even more true of the works on paper. So Paper Trail, which sets out to demonstrate the richness of the collection of works on paper, is especially to be welcomed. In fact, as well as to demonstrate the variety of the collection, the works have also been chosen to show some of the many different ways in which artists use paper. Pencil drawing is represented by a lovely cubist figure drawing by William Johnstone from the 1920s, for instance, pen and ink by a similar and contemporary drawing by William McCance, pastel by a study of a child by Joan Eardley. Peace, Build the Future is a large, highly finished charcoal drawing of workers by Ken Currie, while Moorland by James Cadenhead is an unusually large watercolour. Muirhead Bone’s A Rainy Night in Rome demonstrates the richness of drypoint, while Winifred McKenzie’s Waterfall is a lovely example of the technique of coloured woodcut, learnt from the Japanese and much favoured by artists in the 1930s. One of the most striking works is a set of 12 concrete poems by Ian Hamilton Finlay, but there is much more too in this rewarding show.
Raphael Rubenstein: The Miraculous at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop is also on paper, but is rather less rewarding. It is series of 12 wall posters displaying written accounts of artistic actions, interventions etc by a dozen recent or contemporary artists including such names as Josef Beuys, Cindy Sherman and John Latham. The idea seems to be to evoke these artists as a kind of numinous presence. I can’t say that it really worked for me, nor am I sure that the workshop really needs these summoned ghosts. It is a fine place without them. Although only there for a single day, a show of sculptures and intriguing relief paintings by recent resident sculptor Alex Allan was a good demonstration of its vitality.
• Damian Ortega until 23 October; Paper Trail until 21 May 2017; Raphael Rubenstein until 31 August