Lines From Scotland, St Andrews Museum ****
James Morrison: From Angus to the Arctic, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh ****
L’Atelier de l’Observatoire: The Collective Museum, Collective, Edinburgh ***
Drawing is regarded with ambivalence at best these days. Art schools no longer seem to insist on it as a core discipline, and contemporary artists are divided. Some still regard drawing as fundamental, a set of tools for exploring the world, a place for working out ideas. Others seem to pay it little heed. This is either a freedom or a loss, depending how you look at it.
Lines From Scotland, curated by Amanda Game for Fife Contemporary, is a welcome celebration of drawing and the range of purposes for which artists use it. Featuring the work of 23 artists across three generations, and bridging the divide between fine art and applied art, it shows us that – among these artists at least – the pencil still reigns supreme.
Of course, some of the artists here trained in the era in which drawing was rigorously taught. It was expected to underpin their work, and it did. So we have the superb etchings of Frances Walker and pen drawings by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, capturing the rhythms and energy of landscape through meticulously detailed patterns of lines, along with charming sketches of Elizabeth Blackadder and John Houston by one another from the 1950s reminding us that, along with everything else it does, drawing can be both intimate and immediate.
Silversmith Michael Lloyd, sketching bramble sprays, writes that drawing employs “a level of concentration which brings the draughtsman into a closer relationship with what is being drawn.” Several artists employ drawing like this with botanical forms: Rory McEwen’s etchings of leaf studies, Laurie Clark’s sublime ginkgo leaves and the orchid stems by botanical artist Lizzie Sanders. Ceramic artist Frances Priest develops a language of ornament from plant forms showing us her working, stage by stage.
There are ways in which drawing comes close to writing: Susan Leiper presents examples of the “Secretary hand” she used on the new Scottish five pound note, while poet Thomas A Clark reminds us succinctly that the 26 drawn shapes of the letters of the alphabet open up an entire world. Ian Hamilton Finlay is another master combiner of words and image, and the show includes various iterations of his work Proem, from printed postcards to a tapestry made at Edinburgh’s Dovecot Studios.
The drawn line has a relationship to music, too, demonstrated by Hanna Tuuliki, whose compositions include musical scores in the shapes of plants, and it is the basic tool for animation, such as David Shrigley’s irreverent film made for knitwear company Pringle. Meanwhile, Andy Goldsworthy gives us perhaps the most ephemeral version of a drawn line: a series of “frost shadows” cast by his standing in one spot while the day warms up around him.
Another consummate draughtsman trained in the same era as Blackadder and Houston is James Morrison, currently the subject of an absorbing show at the Scottish Gallery. He is known as a painter of the Angus landscape, a creator of great, wide vistas of fields and skies which sweep into an articulation of detail in the middle distance, but his work from the mid 1960s was semi-abstract with thick impasto and earthy tones, influenced in part by Joan Eardley.
This way of working didn’t quite satisfy, however, and a retrospective of his Angus work shows him deconstructing it, making a return to realism first in watercolours and inks, then in oils, settling on a style which combines a realisation of detail with an expressiveness which is both subtle and profound. There is a sense that drawing – whether in the dimensions of a field or the roots of a tree or the shape of a cloud – underpins all of it.
Then, in the 1990s, Morrison went to the Arctic on three separate trips, on which he painted en plein air as much as the weather would allow. A selection of large arctic paintings show him at work on a much harsher landscape of icebergs and rocky shores, and coming up with ambitious new ways of capturing it, as in Large Berg II, with its striking black ocean. Morrison is now in his late eighties and painting is much more of a struggle, but one 2019 work included here, Dark Landscape, a swirling semi-abstract of light and weather, shows him continuing to find new ways to work with the subjects he loves.
When architecture and design collective Assemble won the Turner Prize in 2015, the world became abruptly aware of artists whose practice extends beyond the traditional realm of visual art. Forensic Architecture, a group working in journalism, film-making and human rights, is another example. Casablanca-based L’Atelier de l’Observatoire might be a third, concerned with the city, community and memory. This show, in Collective’s City Dome, documents work from the last six years.
It began when project leader Mohamed Fariji started to investigate the possibility of turning the city’s former aquarium, a listed building which was closed in the late 1980s, into a citizens’ museum. We follow his progress into another project – refurbishing a carousel from an abandoned amusement park and setting up a residential area – and through a range of workshops excavating the city’s lost histories with the help of marginalised young people. The show concludes with the 2019 funding proposal for the conversion of the aquarium.
If there is a limit to how interesting all this can be, given that it’s all happening a long way away in a city most of us have never visited, it’s also easy to see why Collective has brought it here. They have done their own restoration job on a city monument, and continue to explore its relationship to the surrounding communities with artist residencies and audio-guided walks.
At a moment when Edinburgh is asking questions of itself – is it becoming a Hogmanay theme park in which Airbnb-ers squeeze out real citizens, and so forth – the work of L’Atelier is relevant; not that we might do the same thing, but that we might think a little about how some of the same principles might be applied closer to home in ways relevant to our own situation.
Lines From Scotland is at St Andrews Museum until 22 February, then touring to Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries, 7 March until 10 May, and Gracefield Arts Centre, Dumfries, 16 May until 25 July; James Morrison: From Angus to the Arctic until 1 February; L’Atelier de l’Observatoire until 9 February