Art reviews: Rob Kennedy | Of Other Spaces

When I visited the Talbot Rice Gallery this week I had the chance to meet Tessa Giblin, the incoming director of the gallery, on her first full day at the helm. Giblin, a New Zealander and prominent international curator, has been resident in Dublin where she worked at Project Arts Centre. She will have a very busy first year. She is the commissioner of the Irish pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, working with the artist Jesse Jones, and at Talbot Rice she will become part of the existing partnership with Alchemy Film and Arts that will present Rachel Maclean's work for Scotland at the same festival. Giblin succeeds Pat Fisher who was director of the gallery for 11 years, leaving on a high with one of the institution's most popular exhibitions, the Edinburgh Art Festival show of the late US painter Alice Neel.

An installation shot from Rob Kennedy's exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh. PIC: Talbot Rice Gallery

Rob Kennedy: Acts of Dis Play ****

Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh

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Of Other Spaces: Where does gesture become event? ****

Cooper Gallery, Dundee

This changing of the guard has been marked by the University’s curatorial team with a two-fold response. On the one hand is the restoration of traditional order: the rehang of the University’s historical Torrie Collection of largely Dutch paintings and bronzes in the austerely beautiful Playfair gallery which Fisher did much to restore to neoclassical elegance. On the other hand, it’s a bonfire of the vanities in the white-walled spaces of the contemporary galleries thanks to a firecracker of a show by the Glasgow artist Rob Kennedy – a point made literal with a vast and threatening pile of wooden detritus in the centre of the gallery topped by a withered cherry tree. Stacks of cardboard boxes block the window sills and teeter over the bannister on the gallery’s mezzanine floor, as though art was the practice of a pathological hoarder rather than a measured set of cultural operations. On the wall a quote from Joseph Conrad suggests, in my own ugly paraphrase, that daily life is often just force of habit and self-deception. Rising through the double height of the space is a scaffolding platform, bearing myriad wires and an LED display screen, which appears to balance on wooden blocks and upturned, shattered video screens.

What is the scaffolding upon which we hang our assumptions about art and exhibition practice, and is it stable? These are old questions and in some hands rather trite ones, but Kennedy’s conceit that the rites and rituals of the art world are games of illusion and also of power is pulled off through sheer gusto. As is now a regular part of his working practice, Kennedy has worked with other artists and the work is scattered in and through the ordered melee including paintings by Conor Kelly and Merlin James and sculptures and ragged assemblages of old air conditioning units by Tony Maas, which first greet you outside the gallery door.

Two paintings take central prominence, mounted not on the gallery walls but on leaning painted hardboard panels. The first of these shows a group of peasants outside what might be a hay barn or a rudimentary village inn. Drink has been taken, as is suggested by the red faces and flagons that accompany these rustic stereotypes, as well as a figure lurking in an alley in the background whom one suspects is relieving his bladder. This is Peasants Playing Bowls by David Teniers the Younger, an important 17th century painting from the Torrie Collections, with all the cultural authority that implies. Facing it hangs what appears to be a copy by a follower of Teniers, its subject similar in every respect apart from a missing tree and the absence of that hunched rear-facing figure. Teniers frequently painted people in pursuit of passing pleasure and woven in to these works is a whole discussion about values, work and the authentic life. Kennedy’s presentation brings new games into play, and other questions of authenticity, power and judgement. Look behind this elaborate presentation and the artist has made the missing figure reappear in the most unexpected way. Upstairs, in a room darkened by drapes, exposed boards and black-painted panels, Kennedy – who is best known for his often overwhelming video presentations – takes full control, in a powerful, primordial soup of pixels, philosophy and prison metaphors. The film’s closing sequence shows a gun-toting hero of a violent video game as he shoots his way through a chain link fence, teetering on the edge of a cliff. You are left questioning whether you are on the outside of the penitentiary or the inside.

Display is critical at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art’s Cooper Gallery where Sophia Hao’s trawling of the feminist archive has produced an exhibition as dense as its title, Of Other Spaces: Where does gesture become event? This is a show that requires hours of painstaking wading through printed material, grimy video and monochrome documentation, aided by mirrored table displays by the artists Cullinan Richards. The pay-off is a chance to reacquaint oneself and reassess such key works as Rose English and Sally Potter’s landmark 1976 performance Berlin, the radical restaging of genre photography by the late Jo Spence, the photomontage of Linder and the 70s performances of key artists like Monica Ross, Anne Bean and Rose Finn-Kelcey. The argument of the show, which seems to coalesce around ideas of woman’s labour and collectivity, is less clear than the sheer volume of information, but it rests on the importance of the contradictory impulses of fleeting performance, ephemeral gesture and grinding activism in feminist art. It suggests that grind, though at times unnecessarily laborious, is indeed worth it.

*Rob Kennedy until 17 December; Of Other Spaces until 16 December