Visual arts review: David Cass '“ Pelada

If the Scotsman is celebrating its bicentenary, the Scottish Gallery is not far behind. The paper was just a young adult, still finding its way in the world perhaps, when what is now Scotland's oldest dealer gallery first opened its doors in 1842. Rightly the Gallery is now celebrating its 175th birthday. We should join in with our congratulations too because over that century and three quarters it has made a very significant contribution to the art life of Scotland.

David Casss art becomes a metaphor for the unstable balance of fragility and permanence that is Venice in his exhibition Pelada. Picture: Jane Barlow

David Cass: Pelada ****

The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

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Over the coming year, the gallery’s programme will give a sense of the range of its activities and a sample of the range of art and artists it supports and it begins the year with the oldest and the youngest. James Morrison (to be reviewed next week) who is showing upstairs first exhibited in the Scottish Gallery in 1959. This is his 26th exhibition in a long and fruitful relationship that spans almost a third of the gallery’s life.

This is typical of the way it has supported its artists. More than a century ago William McTaggart enjoyed a similar partnership. Meanwhile however, to represent the youngest and show that it has never only handled safe, blue chip art, the gallery is also showing David Cass, a recent graduate from Edinburgh College of Art.

There is continuity there too however, not just in the way that the gallery has always been prepared to take on young artists, but because Cass has taken Venice as his theme and it is one that he shares with a good many of the gallery’s artists past and present.

If you take Titian as the start (and I do), Venice is the home of modern painting and artists have been drawn to it ever since. What Cass records, however, in a body of beautiful, mostly small paintings of signs, inscriptions and grafitti, is something of the modern city, or at least the most recent layer in the palimpsest that is the city. For Venice is covered in signs, not intrusive ones, but small, often extemporised inscriptions. Cass records many of them in a way that also captures their informality and the way they have become part of the texture of the city.

Frequently there is a hint of exasperation in them. On a particular corner where no doubt wretched tourists always lose their way, someone fed up with the effort of trying to explain where they are to people who speak no Italian and understand less, will have painted a notice with an arrow pointing to the station, or to San Marco.

Elsewhere with a hint of downright anger, and more than once, people have written up “No Grandi Navi” (“No big boats”), conjuring an image of big swanky boats infuriating the locals by mooring in inappropriate places, an obstruction and worse to those trying to pursue their ordinary lives. Another improvised sign points to the Scuola San Rocco and the paintings of Tintoretto. It is a reminder both of how deep the layers are of the city’s palimpsest and how rich, but also of the difficulty of living with a heritage that everyone wants to share.

So Cass captures a hint of the desperation of Venice’s rapidly shrinking population trying to carry on their lives between the twin flood tides of tourism and the overflowing Lagoon.

In other paintings, however, he looks down from the collage of the walls to the place where they meet the water, but this is not in a sharp dividing line.

Venice is a city of reflections and so if you look at the walls you see the reflected light from the water and if you look at the water you see the reflected walls. Thus his art becomes a metaphor for the unstable balance of fragility and permanence that is one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

*Until 23 January