the play of work and other optical illusions

I’ve had a week off – no teaching, client work or meetings. Instead I took day trips to look at art outwith Edinburgh, for once without the agenda of preparing a workshop or a poem. I returned home in the evenings to watch highlights of the Vuelta a Espana and Tour of Britain. In the land of TV cycle touring, I’ve noticed, ‘podium’ is a verb and ‘abandon’ a noun. I wish I could say I’ve also had a week off from the Referendum coverage, but it’s too close (to polling day; to call), and too important to ignore. I had to turn the volume off during an exchange between Dennis Canavan and someone else on Reporting Scotland the other night. Of course I understand that with the stakes so high, and the subject so inflammatory,  interested parties will overheat. But as a voter and citizen, I’m just glad to be living in a fairly peaceable democracy. I’m starting to feel as I do when people over-identify with a sporting team: reactively neutral. Whatever the result, good and bad things will happen  Meantime, thank heavens for the wit and sanity of Gary Imlach, the best sports journalist I’m aware of.

On tuesday I travelled to Perth to look at the Alison Watt paintings that form part of GENERATION, the Scotland-wide celebration of art made in the last 25 years. I love her paintings of fabric; her painstaking crafting in paint of its folds, falls and crumples in works with titles like ‘Shift’, ‘Hood’  and ‘Tuck’. The Perth show is a mini-retrospective, a dozen works ranging from Watt’s self-portaits and nudes of the eighties, through the luscious work she produced after removing the model and making the figureless drapes the subject of the work, to new pieces that approach abstraction. One, Orion, completed this year, achieves the luminosity of a lit photo studio or stage set. Watt claims it alludes to Norman MacCaig’s beautiful short poem ‘Praise of a Thorn Bush’ (I couldn’t find a link, but it’s on p.319 of his Collected Poems); poetic is one of the first, and most lingering, words to spring to mind when viewing these paintings. In some of them, flesh, or plaster, are also suggested. Huge canvases absorb you as you approach them. Some seemed to draw me in towards a  vortex at their centre, where the darkest tones represent creases and folds in the mostly light/neutral/white fabrics. Once up close with the painting, our privilege is to observe the mark-making: how exactly she’s created the crack in a floorboard; shadow; toes.  I may not have been working, but I was still concentrating hard. Starting to experience sensory overload, I went out for a walk.

Beyond the North Inch parkland, a mile or so up the Tay, beyond the grand houses with lawns that terrace down towards the river, there’s a place where the current runs fast. On the far bank – the right bank, the east side, the Scone side –  is a shepherd’s hut kind of structure, quite camouflaged amongst trees. A human figure was sitting on the  bench in front of it, quite camouflaged against the walls. I sat down on a public bench opposite  and watched the current play. Eventually the person rose, picked up some tackle and waded in, making an arc from a gravel bank by the shore, through the shallows, until he was waist high in the midst of the fastest current. I watched him casting his line, slowly against the rapids, for maybe half an hour. When I returned my gaze to the bank, the verge in front of me was rotating, steadily, clockwise. My brain had however cleared enough to return to the gallery, and I walked back downstream.

Reflected in the seemingly static Tay, the arches of Perth Bridge completed into perfect circles, like portals to an otherworld.You could not help but imagine passing right through their centre. The trees on the banks also found their counterparts, sharp and solid below the water surface. Watt’s paintings were wonderful, and so was the scene outside the gallery. Attributing this to atmospheric conditions rather than any portent, or  illusion, of what the nation might become, I returned to the capital, from where I could cycle to a sunny Portobello beach on Wednesday, and on Thursday go to Jupiter Artland in the haar.

I grew up with the big Hepworths and Moores in the big landscapes of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park; this is maybe more akin to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta at the other end of the Pentland Hills, but differently ludic to his self-styled ‘republic’. You have to seek out some of the works more subtly embedded in their wooded context.  Jupiter generously afforded opportunity for another day’s play with reality and illusion, amongst Charles Jenck’s landforms, and structures built by Andy Goldsworthy: a hut floored only with unfinished rough-hewn bedrock; an unlit interior densely furnished with  floor-to-ceiling tree trunks. Boulders from the same source as the hut – the ditch spanned with a stone arch by Hamilton Finlay, and tagged ‘only connect’ –  nestled like erratic tree-houses inside coppiced branches inside the woodland. Be wildered.

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