Art reviews: FLOW – VAS Members' Winter Show 2020 | The Mrs Jay and W Gordon Smith Art Collection

There have been some brilliant and innovative online exhibitions since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly the new members’ show from Visual Arts Scotland suffers from a few of the limitations of the form, but there is still a huge range of beautiful, thought-provoking and even mysterious work to enjoy, writes Duncan Macmillan

Space As Artifice With Durer's Rhino, by Kenneth Le Riche
Space As Artifice With Durer's Rhino, by Kenneth Le Riche

VAS Member’s Winter Exhibition, online only ***

Mrs Jay and W Gordon Smith Art Collection, Open Eye Gallery, Edinburgh ****

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If we had hoped a little normality would have returned by now, of course it hasn’t happened. Anticipating that this would be the case, Visual Arts Scotland has simply put its annual members’ show online this year, instead of holding the usual physical show at the Royal Scottish Academy. Online shows have made art more widely available, but they do have their limitations and these really do show up with a group exhibition like this one. There are 241 works by around one 150 artist members in the show. The artworks seem to be in every possible shape and size and in media ranging from oil paint and watercolour to tapestry and silverware. Nevertheless for all this variety, as rows of thumbnails on your screen they do look a bit like stamps in an album. For its online shows, the RSA has every work photographed on a wall with a chair for scale. This is invaluable. Even if the VAS couldn’t bring the works together to be photographed, this would surely be easy to do digitally.

The Distant Isle by Susie Leiper

Without such an arrangement there is no sense of relative scale even thought there are three ways to go through the show. You can do this by thumbnail, by artist, or by artwork, scrolling through a series of three galleries. It is hard for anything to stand out in this format, but if you go through it all often enough, individuals and individual works detach themselves from the mass and linger in your mind.

Susie Leiper is an example although that’s no surprise. She has been a pillar of VAS for years now. Although she often makes straightforward images, there is nevertheless something about the way she uses materials that is particularly in tune with the society’s special angle on craft and making. That Distant Isle, an atmospheric, monochrome image of an island in the sea, for instance, is in oil paint, but painted on 19th-century vellum. Haar, a Japanese sewn book of white images of haar, is an object as well as a collection of pictures.

In a similar way, Rhona Fleming makes exquisite collages from the foxed and yellowed paper of old books. In Hallmark these faded yellow pages are set off with a sheet of polished silver. Materials evidently matter for John Ayscough too, and exploiting them in Ghost III he creates an aesthetic paradox, delicate gold leaf on a brutal concrete paving slab. Alex Allan’s Base is a tower-like object is also made of concrete, but as far as one can deduce, its scale makes it almost dainty.

Daniel Lacey’s material is wood. He exploits its innate beauty in simple sculptural forms, but he has also recycled a bit of Spanish chestnut from the Botanics into a rather eccentric occasional table. As well as furniture, there are also always woven works in this show. David Cochrane’s Alder Reflection, for instance, is a very beautiful woven image of alder leaves reflected in a pool.

Small Boundaries Series (Blue II) by Sophia Pauley

The Genevieve Draper watercolours here are all titled The View from the Tent. In two of them her tent is pitched on Jura and she has painted lovely and luminous views of the sunlit sea. Julie Morris also paints in watercolour catching the reds and golds of fallen autumn leaves with exquisite minuteness. Equally beautiful, though more abstract, Landscapes Through a Train Window by Krisztina Horvath is also technically mysterious. In cool green, grey and black, it is described as a digital painting printed on aluminium dibond.

Ian Mckinnel’s Into the Light II is a column of light in a field of white reminiscent of late Turner and is also described as a digital print. Mike Wigg’s photographs, on the other hand, are straightforward pictures of ancient trees and rustic wilderness, except that, far from any rural idyll, he has found his romantic subjects in the Glasgow suburb of Hurlet.

Topically, Emma Coote photographs herself in her bubble – her reflection recorded with startling clarity in actual bubbles. Olive Dean uses cyanotype, the primitive form of photography that gave us the blueprint, to create beautiful, ghostly images of spring flowers. Ingrid Bell arrives at rather similar images of Scottish grasses against a blue ground by using monoprint and collotype.

Getting Dark by Teresa Majorek is a simple, but very effective painted view of darkening fields. Irene Blair’s Moving Red is an abstract disk of deep blue and flaming red, while Audrey Grant’s Woman II, Woman V and Woman VII are images of women painted with a ferocity reminiscent of Willem de Kooning.

Three Strikes III by Sarah Calmus

Finally, craft is always an important part of this show, and Sheila McDonald’s silver work is really beautiful, especially her feather brooch in enamel and gold on silver. Sandra Wilson’s two small bowls called Layers in the Sand are also exquisite and so are Sandra Murray’s leaf earrings.

With almost 400 items, the remarkable collection of the playwright, critic, and TV producer W Gordon Smith and his wife Jay, built up over more than five decades, is to be sold to raise money to continue the legacy of awards established already in the name W Gordon Smith, but also to establish new foundation course scholarships at Leith School of Art. The collection was to have been put on show at the Open Eye gallery in Edinburgh. That of course is on hold, but the show will be in place when reopening is possible. Meanwhile, from 10 January, the collection will be available online. There is also a book. Built around the catalogue of the exhibition, if not always in the most lucid and immediately accessible, it also commemorates the life and work of W Gordon Smith.

Highlights of the collection include some fine early John Bellany drawings, several early works by James Morrison and a beautiful painting of magnolias by Margot Sandeman. Ironically, in the alphabetically arranged catalogue the latter confronts a plaque of John Knox by Benno Schotz. Several rarities include a bronze torso by Tom Whalen, a landscape and a still-life by Millie Frood on two sides of the same canvas, a beautiful drawing by Edith Simon before she took to cut-out paper sculpture and a handsome David McClure in the manner of Matisse. As well as a rather confrontational nude and several other pictures, there is a portrait of W Gordon Smith himself in fashionable seventies flares by Alexander Moffat. There are also a rather lovely John McLean, two drawings and two lithographs by Pat Douthwaite, while six Bluestockings by Willie Rodger are rather more carnal than intellectual. Altogether it is like a super lucky dip. Let’s hope we get a chance to see it on the walls.

The VAS Members’ Winter Exhibition is online at https://vasonlinegallery.oess1.uk The Mrs Jay and W Gordon Smith Art Collection is at the Open Eye Gallery and online from 10 January, see www.openeyegallery.co.uk

From SOBO by Nicola Wiltshire

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