Art reviews: Philip Braham | Modern Masters XII | UHI Degree Show

Philip Braham’s stunning landscape paintings and photographs at the Scottish Gallery help put the current crisis in perspective, writes Susan Mansfield

Winter Copse at Dusk, by Philip Braham
Winter Copse at Dusk, by Philip Braham

Philip Braham: Closer to Home, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh ****

Modern Masters XII, Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh ****

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The University of Highlands and Islands Degree show ***

First Light, Torlum Hill by Philip Braham

At a time when we are all being forced to fix our horizons closer to home, Philip Braham’s new work strikes a chord. Braham moved with his family to Crieff at the end of 2017 and has spent the last three years exploring the immediate environment, mainly on foot. For the first year, he did so through photography, not having a studio, and many of these observations have now been distilled into paintings.

Braham is an exceptional painter. There are times when he seems like the heir of James Morrison, a painter of wide vistas and big skies, or of Russian painter Ivan Shishkin, the master of forests, or of Andrew Wyeth, paying painterly attention to each blade of grass, each ridged furrow. Those who are familiar with his bleakly beautiful landscapes of central Poland will find these paintings softer, warmer, a celebration of the rolling, rich farmland of Perthshire.

In the show, which includes both photography and paintings, he explores the relationship between the two in his work. His black and white archival photographs are artworks in themselves, but a photograph might also provide source material for a painting. At first glance, his paintings might look photographic (online viewing might make them appear more so), but they are distillations through the painter’s hand and eye. Their realism is heightened: a stubble field is more stubbly, a field of thistles more purple. The blue-gold of an evening sky, which always seem to elude the camera, is vividly captured in a painting like Winter Copse at Dusk.

In the time and work of painting, layers of meaning are also laid down. Braham runs the Art & Philosophy course at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. He is interested in what lies beneath the surface of the ground, from ancient Scottish battles to Nazi atrocities in Poland, how the landscape evokes its history. Paintings with titles such as Endless Path and A Quiet Ending seem to invite metaphors. In Perthshire, he has set himself to the business of understanding the land around him.

Low Cloud, Middleton, by Philip Braham

He painted the centrepiece for the exhibition, First Light, Torlum Hill, in late summer, the dawn a metaphor for hope at a time when the pandemic seemed under control. It was, perhaps, a little premature. But there is another truth here, a long perspective of years and centuries, the ongoing life cycles of the land which began long before Covid-19 and will continue long after it. These pictures bring consolation not only because they remind us of that perspective, but because they suggest a kind of contentment, as if the artist has found all he wants to explore, closer to home than he expected.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Gallery’s 12th iteration of its Modern Masters series all but overflows with a stellar selection of paintings and prints from Scottish artists we know well, and a few whom we should know better. There is a focus on artists born in the 1930s: an early still life by Elizabeth Blackadder, two surprising watercolours by John Houston, an important oil by Alan Davie. John Byrne’s 80th birthday is honoured with a painting from his degree show in 1962, The Marriage at Cana, a colourful take on the biblical story which the principal of the time at Glasgow School of Art condemned as blasphemous (to Byrne’s amusement).

There are also landscapes by Donald Morrison Buyers, expressionist works which pay homage to Eardley but have his own distinctive handling of tone and form, a slightly sinister watercolour by Barbara Balmer and an enchanting window at evening by Orcadian artist Sylvia Wishart. Another rare find is Still Life With Horse, a masterpiece of softened colours and Chagall-esque magic by Brenda Mark, the wife of Robin Philipson, whose early death at 38 surely cut short an important career.

There are more recent works, too: both paintings and prints by Victoria Crowe, who always manages to make winter feel light-filled and redemptive; bold abstract prints by Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham and Bruce McLean, and figurative prints by Peter Howson, Adrian Wiszniewski and Stephen Conroy. Very little of this is predictable: Modern Masters XII is bursting with variety, with surprises everywhere you look.

Bass Rock and Winter Sea, by John Houston

Degree shows always bring surprises, and a degree show in January is a surprise in itself. As coronavirus cases escalated in the spring, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) made the decision to postpone its degree show, offering students a further semester to complete work. The show is now taking place online thanks to a partnership with Art North Magazine, and brings together for the first time students from Moray School of Art with others from the campuses on Orkney, Shetland and the Isle of Lewis.

It’s hard to do justice to the breadth and depth of a student’s graduation work online, and here the students are limited to five or six images per person. It is necessary to guess at the wider body of work, the fascinations and investigations and expressions which might have taken place in a wider range of media than can be shown here.

Many of the students respond to aspects of their immediate local environment. Tracey Cassidy from Shetland paints the house of her great grandmother, capturing the traces which remain from the past and reimagining the woman who lived there. Hector Start paints the landscapes of the Hebrides using thin glazes of translucent colour to build up horizons of water and light.

Katherine Taylor, from North Uist, is drawn to the ocean, and uses discarded plastics to create “technofossils” – traces of the anthropocene a future generation might unearth. Sarah Wylie aims to defamiliarise her native Orkney in photographs which are beautifully composed but not readily identifiable as Orkney-esque.

Achmelvich Landscape, by Frances Walker

Others are more concerned with an interior view. Gemma Hoseason’s photographic self portraits made while shielding in spring capture much of the unease and isolation of that time. Jenny Sprenger makes expressive abstract paintings which look for the beauty in what feels like chaos. Shaun Boyle’s work in fantasy and realism explores the revealing and obscuring of the self and its memories.

As with the summer’s degree shows, ceramics are making a comeback. Rebecca Boyd places both ready-made ceramics and casts of plastic water bottles around a reservoir to make evocative images, and Rachel McClure makes concrete casts inspired by walks around Elgin. Kiki Mason makes sculptures which capture something of the interplay between fear and enchantment in children’s stories. The imagination and perseverance of these 14 graduating students is heartening in these difficult times, and we must join UHI in wishing them well in their onward journeys.

Philip Braham and Modern Masters XII can be viewed at until 30 January; the UHI degree show is at until 22 January

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Fishwoman, by John Bellany

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Work by Kiki Mason from Moray School of Art