Art reviews: Stuart Whipps at DCA | Realist & Lyrical Landscapes at the Scottish Gallery

Stuart Whipps offers a fascinating glimpse into his thinking about the natural world at DCA, while the six artists at The Scottish Gallery show that landscape painting is thriving. Reviews by Susan Mansfield

Friday, 25th September 2020, 2:39 pm
Installation shot of the Stuart Whipps exhibition at DCA PIC: Courtesy of the artist / DCA
Installation shot of the Stuart Whipps exhibition at DCA PIC: Courtesy of the artist / DCA

Stuart Whipps: If Wishes Were Thrushes, Beggars Would Eat Birds, DCA ****

Realist & Lyrical Landscapes, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh ****

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What connects the second Duchess of Devonshire with a limestone quarry in Ireland, Nancy Mitford and a bridge in Switzerland’s Schollenen Gorge? The easy answer is the new film installation, If Wishes Were Thrushes, Beggars Would Eat Birds, by Stuart Whipps at DCA. The longer version is a journey through highways and byways of history, literature, botany and mineralogy, with some fascinating cul-de-sacs along the way.

Detail of work by Helen Glassford at the Scottish Gallery PIC: Courtesy of the artist / Scottish Gallery

The work, part film, part slide show, which reopens DCA’s gallery space after nearly six months of lockdown, will be a sure-fire hit with fans of Victoria Coren Mitchell’s quiz show Only Connect. Guided by the artist’s personable commentary, we plunge into a vat of research, following branch lines of connection to discover disgraced duchesses, Victorian plant hunters and legendary pacts with the devil, any one of which is worthy of an hour of further exploration on Wikipedia.

Birmingham-based Whipps is known for immersing himself in worlds about which he knows little, restoring a 1979 mini with the help of former British Leyland workers, or learning a 17th-century sign language devised by Sir Christopher Wren. In lockdown, he has been gardening, and plants and their history are the centre around which the work orbits, meandering off, like roots or branches, to explore new ground.

We might learn, for example, that the title comes from a 1670 book by William Camden, but references a more common proverb found in a book of 17th century Scottish poetry, and also in Nancy Mitford’s novel The Pursuit of Love. We might learn that the poet Edward James had a garden of surrealist sculptures in Mexico, or that minerals get diseases.

One might visit the colourful life of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, travelling across Europe writing poetry having been exiled by her family after an alleged affair with the man who gave his name to Earl Grey tea. Or that of Samuel Chearnley, the little known garden designer whose intriguingly explicit book of designs lay hidden in a library in Ireland for more than 200 years.

Detail of work by Martin Greenland at the Scottish Gallery PIC: Courtesy of the artist / Scottish Gallery

As the installation collages facts and stories, so it also collages styles: a gently didactic narrative and a layering of films and slides which meld together seamlessly. Scale is explored: the big, dirty industrial processes of a limestone factory contrast with the precision of pinning a begonia leaf to a glass observation slide.

Some might find the relentless flow of information overwhelming, but anyone who has ever been tempted to geek out on trivia will love it. If one lingers to watch it through a couple of times (it’s about 22 minutes long) a circular structure emerges and deeper themes start to resonate about our relationship to plants and minerals, and about nourishment, what sustains growth, and what stimulates imagination.

At the heart of Whipps’ film is a set of questions about how we relate to the natural world in all its splendid strangeness, which is not so far away from what the six landscape painters in the Scottish Gallery’s Realist and Lyrical Landscapes exhibition are engaged with. It’s a pleasure to look at these pictures, which explore a spectrum of different approaches to painting the landscape, a pursuit which seems (in the light of this show, at least) as vital now as it ever did.

At one end of the spectrum is Masayuki Hara, a Japanese artist who has been based in Scotland since 2005. He is engaged in true photorealism, working in painstaking, time-consuming detail with the precision of a miniaturist. He has chosen unremarkable scenes – a canal in Edinburgh, a tree beside a road in the Borders – but they are illuminated by the attention devoted to them, beautifully composed and delicately lit, ordinary moments made extraordinary by being frozen in time.

At first glance, the Cumbrian landscapes of Martin Greenland are reminiscent of Victorian paintings in their detailed study of hills, trees, water and light. However, spend longer with them and one becomes aware of an unsettling quality which is hard to name. In fact, these are part observed, part imagined, exploring the territory between conscious and subconscious in our relationship with place.

Dawnne McGeachy’s work comes from a place of deep engagement with the ocean, having grown up in a family of Campbeltown fishermen. Her beautifully realised paintings of waves bubbling against rocks and shimmering oil in a fishing boat’s wake are closely linked with personal experiences; these new works have titles drawn from her father’s letters to her when she was studying abroad, giving news of the local fleet.

American artist Janise Yntema finds herself drawn again and again to Scottish landscapes from the sweep of the Tay Bridge to Oban and Glen Affric. These works use an encaustic technique employing beeswax, resin, pigment and digital photography to create panels which are rich in atmosphere, mystery, silence and depth.

Alison McGill paints by building up layers of oil paint and wax over many weeks. Perhaps this slow, gradual process helps to give the work its sense of quiet contemplation, of Wordsworthian “emotion recollected in tranquility.” More about mood and light than about any specific place, these works edge towards the abstract at times in their use of colour.

There is not a great deal of tranquility in the work of Helen Glassford, whose intense, expressive paintings sit at the opposite end of the spectrum from Hara’s photorealism. These landscapes and seascapes are all about mood and tone and movement; there are no frozen moments, only light, weather and emotion, shifting horizons and hidden depths.

They are thrilling for a different reason. Without suggesting any approach is better than any other, this show celebrates the diversity and vivacity of landscape painting today.

Stuart Whipps until 15 November, Realist & Lyrical Landscape until 26 September (some works will remain online after this date). Both galleries are operating a booking system, for more information see www.dca.org.uk and www.scottish-gallery.co.uk

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