An Talla Solais Ullapool: Susie Reade – JW58

Susie Reade, 'Unloading Onto Ice'
Susie Reade, 'Unloading Onto Ice'


From: 9 May 2020

An Talla Solais
West Argyle Street
IV26 2UG

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[Editor’s note: from 14 August to 19 September 2021 the gallery will be showing the exhibition ‘in the flesh’ – the final show at its Argyle Street exhibition space. See Artmag’s post.]

Located right next door to the landmark Caledonian Hotel, Ullapool-based charity and art gallery An Talla Solais features exhibitions and works for sale supporting local artists and craftspeople. As well as offering studio space, the back section of An Talla Solais is a rotating display gallery.

JW58 is the second exhibition in its programme for 2020, now online and open for viewing until lockdown restrictions are lifted. Click on the exhibition poster to enter an online gallery space with five rooms to explore. Edinburgh-based artist and Leith School of Art director Susie Reade presents a virtual collaboration, now showing in a virtual space, between mother and daughter through time. It’s about making the same journey 75 years apart and finding a connection. JW58 was the name of an Arctic convoy sent from Great Britain by the Western Allies in late March 1944 to aid the Soviet Union during World War II. It transported war materials and supplies to Russian allies. The convoy of 47 merchant ships departed from Loch Ewe, near Ullapool, and arrived in Archangel, a Soviet northern port, in early April. Susie Reade’s mother Lavinia Ponsonby was sent on a mission to Moscow by the Ministry of Information and made this difficult sea voyage at the age of 24 whilst keeping a diary.

Diary image JW58
Diary image, JW58

The artist went on the same journey through her mother’s diaries to follow in her footsteps 75 years later in the hope of finding connection through objects. A Fray Bentos tin was one of those connecting symbols of the journey.

Fray Bentos Susie Reade
Susie Reade – Fray Bentos, oil on paper

On entering the virtual exhibition, you can read the typewritten extracts from Lavinia Ponsonby’s diary whilst viewing Reade’s paintings. Each section is divided into ‘rooms’ that you enter and scroll through before moving into the next. It’s clear that each painting enriches the narrative of the diary extracts. These monochrome oil paintings on calico-backed paper, in various sizes (from 500 cm to 2000 cm), are for sale and can be displayed unframed.

Also on show is a time-lapse video recorded by the artist to demonstrate the techniques she uses to create the paintings. It’s an intensive process of oil paint removal – not at first obvious when looking at the paintings online. It’s a way of building up layers using negative space. This conjures a feeling of moving back and forth in time as both an addition and subtraction, an elemental ebb and flow that seems to capture both the force of nature, yet also the smooth, stark strength of the man-made surfaces encountered on a wartime sea voyage.

Susie Reade - Control building, oil on paper
Susie Reade – Control building, oil on paper

The story of the convoy is something that we can only now experience in black and white, through newsreel footage, photography, newspaper reports and, in this case, the typed diary extracts of Lavinia Ponsonby. The monotone palette reflects these images and the atmosphere of the icy, grey arctic waters without distancing from the personal story.

Susie Reade herself is responding to the comments in the Online Visitors’ Book so there is every chance to ‘speak’ to the artist throughout the exhibition:

‘Cold’, ‘forbidding’ and yet ‘intimate’, are all feelings I had whilst painting. It’s so interesting that, without deliberately trying to convey those feelings, they have percolated through – Susie Reade

Many have commented that it is a shame not to see the exhibition in person. However, one consolation of the online experience is that the exhibition can easily reach a wide audience:

In real life many of the paintings as you probably noticed are over 1.5 mtrs so the experience of standing in front of them is quite immersive – Susie Reade

An Talla Solais is inviting everyone to take part in its regular communal project Paperchain – inspired by the Dolphin Arts Project, whose weekly art session to support people living with dementia has been suspended during the outbreak. A weekly activity will be posted on social media, and through email.

With the uncertainty of exactly when restrictions on public gatherings will be lifted, An Talla Solais has created an impressive online version of its 2020 exhibition programme. It is quite resonant that this is an exhibition about an actual journey far from home, retraced virtually through written diaries to then be navigated through an online exhibition of memories and images. At a time when the only travelling we can do is virtual or local, this offers an unexpectedly poetic layer of navigation.

With grateful thanks to Julie Boyne for this review.

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