There has been much to get used to with four weeks of lockdown having passed by (in the UK at least), and much we have already got used to. One of these is that many artists have been quite invigorated by the change in circumstances, with several having turned the extra time afforded by their confinement to advantage – possibly motivated as much by the need to generate income as the desire to create. The explosion of creativity evident on Instagram for instance, is to be celebrated – art pushing back in ways that shops and offices can’t.
Galleries are on the other side of the coin: no longer receiving visitors, many have spent serious time putting their artworks online – which some already do as a matter of course – and it’s very much hoped that online sales will ease the current pain. Scanning from site to site, a distinction becomes apparent – that merely taking photo’s of artworks and putting them on a web page does not an ‘online exhibition’ make. But examples of good practice stand out – good quality images, revealing details if you zoom in, easily navigable pages, helpful labelling, and in some cases online catalogues, all point towards a new standard. If reaching this is new to some galleries, reviewing them is further uncharted territory: how well does the work come across on a small screen? Do you feel you are being taken on a journey, with a cohesive theme, or round a motley collection with some haste evident in its preparation?
A mainstay of Edinburgh’s New Town gallery cluster, Open Eye Gallery needs no introduction, and but under ‘online circumstances’ a different perspective applies: Edinburgh artist Susie Leiper‘s Library is one of five online exhibitions showing (current others being Catharine Davison, Charlie Yates, John Bellany, an eclectic selection of Gallery artists, and the annual showcase of purchase-able post cards, Small Scale).
This is her take on the geometry, colours, textures, space, materials and details of the physical library: taking Scots poet Nan Shepherd’s quote from The Quarry Wood, 1928, of the library representing where ‘the essence of man’s long tussle with his destiny, was captured and preserved…’ she seeks to evoke the collection ‘of thoughts, of interlocking spaces and laden shelves, books, documents, letters. Wood rubs shoulders with leather, vellum, paper, thread’. This is from the fairly brief information at the bottom of the exhibition page – it would be interesting to see more (there is some more on Susie’s web page). As much a calligrapher as a painter, Susie is fascinated by Chinese script, and trained as a scribe on calligrapher Donald Jackson’s vast 1998 project Saint John’s Bible, and her work sometimes evokes his style, as well as that of Iain Hamilton Finlay and David Jones. She contributed type to the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £5 polymer banknote, alongside the image of Nan Shepherd.
The exhibition comprises recent work, with large oil paintings, small wooden tablets evoking book covers and pages, abstract paintings based on upcycled vellum documents, and one-off artist-books such as mediaeval manuscripts. A degree of sectional division is discernible as you scroll through the work – dimensions are given, but without a visual sense of scale, a book-size piece such as Chirograph I will appear the same size as a wall-piece such as the grand Counterculture – an inevitable difficulty with online exhibition.
Compare the negative-space in Counterculture‘s heavy lettering with its relatively small reprise Language I, and of course they appear to be of similar size. Intensity is arguably another casualty – it’s difficult to get visual grasp of the textural detail as, although useable, the images lack the bite of high-resolution that can be viewed close-up – something which makes visiting the National Galleries of Scotland’s online collection a richer, more involving experience in comparison. It’s maybe inevitable that the textural subtleties of works such as Architecture of Disruption might be at least someway lost. Some of the pieces feature bookbinding, that again is best appreciated ‘in the flesh’.
Technical challenges aside, it’s apparent that the library is more a conceptual springboard for what are calm, lovely, minimal near-abstract pieces. It’s very beautiful throughout and refreshing to see so much of Susie’s work laid-out before you, in a serious-minded fashion – a reminder of how the incorporation of lettering with painting, carefully-judged colours and juxtapositions of shape can be pleasingly conveyed, in a rectilinear, almost architectural, geometry. And of course available all times of day, anywhere, which given our strictured circumstances, is no bad thing.
34 Abercromby Place
Edinburgh EH3 6QE
Main image: Counterculture, oil and gesso on canvas, 170 x 160cm