Encounters is Helen Glassford’s first major solo exhibition at The Scottish Gallery. It brings to Edinburgh her experience of two rural Scottish landscapes in an impressive display of over fifty striking oil paintings, which span the main floor of the bright and spacious Dundas Street premises. With a gentle strength, this collection delivers a powerful interpretation of Scotland’s most remote and unseen locations.
The Scottish Gallery has a 180-year history, and continues to present the leading Scottish artists of today – its large windows, generous floor space, and high ceilings accommodate Glassford’s works nicely, within modernised Georgian rooms.
A Scottish contemporary landscape painter, Helen Glassford is an artist who seeks to encounter nature, hence the exhibition’s title. Her landscapes emerge from an intimate relationship with the remote areas of Scotland in which she immerses herself to understand their physical, geographical, emotional, and atmospheric language. Explaining ‘they are not a depiction but rather a communication of the feeling of being there’, Helen’s works are not paintings of, but about a place, and its personality.
With only oils, Glassford communicates her journey to the outermost edges of the north-western coastline. Despite the occasional warmer palette, blues encompass this show in which there is never an absence of sea or sky, and she skilfully translates the spirit of both.
The right-hand side of the main space hosts paintings of Assynt and the Northwest. Known for its distinctly shaped mountains, the sparsely populated coastal edge is of geological importance and Helen fills the walls with moments of its character.
At 150 by 120 cm, Wind Coils (After MacCaig) is among the largest of these works. Heavily weighted at the bottom of the composition, there is a ridge of deep blue on which rests a calm sea. It meets an expanse of bright, ceramic white, which dominating the frame, extends our attention to the high skies of the far north and holds our gaze over the horizon.
To its left are the night paintings of Assynt which capture the unfamiliar view of a star-lit sky so delicately. The Milky Way grounds a brilliant scattering of white in a darkness that frames this seascape. Glassford illuminates the central band of the sky with translucent flecks of light that make this a galactic composition with an ethereal quality.
Aloof is a smaller work which, similarly dark in colour, captures the oddity of the vertical extensions of this unique region. Quick and controlled marks conduct a tension against the softened skyline. Darkness hollows the ancient rock, which ejects from the water and ages this landscape into distant time.
Within a smaller room are the St Kilda and the Western Isles paintings. An archipelago with the highest sea cliffs in the UK, St Kilda makes up part of the westernmost islands of the Outer Hebrides.
Bird Culture (Flight) makes up part of a series of smaller works on the far end of the right wall. Simply titled, Glassford portrays the regions important birdlife population with an array of swooping marks that describe their impression rather than their literal depiction, which is playfully symbolic of their presence.
Horizontal strokes carve the seemingly infinite horizon of Good Fortune which blurs the collision of the North Atlantic with the Scottish shore.
A warmer, yet similarly supernatural work is Permeate. Its vibrant oranges strike the foreground and the sharp contrast brings a solar, otherworldly quality.
Unlike the vertical layout of the previously mentioned works are Pulse and Morning Ritual, which span panoramically. Both seascapes of St Kilda, they verge on a hemispheric view, which pushes against the flatness of the painted surface.
In Pulse we see flat, directional strokes that form a screen across the sky and accurately mimics the fineness of fleeting rain. A turquoise shore shallows this composition, reminding that these are works of the very edges of the land.
Morning Ritual (Sound of Harris) seems appropriately named as Glassford stretches lighter tones across the elongated surface to suggest the familiar haze of the early hours.
All void of human and animal life, this collection appears to be filled with absence. A painter who stands out against what is a crowded genre of Scottish art, Helen Glassford’s land and seascapes brings together the physical, emotional, and memorial experience of a place which make these a collection of semi-abstract works. As opposed to pure realism, she fuses both the literal and the expressive.
This is a show of the painterly observations of the sense of a place – a place that few are likely to encounter, and she coaxes the inaccessible into public view. These are places that verge on invisible, and that many can only imagine experiencing. Glassford certainly helps us to do so.
With thanks to Danele Evans for this review.