Setting the Scene: Walter Awlson at Morningside Gallery Edinburgh

Walter Awlson, 'Bah Humbug!', detail
Walter Awlson, 'Bah Humbug!', detail, oil on canvas

Behind the Scenes

Mon - Sat 10:00 - 17:00, Sun 12:00 - 17:00

From: 6 Aug 2022

To: 21 Aug 2022

Morningside Gallery
94 Morningside Rd
Edinburgh & the Lothians
EH10 4BY

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Red velvet curtains and theatre scene costumes decorate the windows of Morningside Gallery that display two oil paintings – part of a new series by artist Walter Awlson. This bizarre and eye-catching setting introduces theatre as the key area of interest for a new phase in Awlson’s multi-faceted practice. A ceramist and painter, he had abandoned figurative painting to follow his passion for theatre and to design the settings of the Alman Dramatic Club in Alloa for the past decade; he now returns to painting with a production that demonstrates his incredible ability to connect and bring together into one set of paintings his diverse creative interests.

The artworks reproduce scenes from the different plays that the Alman Club produced over the years, including classics like Othello and Macbeth, as well as popular plays like A Christmas Carol. Through expert handling of oil paint, the works also celebrate Awlson’s skills in woodwork and sculpture as the artist captures, on many of the canvases, his own design-settings for the various plays. For example, in ‘The Killing of Desdemona’, from Othello, the capital, plinth and decorations used as the setting for the paintings were personally created by the artist. Walter confessed that for a long time he had worried that his interest in multiple techniques and practices constituted a challenge for his career. However, this new production demonstrates how he managed to bring them together coherently and make out his strength from his peculiar creative interests. 

Walter Alwson, 'The Killing of Desdemona', oil on canvas
‘The Killing of Desdemona’, oil on canvas

Awlson’s oil paintings are characterised by thick brushstrokes, which alongside the fragmented treatment of light recall early 20th century artworks produced in the so-called Glasgow Style. A uniquely Scottish historical art current, influenced by French realism and Impressionism, this style was characterised by large, individualised brushstrokes and an interest in capturing in a naturalistic manner the light of a scene.

'The Alcohol Talking' (detail)
‘The Alcohol Talking’, detail, oil on canvas

Key ideas of this current such as that of tonality emerge in Awlson’s work in paintings such as The Alcohol Talking where a hue dominates the whole palette, imbuing the subjects and the background with the same harmonious light.

Walter Awlson, 'Bah Humbug!', detail
‘Bah Humbug!’, detail, oil on canvas

On the other hand, in other works like When Shall We Three Meet Again? and Bah Humbug! Awlson seeks to create a strong contrast between the subjects – lit by stage light – and an almost completely dark background. The artist himself compares this effect to Baroque tenebrism (a 17th-century Spanish and Italian painting style) and explains that he often seeks this dramatic lighting for its ability to convey more intensity to the subjects.

Walter Awlson, 'Spoons A Bit Old Fashioned', detail
‘Spoons, A Bit Old Fashioned’, detail, oil on canvas

Awlson produced the paintings by reworking behind the scenes photographs of the Alman’s productions that he took over the years. He told me that he looked through these photographs ‘to find a painting’ seeking his ideal composition balance and colour. However, above all, the key characteristic of his works is the sense of mystery, intensity and tension expressed by the dramatic expressions and gestures of the actors caught mid-scene. Awlson had long worked as a figurative painter, but he had from time to time struggled to find subjects. His work with the Alman Club gave his paintings another layer allowing him to capture portraits with incredible psychological depth and pathos.

Exhibition view, with red curtains
Exhibition view, with red curtains

The opening night at Morningside Gallery was made even more special by the incredible anecdotes that accompanied many of the paintings. Many actors of the Alman Club were in attendance and enthusiastically shared with me and other members of the public stories and curiosities about the multiple productions they were part of. The actors recognised themselves in the paintings and on a couple of occasions agreed to pose next to them. Their physical presence further underscored Awlson’s uncanny ability not only to capture accurately people’s features, but also their mannerisms and expressions.

Actors from the Alman Dramatic Club pose next to 'Spoons A Bit Old Fashioned'
Actors from the Alman Dramatic Club pose next to ‘Spoons, A Bit Old Fashioned’
Carol Patterson, actress from the Alman Dramatic Club poses next to her representation in 'The Plan Begins to Unravel'
Actress from the Alman Dramatic Club Carol Patterson poses next to her representation in ‘The Plan Begins to Unravel’

In only seventeen paintings, Morningside Gallery has brought together a little gem of an exhibition that anyone passionate about figurative art should take the time to visit. After a hiatus from the world of fine art, Awlson could have not asked for a better space to exhibit his new paintings than the gallery which has presented his work since he began painting in 2003.

Awlson declared that he is already working on new paintings, which I am eager to see in order to discover where the never-exhausted creativity of this artist will take him next.

With thanks to Sofia Cotrona for this review.

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