Stenton Gallery


All in the best possible taste

Iain Gale
Scotland on Sunday, 31 March 2002

VISITING an art fair is a little like what happens when, as a child, you walk into a toy store. You go with a set idea of what you are looking for. Head for the counter. And then it happens. You see everything spread out in front of you and some other impulse takes over, pulling you in unlikely directions. It is only when you get home that you realise what you have done. How did that Harry Potter game become a Lego castle? I’ve seen it happen. Some years ago I took two leading art dealers round a London art fair, each of them armed with a putative - £1,000. Both claimed to know precisely what they wanted, Both emerged with something stylistically and aesthetically different. That’s the thing about art fairs. They make you change your mind. They’re great for shattering preconceptions. And there is perhaps no better example of their power than this month’s Glasgow Art Fair.

Here, in the centre of the city commonly acclaimed as a seedbed of our brightest young artistic talent, is a gathering of some 40 galleries offering everything from contemplative colourist landscapes to disquieting video projections. Now in its seventh year, Glasgow Art Fair has become an institution. From slightly uncertain beginnings it has grown into a fully-formed entity which demands to be taken seriously. For Glasgow Art Fair is much more than a shop front. It has achieved the impossible. And it has done so this year by performing three small miracles which combine to create a breath of fresh air for the Scottish art world.

Firstly, and most importantly, the fair has managed the extraordinary feat of shrinking the nation. For years it has been a platform for galleries from London and the South, and to offer such a viewing opportunity to a Scottish audience is still one of its functions. But the lamentably insular tendency of the Scottish art audience has also resulted in a consistent inability to look anywhere beyond the Central Belt of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

What the fair has managed, for this one weekend, is to bring 10 of the smaller, outlying galleries to Glasgow. It’s an eye-opening experience, which presents merely a small part of the initiatives taking place throughout Scotland and, if you come with a southern prejudice, you will certainly be surprised.

You would no doubt expect to find pieces as engaging as Kate Boxer’s inspired, witty paintings from Jedburgh’s Mainhill Gallery or Campbell Sandilands’ sublime Japanese-inspired abstractions from East Lothian’s Stenton on view exclusively in Edinburgh or Glasgow, if not in London. Similarly, debunking the myth that art in the Highlands revolves around grouse and stags, the Lost Gallery in Strathdon shows such estimable artists as Nael Hanna and Pat Semple. Moving across to Aberdeen, the increasingly interesting Riverside Gallery pitches in with the landscapes of Derek Robertson and Ian Munro. The Green Gallery in Aberfoyle tends to specialise in themed shows incorporating paintings by Scottish artists including Chris Bushe and Dorothy Stirling and perhaps their showing here will tempt more visitors into Stirlingshire. Not that any of these galleries is desperate for buyers. The fact that all are thriving says much for the state of Scotland’s art scene. Frames of Perth are showing work by no less than 14 artists, including the vibrant colourism of Jeanette Lassen and Angus McEwan’s beguiling still-lifes. In Inverness Highland Arts deals exclusively in artists from the Highlands and Islands including James Hawkins, Colin Kirkpatrick and Helen Denerley; all of them worth more than a passing glance. In the same city, but a far from similar vein, artist-run Art TM has a programme of shows with themes to rival those of the CCA. A current exhibit by Hana Sakuma uses old book jackets to construct period dolls’ house furniture, raising historical issues of social and national stereotyping, while George Muhlek and Barbara Rauch’s projections would not look out of place in any future equivalent of ‘Here & Now’.

This great variety of styles and genres is also central to a wider achievement of the Fair, which has brought together not only the geographically diverse, but the apparently polarised strands of traditional and conceptual art.

At best the 15,000 predicted audience will come away more aware of the breadth of art being produced today and convinced of the fundamental necessity that the best of all genres should be able to co-exist.

The organisers have also managed to coordinate an impressive programme of related exhibitions with some of the city’s leading public art spaces. RAW (Real Art Weekend) is a collaboration between six of the city’s galleries: CCA, The Gallery of Modern Art, the Lighthouse, Glasgow School of Art, Tramway and The Arches. With the Fair acting as a central hub, each of these venues will offer work ranging from video and light-based pieces to life-drawings. The effect of the whole will be to create a pilot for what could eventually feel like a mini-biennale. The development potential is huge. It is particularly refreshing to see such champions of the contemporary avant-garde as CCA and Tramway taking part in the same umbrella event as such diverse dealerships as Edinburgh’s Leith, Open Eye and Scottish Galleries, and Glasgow’s Roger Billcliffe, Cyril Gerber, John Green and Ewan Mundy. Too often a potential audience is alienated by what it perceives to be the elitisim of the contemporary art establishment. RAW and the fair as a whole, are pivotal to breaking down such barriers. It is significant too that one stand at the fair should be devoted to a current initiative at Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries, designed to enable artists to market themselves internationally. It seems to sum up the ethos of an event which has now transformed itself from a selling opportunity into a chance to persuade new and established collectors to support our artists at home, in whatever part of the country they live and exhibit.

Visit this year’s fair and I guarantee you a mixture of styles and cultures as diverse as you will ever see in one place. What they all have in common though is quality. Let yourself go. Watch other people as they broaden their own tastes. And don’t blame me if you change your mind.