This exhibition is an eclectic mix of work brought together under a broad remit, with pieces from artists as diverse as Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edward Burra. What links these works is sometimes rather elusive to grasp. Certainly there is no homogeneity of style or scale: here we find postcard-sized monochrome works on paper alongside large canvases, often executed in striking colour. Each suggests an historical narrative, sometimes explicit, but often hidden or left to the viewer to construct their own responses. Works by Mateusz Fahrenholz, whose parents were Polish exiles, are box-like constructions containing objects and images that look like relics from a family or community archive. A series of photographic portraits in Untitled (1991) are mounted like memorials to a lost or displaced group, with sombre overtones reminiscent of images of Holocaust victims. However, no explanation can be gleaned from the titles of the works. The viewer is left to conject the source of Fahrenholz’s inspiration.
In contrast, Lisa Murphy’s large oil painting Family Joker (1995-6) is a much more personal response to notions of genealogical identity. Her full-length self-portrait grimaces out from the canvas, resistant to any attempt to show the artist as feminine or sexually attractive and challenging traditionally seductive depictions of women . Murphy’s subject screws up her face and gestures as if she were a small demon. The effect is both comic and disturbing. However, beside this quirky image is a wax rubbing taken from a gravestone in a local cemetery. The names on the rubbed image are barely legible, having been worn away by time. The rubbed image effortlessly shifts the viewer’s perception of the painting to a solemn reflection on family history: passing generations, life and death.
There are three large paintings depicting biblical characters or events. These are grouped together but they seem curiously unrelated to the rest of the exhibition. Their inclusion is a counterpoint to the majority of works whose content suggests rather than offers narratives. For viewers familiar with the New Testament, Edward Burra’s The Mocking of Christ (1952) depicts a scene that might provoke a fairly standard response: outrage and pathos.
There is a particular emphasis on Scottish history and collective memories, some of these stretching back to the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. Will Maclean’s etching, The Melancholy of Departure (1986), resonates with a sense of loss and desolation felt by thousands of Gaels forced to leave their homeland.
A much less distant memory is evoked by Keith McIntyre’s 1991 study for a memorial painting of the Lockerbie Disaster, Psalm of the Shadows, Opus 2. In this image, a huge angel’s head and wings loom above the undulating hillsides of Dumfries, its outline almost suggestive of the plane that crashed in the fields of Lockerbie after a terrorist attack. The inclusion of this work in the exhibition shows us how the disaster has entered the collective consciousness of Scots and how history remakes itself with each generation.
A couple of quirky inclusions to the exhibition deal with imagined history, borrowing deeply from Magical Realism. Bill Duncan and Andy Rice’s montage of imaginary heads, The Haar – Broughty Ferry Maritime Health Institute (2003) is supposedly an archival record of cranial or facial deformities caused by proximity to the sea. In a similar vein, Jamie Johnson’s watercolour section cutaway of a whaling ship, The Expedition (2010) shows a cargo of whimsical specimens of Antarctic wildlife being transported to be added to D’Arcy Thompson’s zoological collection, housed at the University of Dundee.
I’m not sure if the curator could not have included almost any painting depicting a historical or mythical narrative in this show. However, it is an interesting group of works, loosely bound by notions of the combination of word, image and historical narrative.