The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery and Museum
17 November 2012 - August 2013
According to philosopher and art commentator Jean-François Lyotard, there is a distinction to be made between art and its cultural reception. The cultural reception of art situates it in time and space, inscribes it within an art-historical narrative, and presents it alongside other features of the world. It seeks to understand art by placing it within a “cultural context.” But the genuine power of art lies elsewhere, in something we can’t date or place: the effect the work has on its receiver.
Reflections from the Tay strikes me as an exhibition which derives its principle from the cultural level. The paintings presented here are grouped together within this exhibition according to the criterion of place, being the works of painters working in the Dundee area. Beyond that, there seems to be no unity to the exhibition, thematic, stylistic, or otherwise. The works are drawn from a time span of roughly 70 years, and differ to an extraordinary degree in both subject matter and style. They seem to jostle here for attention, each promising to draw us to something of potential interest utterly different from anything else on display. Indeed, one could almost see the wider history of art over the last century or so in microcosm here (notwithstanding many significant gaps). We see realistic, representational paintings which act as virtual windows, allowing us a voyeuristic glimpse into forgotten worlds (Alberto Morrocco, The Attic Bedroom (1955); Alec Grieve, Moonlight Sonata (presented 1933)); we see the birth of modern art in the paintings John Maclauchlan Milne made under the spell of Cézanne (St. Tropez (presented 1988; likely painted between 1919 and 1932)), and we see the extension of modern art in many of its guises. Applying analogies in a rough and ready way, we see the Rothkoesque colour field painting Islandby James Howe (1969); the Basquiatesque Above and Below the Blue by Dennis Buchan (1975); the Baconesque bodily distortions of Neil Dallas Brown’s Fairy Tale or Summer Incident (1966). Methods of presentation are varied too, from the classically lavish framing of William B. Lamond’s The North Sea (presented 1976) to what appears to be a sculpture stuck to the wall and presented as though it were a painting (Neil Dallas Brown’s Protector (Coast), circa. 1997).
Reflections from the Tay is a “museumistic” exhibition: informative and didactic. (And of course, the McManus gallery is also a museum, so this is unsurprising.) We can learn here about Scottish history; see some representative examples of important painters, schools, and traditions (the Classicists, the Scottish Colourists, etc.) which have flourished in the local area. On the cultural level, there is absolutely nothing to say against this. Who could be against art history, or didacticism? Yet at the same time, I can’t help feeling that the art itself somehow suffers and is suppressed. By being placed side-by-side with other works in such a motley collection, each work seems to either recede into the general indifference of “art,” or risks taking on the value of a novelty item, a trinket on display in a marketplace, as it seeks to outdo its competitor in vying for our attention.
Thus the relations which are established between the paintings dampen their capacity to speak to us on their own terms. Yet we must also acknowledge that it is only by virtue of the fact that they are collected here that any one of them will likely gain an audience. So we cannot complain too vociferously against the museumification of such artworks. It may give us the only chance of daring the jealousy of the other works and initiating an intimacy with one of them (or, in the style of Hollywood polygamy, of several of the works in turn). Lyotard also said that works of art are “ways of being” toward sensations. If we are patient spectators here, we can get to know some modest, extraordinary ways of being.