Drunk on the sun, a day’s excursion to East Neuk’s well-known arts festival – with the Isle of May in the distant background – is an unadulterated pleasure, lulling you into an illusion that “warm days will never cease”. Pittenweem’s distinctive charm lies in its temporary conversion of local cottages into art galleries, in addition to conventional local commercial and public spaces. Hosts are unfailingly cheerful even when hordes stampede through living rooms or trample wonderfully kept private gardens, some with splendid vistas that encourage repeated returns for more than just art. Yet the diversity of the arts and crafts on offer, the festival’s crafts(wo)manlike ethic and lack of “preciousness” make it more welcoming than a trip to a modern art gallery in more urbane settings. However, such jolly, homely ambience belies the seriousness and the commitment of the 120 artists exhibiting at 88 different venues, and the importance of the festival to many local artists as a place to both showcase and sell work.
There are just too many exhibitions to visit on a single day let alone mention in this review. Invited artists range from one of the “Glasgow Boys”, the late Stephen Campbell, to student bursary winner, Thomas Cameron, a recent DJCAD fine arts graduate. Campbell’s retrospective sampler includes titles such as the playfully staged surreal and literally titled, There’s a Girl on the Phone (naked girl draped on red phone) and Red Train going left right up down, tearing apart, the latter bearing witness to train windows as moving pictures. Both paintings’ rich palette of greens, reds, browns and blues challenge the spectator to think about looking; Campbell’s other more narrative work appear in the sequence, Master and Apprentice and Vionette Noziere, the latter asking, “are we the figment of other people’s imaginations?” Venue 52 hosts another guest artist’s work: Dugald MacInnes’s textured images comprising slate and stone fragments, painstakingly and skilfully assembled into modernist geometrical forms that invite us to see both tension and continuity between the whole picture and the individual slate mosaic. MacInnes trained as a geologist and archaeologist and his images are visual metaphors for the fragility and volatility of the environment we occupy. Sean Dooley is another invitee that underwent a scientific education, as is apparent in the documentary impulse that motivates his photography. However, in sequences such as After Life, this is staged ironically, where his wildlife subjects, occasionally in extreme close-ups, are taxidermy specimens (Victoria crowned pigeon), extinct creatures (St Kilda house mouse) or endangered animals. Other photographs of torn and faded posters and pin-up images in the Secrets of the Clock Tower series hint at history as shards and ghostly traces. Thomas Cameron’s recent degree show exhibition was so distinctive with its Edward Hopper-like paintings of buildings suggesting neglect, loneliness and entropy; these are sometimes painted with lone figures but more often appear as portraits of abandoned, crumbling, and almost achingly bruised edifices bereft of human life. However, Cameron’s subtle use of light and reflection can defamiliarise and transform; mundane buildings in the rich slanted late afternoon sunshine are luminous presences in Swimming Pool and Shadows.
An annual fixture on the local arts scene, Pittenweem affords us a chance to meet familiar artists, and to follow their newer work and current preoccupations: Morag Muir shows a more explicitly fabular turn in her richly imaginative still-life assemblages; Paul Barlett’s recent textured avian paintings and collages now capture the movement of both seagulls and rough seas, providing more depth when contrasted with the quiet planar stillness of his earlier paintings of water birds; Jennifer Pettigrew’s delicate artist books made from scraps and fragments of maps, stamps, textiles, painted and patterned papers and quotations are exquisite; Mairi Clark’s semi-abstract evocations of the Scottish sublime are, as always, stunning; Malcolm Cheape’s enduring fascination with water and ships in glossy, liquid and translucent varnishes extends now to Venetian waterways; Reinhard Behrens’ quirky and imaginative documentation of “Naboland” discoveries (this venue bears witness to some remarkable work by members of the same family, each exhibiting distinctive and individual work). Linocuts by Susie Lacombe and Hilda McIntyre, and Dot Sim’s fine wearable jewellery also hold special places in my visits over the years. If you had a deep pocket, Pittenweem’s affordable art may just still leave you with belt tightened for the forthcoming autumn.