Open studios and exhibitions staged outside traditional white-walled gallery spaces are invariably more welcoming than those occurring within institutional confines. Enjoying art in less fussy surroundings encourages us to be less fearful of the maker or the medium; thus liberated, we become more curious about form and craft even as we savour the transgressive freedom of having “gut” reactions. This is not to question the seriousness of Pittenweem’s artistic endeavours nor to dismiss the weightiness of scholarly contexts, but merely to acknowledge that very local pleasures and local bonds thrive in such places. Much like greeting a long lost relation, there is something delightful about catching up with what your favourite artist has done between annual festivals, and indulging in conversation.
Staged every August in an East Neuk small seaside village, Pittenweem does this kind of celebration so well. Now in its thirty-fourth year, the festival is host to 109 artists exhibiting diverse art forms – landscapes, portraiture, still-life paintings, sculpture, sculptural installations, jewellery, woodwork, textiles and felting to name a few – and in the spirit of village fêtes, augments these with painting competitions, craft workshops, family and musical events, and ceilidhs. This year there is also a sculptural trail, a chance to make your own artistic mark on Bill the shaggy (Highland) cow cast in metal, and to encounter the “staged visions” of 1878, comprising collaborative installations, mixed media displays, film and music.
Scottish topography, not only around East Neuk’s pretty surrounds but also the bleaker, wilder and more rugged mountainous terrains, or churned-up seascapes, forms a particularly rich and varied seam of work. A Scottish sublime of sorts – grandeur inspiring wonder but also unease – appears across a range of representational forms: the brooding, dense moodiness of rain-bearing cloud overhangs on rocky outcrops in Bruce Shaw’s lovely, intricate black and white etchings; the stark and evocative beauty of Mairi Clark’s semi- abstract barren Scottish landscapes; the greyness of wet island days in Duncan Macleod’s paintings; the bare upright and skeletal trees in Kirstie Behren’s etchings, which have all the intricacy and delicacy of detailed pencil and charcoal studies. Digital drawings, digital photo-art of landscapes also work light in a similar vein. Yet, colour and brightness are never far away, quite literally in the case of Christopher Corr’s stylised naïve gouache paintings (and prints) of places travelled and peoples encountered undertaken in vibrant opaque acid colours, in Morag Gowan’s still-life assemblages, and in Malcom Cheape’s highly varnished, technically superb and beautifully reproduced mixed-media water-based epiphanies – nautical and otherwise – where you can still read text fragments under the highly lacquered surfaces. In a similar vein, Paul Barlett’s avian paintings, done in a natural historical illustrative style, is built upon a multitude of textual scraps; studying the image close range, you find yourself reading these RSPB magazine slivers.
Pittenweem’s display of illustration and print-making – screen-prints, woodcut, linocut, etchings and more – is particularly joyous this year. The whimsical humour of Iain McIntosh’ illustrations and prints, inspired by some tangential real-life connection must bring a smile to many: Elvis King of Fife (yes, Elvis did come to Scotland), The Crail Whale and Freddie, the St Andrews scholar who owned a pet rat and discovered string theory. Susie Lacom’s skilful assembled collage boxes of layered brightly coloured cut-out prints of fishing villages also inspires cheer that all is well with the world despite the downpours to which my visit day was prone. The McIntyres are also worth revisting.
Alison Kinnaird’s glass studies play with light; the solidity of the human form changes with each step you take circling the display, and her counterpointing of surface textures – smooth, highly polished or matt, roughed-up and patterned – is skilfully executed. But what caught my eye most this year is the use of ordinary organic materials (and found natural objects) as artistic media. Work displayed under the banner, Clothed by plants, and inspired by Angus MacPhee, uses weaving skills to place art in a coterminous relation with the natural world. I was particularly taken with Linda Green’s display of horse collars, and with her marvellous exhibits in the Weft textile studio, showing how textiles, wood and fibre – all sourced naturally – can be used to create innovative sculptural objects created through the twisting fibre into “tensile forms” so that pattern and shape emerge and given solidity.
Needless to say, a day at Pittenweem can be tackled systematically by marking out artists and venues to visit from the Festival brochure; yet so much more rewarding is to have a wander through the streets, taking in East Neuk’s fishing village charms, and discovering – quite by chance – unexpected small gems at the different venues.