In The Modern World
Until March 4; City Art Centre, Edinburgh
With the second half of the 20th century came a brave new world of
modern living. Over four million council houses were built in the
UK between 1945 and 1969, many of them in futuristic multi-storey
buildings; Glasgows were the highest of them all. Inspired by
Le Corbusiers vision of the mass-produced home, enthusiasts
flattened Victorian slums and threw up multi-storeys as fast as they
could manage, using off-the-peg solutions to a pressing housing crisis.
The age of optimism didnt last long. By the 1970s this brave
new world was showing cracks. Decrepit and vandalised, many of the
towering monuments had become isolated ghettos. A new wave of architectural
psychologists bemoaned the buildings failure to meet the diverse
needs of their occupants; now seen as eye-sores, their preservation
was low on everybodys agenda.
A generation later, Scotlands contemporary artists are fascinated.
They look back with hindsight not only on the optimism of the mid
20th century, but also on the disillusionment of the following decades.
With unprecedented emotional detachment, they excavate the gaps between
the utopian dream and its human reality.
Ive commented before on the frequency of shows about the built
environment and those who inhabit it. Noticing this strong trend in
contemporary art, Edinburghs City Art Centre has made it the
basis for their new collecting strategy. Living In The Modern World
is the result: a clutch of new acquisitions on show for the first
time, along with existing works from the citys collection.
The exhibition is something like a city in itself. You must pick your
way unguided through bravura post-modern creations and dull peripheral
sprawl, historical glamour and cheap schemes. It is a sometimes disjointed
agglomeration, confused particularly by the inclusion of a handful
of irrelevant works, chief among which is an Exposed Painting by Callum
One inspired pairing is that of Toby Patersons Citrus Fruit
Market with Jock McFadyens Great Junction Street. Both depict
remarkable early 20th century buildings, devoid of people. But the
similarities stop there. While Patersons clean lines and virginal
flat planes suggest an architects fantasy, McFadyens old
cinema is scarred with the ravages of time in a world where pure planes
dont exist. The walls are dirty and stained with damp. Light
fittings trail flexes across the façade and aerials interfere
with the profile. The two paintings seen together speak volumes about
the dreams of early modernism and its subsequent fall from grace.
While many remain transfixed by such town centre dramas, the cultural
spotlight is trained increasingly on suburban sprawl. In his essay
for the current Lighthouse show, art historian Richard Williams is
unusually positive about the suburbs. For him, bland, urban peripheries
are the most revealing, most truly modern, place to be. He argues
that the Impressionists, painters of modern life, painted on the edges
of Paris, and it is certainly the case that many artists today are
fascinated by the anonymous hinterlands of our big cities.
Kenny Hunter captures two such nowhere lands in screenprints full
of concrete; flyovers, buildings and lampposts are drenched in cold
sun. The superimposed texts recall Allen Ginsbergs rage against
the cold, stony Moloch, a symbol of authority and oppression. But
there is a hint of softness, too, in the greenery, which in the end
seems to win out over the grey.
David Forsters watercolour picks out a very different suburban
scene, casting a rainbow over a row of typical Edinburgh bungalows.
The title, at first sight, suggests a land of desperate housewives
among the perfectly pruned shrubs: For the thorns and bushes
lay hold of them as it were with hands, and there they stuck fast
and died miserably. But the line is from Briar Rose, a version
of Sleeping Beauty by the Brothers Grimm. Perhaps the artists
vision is of magical goings-on inside the sleepy sandstone walls.
While 1930s bungalows age gracefully, everyone loves to hate the new-build
private estates which are creeping ever further out of our towns and
cities. Jumbled casually as if dropped from the sky, these new off-the-peg
solutions are a cross between lego and some vague, southern English
notion of the picturesque. Philosopher Alain de Botton has condemned
such pastiche architecture, pining for a return to modernist
ideals. Only then, he thinks, will urban dwellers be truly happy.
Nathan Coley may well agree. His deadpan slide-show, Villa Savoye,
contrasts bland details from a typical show home with the ecstasies
of a woman waxing lyrical about the poetry of every line and curve.
She is, in fact, describing Le Corbusiers renowned machine
for living in France. With sound and image dislocated, the walls
and windows of the 1990s show home start to look like a flimsy sham.
If this is the architecture that defines our age, no wonder were
starting to yearn for the grand schemes of our forebears.
Black, Sunday Herald 21.01.07