Moyna Flannigan: A Footprint In The Hall
Sarah Staton: In Situ Ex Situ
Until September 30; Mount Stuart, Isle of Bute

Now in its seventh year, the visual arts programme at Mount Stuart always has its finger on the pulse. If artists are not Turner Prize nominees before they’re invited to show at the Bute stately home, they have a tendency to find themselves on the shortlist soon after. Dundee-based Nathan Coley, it was announced a few weeks ago, is up for the prize on the basis of last summer’s solo show at Mount Stuart.

This summer, two artists have been invited to show. English artist Sarah Staton occupies the contemporary space of the visitor centre, while Edinburgh painter Moyna Flannigan infiltrates the historic walls of the house itself.

Seeing Flannigan’s paintings in the mock gothic interiors of the house, cheek by jowl with old masters and family portraits, it’s hard to believe that the artist has shown exclusively in galleries until now. Her show of miniatures at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 2004 did bring Flannigan’s quirky portraits into the company of their historical forebears, but the two were discreetly ring-fenced.

At Mount Stuart, Flannigan was given the run of the house, and chose to insert her oils, drawings and miniatures where the mood took her. A quartet of grey pictures lurks in the Henry VIII bedroom, and a series of suggestive drawings lines the wall of the family bedroom; a large oil holds its own among the Renaissance masterpieces of the drawing room, and two further oils take their place among the ostentatious portraits on the marble staircase.

Whether made for the occasion or pulled out of her back-catalogue, Flannigan’s paintings are completed by their new setting. No longer rattling around in white cubes, they find their natural habitat amongst the curious lords and ladies of the past. The new arrivals tease hidden secrets out from behind prim surfaces, and in turn, the house makes perfect sense of Flannigan’s idiosyncratic visions.

In pride of place above the marble staircase hangs one of Flannigan’s most successful paintings of recent years, Happy Ending. A homage to Velázquez’s Las Meninas, the dark, misty tones reveal an old lady – perhaps the Infanta Margarita in her twilight years – lost in dejection. She is in a painting within the painting, her tears dripping down to the paintbrush held by a miniature jester, his face an unnatural grin.

The grey-greens and dulled reds recall the yellowed varnish of much older paintings, allowing Happy Ending to sit quite comfortably amongst the works around it. Its murky surface draws you up the stairs towards it, and the pervading sense of melancholy seeps out of the painting and into the others all around.

The drawings in the family bedroom, though mild by Flannigan’s standards, have apparently caused quite a stir among more straight-laced visitors to Mount Stuart. In the privacy of the bedroom, this cast of characters reveals various preoccupations with sex and death. Away from the public glare of formal portraiture, all are ultimately frail and vulnerable in their stripy pyjamas and lingerie.

In a bedroom such as this, dripping with history and atmosphere, it’s easy to imagine the tempestuous goings-on of the aristocracy, behind closed doors. In a gallery, these drawings might just seem to have bark, but in here there’s definitely bite.

Sarah Staton’s work has bark too, of a sort. Inspired by Mount Stuart’s long-term involvement in conifer conservation, the artist has focussed on pine. Second-hand pine tables are playfully repurposed as sculpture, disks of wood rising like new growth from their surfaces. One table, now sliced, is outed as chipboard disguised with laminate. Dotted around are clusters of cone-shaped pine, painted in bright nursery-school colours quite at odds with the notion of a natural pine cone.

Charcoal wall drawings make a foil to this boisterous display, illustrating five different species of pine and mapping out the planting of conifers from all over the world in the Mount Stuart estate. But none of the drawings is labelled. None of the wood stuck on top of the map actually corresponds with areas of planting.

Staton has constructed an interpretation display which doesn’t inform us about different kinds of pine; instead it exposes a huge gap in our knowledge and experience. Pine is culturally invisible to us; a generic material used to make cheap furniture. We forget to connect it to real, living trees, and we haven’t a chance of knowing which species, from which part of the world, we might have in our coffee table.

She makes her point with a great deal of delight, but you might grind your teeth a little as you walk away from Staton’s installation. It’s frustrating to be informed of what you don’t know, and then left deliberately in the dark.

Of the two, Flannigan’s is the show that leaves the most lasting impression. You might recall that I wasn’t wild about Nathan Coley’s show last year – the one that got him nominated for the Turner Prize – so there’s no use running to the bookies with any tips from me. But I’d be quite happy if Flannigan, on the strength of her interventions at Mount Stuart, was on the shortlist this time next year.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 17.06.07