Claudia Massie

Painters triumph at Glasgow International – even though installations dominate

Painters triumph at Glasgow International – even though installations dominate
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Glasgow International

Glasgow, until 25 April 2016

Kelvin Hall is a semi-derelict monument to the fag-end of Glasgow’s great art deco adventure. Built during the city’s industrial prime as an exhibition hall, it is now a building site, undergoing refurbishment. This has not stopped the Glasgow International art festival, the loose theme of which is the legacy of industry, from using it as a venue for two of the 78 exhibitions currently running across the city. Visitors must therefore navigate dilapidated stairwells and boarded up doorways to find the two rooms of art huddled in the front of the building.

In the foyer is a show by Australian painter Helen Johnson. Her large-scale canvases are suspended, unstretched, from ropes in the middle of the room, allowing the viewer to examine front and back. The backs contain notes and sketches; the fronts show Johnson’s complex, inventive and obscure painting.

[caption id="attachment_9452232" align="alignnone" width="520"]Helen Johnson's 'Barren Field' Helen Johnson's 'Barren Field'[/caption]

The benefit of this Janus display is unclear; the painted side is very obviously the one to look at and the reverse notes add little. Johnson works in acrylic, creating fascinating, textured, stenciled and printed compositions that wander between layers of figuration and abstraction. The thick, combed acrylic gives a tactile tapestry-like quality to a surface enriched by glossy glazes. The meaning is mysterious, the figures hinting at a narrative that relates to Australian history and to classical motifs.

The printed notes that accompany the show, produced by Glasgow gallery Mary Mary, are the most pretentious and incomprehensible I have ever read. 'Painting possesses neither the reverberation of sound nor the actuality of the object in its horizon of finitude” is a typical line, and no less lucid than the rest. Worthless as a way into the paintings, this opaque and meaningless writing is an insult to the quality of the painting and a betrayal of any viewer who might hope to glean further understanding of the work without a doctorate in self-regarding curatorial semantics.

[caption id="attachment_9452282" align="alignnone" width="520"]Claire Barclay's 'Bright Bodies' Claire Barclay's 'Bright Bodies'[/caption]

Upstairs, Claire Barclay has created a sculptural installation that reflects the heritage of the venue, specifically referencing the 1951 Exhibition of Industrial Power. The result is ‘Bright Bodies’, a floor filled with materials – steel, rubber, cotton and coal – arranged to highlight the contrasting physicality of each substance.

The eye follows a sweep of rumpled red rubber, jarred occasionally by the sharp edge of steel or drip of tar. The colour is adventurous and the smell of all that rubber striking but the work is overwhelmed by the venue. The backdrop of stained glass, yellow walls and ornate cornicing distract, compete and conquer. This is perhaps work for the white cube.

[caption id="attachment_9452292" align="alignnone" width="520"]Liz Rhodes's 'Construction Site', 2003 Carol Rhodes's 'Construction Site', 2003[/caption]

On the south side of the river at Oxford House, also part building site, is a welcome little exhibition by Carol Rhodes, a fine painter now at the end of her career. This show is a timely reminder of her wonderful, relaxed style and carefully constructed liminal landscapes. Drawn from aerial photography, these composite images, shown here as both drawings and paintings, are studies of an imagined world of in-between places, isolated structures and shifting morphology. These are ruminative works that celebrate the skeletal and visceral anatomy of landscape.

Rhodes enthusiasts should then walk around the corner to 42 Carlton Place where she has co-curated an exhibition of Louis Michel Eilshemius paintings. This intriguing show brings together a group of paintings by a strange, largely forgotten American painter. Operating a century ago, Eilshemius was a bizarre character, both artist and celebrity oddball, championed by Marcel Duchamp and scorned by the art establishment. His paintings, weird little vignettes, often staged within a frame painted on the canvas (a trick he tried to patent), are peculiar and fascinating.

[caption id="attachment_9452342" align="alignnone" width="520"]Louis Michel Eilshemius's 'Summer' Louis Michel Eilshemius's 'Summer'[/caption]

This being Glasgow, painting is an adjunct to the serious business of installation, sound, video and performance art. Visitors to Glasgow School of Art can enjoy the spectacle of Mackintosh-hunting tourists being obliged to don headphones and listen to shamanic chanting as they circle around Serena Korda’s display of giant porcelain mushrooms. Portals to the underworld, and symbolic of the Isle of Mull, these mushrooms are occasionally played as bells by performers.

Down at Tramway, Lawrence Lek’s ‘QE3’ stands out. Using video game software to create a short film, Lek imagines a future when the Glasgow-built cruise ship QE2 languishes in a Dubai dry dock. The film is narrated by a philanthropist who brings the liner back to Glasgow to serve as new premises for Glasgow School of Art, the original building never having been restored after the 2014 fire. Industry becomes art but nothing is quite what it seems and the final scene shows a model of the restored ship burning in the old art school library. There is some heavy-handed social critique in this melancholic elegy to Clydeside’s industrial legacy but it is a surprisingly engaging piece, with a haunting soundtrack of music, voice and engine thrum.