Conversations with Artists in Scotland – No. 1 “Food for the Soul in Russian”

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Russian artist, Gennadii Gogoliuk, reciting poetry in his Edinburgh studio. (Click on image to enlarge).

On meeting the artist, Gennadii Gogoliuk*, at his Edinburgh home, he hands me two of his sketchbooks before heading out the door to buy breakfast for us.  As he leaves, he calls out something in Russian and his wife, Rose**, translates: “He says that sketchbooks are where the heart of the artist lives”.  I know this; I recognise the privilege of being given them to look through. It’s nerve-wracking setting them down on the kitchen table, too close I think to my cup of tea – the more so when Rose tells me that these are books that Gena has re-worked over and over for the past ten years. They are extraordinary; the pages heavy with paint and history.  Spasmodically interrupting the painted pages is the added dimension of the, to me, unfamiliar calligraphy of the Russian language.  The books are palimpsests of Gena’s cultural heritage and of his continuous creative process.  One little painting has the look of a monotype but it turns out to be what has bled through from the other side of the page, the original now obliterated by other figures from Gena’s imagination. He comments that the beauty of this unintended image lies in the fact that it is “untouched by human hand, that it has made itself”.  This attributing of his art to something ‘other’ becomes a recurring thread in our conversation.  He talks about his process as taking place when he is not present, in the sense that when he paints, he disappears into some other part of himself.  He describes this loss of himself as “the joy of painting”, that it is a “magical profession”.  

The London gallery owner, John Martin, saw Gena’s work at a group show and  invited him to put on his first solo exhibition in 2001.  Rose recalls how important and fortuitous this was for Gena, especially when it came so soon after his move from Russia in 1998 to be with her in Edinburgh, her home city.  The show was well received and others at the gallery have followed. He has also exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy and the Society of Scottish Artists.  For Gena, there is the artist’s eternal dilemma between wanting/needing his work to sell and then being conflicted that gallery success might influence the type of work he makes.  He describes the instant a painting dies for him if the thought enters his head of how it will be viewed by others.  “That’s the moment of death”, he says, with a dramatic gesture of his hands. 

Later, when we go to his studio there is a painting on the easel of a fish on a plate.  In subject matter, it is quite unlike any others there, which are mostly of faces and figures. Gena isn’t sure about it, isn’t sure if it is finished or not.  The proverbial artist’s doubt is fully alive in him.  He describes how he used to know when a painting was finished, when it was ready to go out into the world, because he had a strange taste like blood in his mouth.  Now, he says, he doesn’t have any such tangible indication; to paraphrase Descartes, it is the doubt that keeps him seeking the truth of the painting.

The studio is small, the view from the window of the railway track to nearby Haymarket.  Stacked all around the room are paintings of varying sizes and in various stages of execution.  There is an undercurrent of things going on in his paintings; the faces in the portraits only revealing a fraction of their story – of his story … “because everything I have ever looked at or experienced is in my paintings”.

Girl Without An Address, 2014, Oil on Canvas (Image, John Martin Gallery)

Girl Without An Address, 2014, Oil on Canvas (Image, John Martin Gallery)

He has been trying out some different ideas, such as painting on photographs; others are on brick-size, gesso-covered canvases.  Our talk is more halting now because Rose, our translator, has left us to pick up the youngest of their three daughters from school.  The performer in him takes over to occupy the spaces in our conversation and he declaims one of his poems.  It seems irrelevant that I can’t understand the Russian and Gena is not really able to explain its meaning in English. The speaking of the poem is what is important.  (I should add that Gena does speak English but the conversation clearly has more of a flow when he is expressing himself in Russian.  English is the main language in their family home).

In one corner of the studio there is a heart-breakingly simple shrine, where Gena has a ritual of lighting a candle in front of a battered Russian icon.  Before lighting the candle, he paints a tiny symbol on it.  He knows that the candle will burn for six hours and he keeps himself in the studio until the flame dies – not always painting, sometimes gazing unseeing at the canvas he has prepared with gesso, waiting for what wants to be painted to reveal itself.

I comment on the white “veil” he often paints over his subjects and ask if this is related to the spiritual aspect that is sometimes attributed to his art.  But he says not, that it is all to do with his desire to capture the essence of old and crumbling frescoes.  “I prepare the canvas with layers of gesso to make it like a wall, like plaster that will absorb the paint so that there is a beneath and an above”.  In this he recalls the legendary mediaeval Soviet icon painter, Andrei Rublev.  This in turn leads to his recommendation of the film by Soviet film-maker, Andrei Tarkovsky, which immortalised Rublev’s peripatetic life as a wandering artist and man of faith.

Our conversation turns to the contrast between Russia and Britain in the status the artist is accorded– or at least as it was in the former Soviet Union – that during his formative years, artists were an elite, needed for official (political) art, such as statues and monuments. Once the Soviet system began to fall apart in the 1990′s, artists became less important.  It was during this period of flux, particularly with the advent of perestroika and the lifting of censorship, that Gena became increasingly involved in conceptual and avant-garde art.  Prior to this he had been studying at the St Petersburg Academy of Art, where his early experimental work brought him into conflict with their neo-classical style and technique. Gena was thrown out of the Academy several times before he was eventually permitted to present a diploma painting that allowed him to graduate in 1990.

Although painting now largely dominates his art practice, evidence of performers pepper the canvases. He sees his paintings as inextricably linked to his work as a performance artist and not constrained by his Academic training.  He still finds an outlet for his theatrical talents, most recently in a film made in Germany through collaboration with a group of dancers who specialise in improvised movement.  It featured him dressed in a feathery Pan outfit – the mythological figure being one of his frequently revisited symbols. 

Gena’s art influences are wide-ranging, from the colourful cut-outs of Matisse to fellow Russian, Malevich and his world-famous, “game-changing” Black Square.  It was fascinating to hear from Gena, a compatriot of Malevich’s, just how important the painting has been to artists in Russia – that over the years its very existence gave them courage to go forward with new forms of expression.

As well as being represented by the prestigious John Martin Gallery in London, Gena also had the honour of being included in the collection of art connoisseurs, the late Professors Henry and Sula Walton.  Their patronage has led to Gena’s paintings “rubbing shoulders” with work by heavyweights such as Goya, Rembrandt, Cezanne and Picasso.  The couple, who had lived in Edinburgh for many years, bequeathed their collection to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In a short film about Gena, Henry Walton, described how he felt that Gena “is embedded in his Russianness, to his personal detriment but to the great enrichment of his art”.  I ask what Professor Walton meant about the effect on him personally of his Russianness and both Gena and Rose allude to the unruly force of his Russian heritage and of the struggle to allow it expression without being dominated by its darker side. 

In one of her recent BBC Reith Lectures the author, Hilary Mantel, spoke of the “tension in every artist between the outer and inner lives.  You want to be at your desk or in your studio, mining your resources, but you also want to be out there in the world, listening and looking, to replenish your talent.  There’s no safe point, no stasis.  It produces anxiety, even a kind of shame”.   I feel Gena would relate to this description of the artist’s creative process.

We had sat for a couple of hours in Gena and Rose’s kitchen, drinking tea, eating croissants, the conversation meandering between art and philosophy and back again.  The flow of talk was facilitated by Rose’s impressive ability to translate Gena’s Russian, whilst also contributing her own insights .  Listening and talking to them was a rare and nourishing experience, like food for the soul.

 

* Gennadii Gogoliuk was born in Sholkhov, Rostov Oblast, Russia in 1960. He studied at the Lugansk art school in the Ukraine and later at the St Petersburg Academy of Art. He worked for several years with the Kirov Theatre (now the Mariinskii Theatre) in St Petersburg.  

**Rose France is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Russian Section of the Department of European Languages and Cultures, and the School of Literature, Languages and Cultures.

 

 

 

Edinburgh International Film Festival

There are still a few days left to enjoy the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where I’ve been volunteering this past week or so.  It has been terrific to be part of the team and of the buzz around town – and great to get out and see films as they were intended, i.e. at the cinema instead of on my 12″ laptop.  The Festival headquarters is at Filmhouse but it has spilled out into the Odeon, CineWorld and the Festival Theatre, where screenings are also taking place. I’ve managed to see quite a variety of films in several different languages – from contemporary US animation to a Polish bio-pic.  It has been a truly international experience, not only through the films but also through the people attending  - including amongst my volunteer colleagues, which has added greatly to the enjoyment.  

It is such a treat to immerse oneself in a particular art form and this Festival has without a doubt lived up to the definition of cinema being the “Seventh Art”.  At the turn of the 20th century, the Italian film theoretician, Ricciotto Canudo, categorised cinema as the 7th because he saw it as the coalescing of three rhythmic arts – music, dance and poetry – and of three plastic arts – architecture, sculpture and painting.  And at this Festival the films have encompassed all of those, through subject matter as well as through the medium of film itself.  

Looking back over the films I’ve seen, the one that has stayed with me, as if in accord with its title, is “Afterimage” (Powidoki) by the late Polish director, Andrzej Wajda, about his compatriot, the artist, Wladyslaw Strzemiński.  In my ignorance, I knew nothing about this painter but through the film, and some research later, I learn that he was, amongst other things, a pioneer of what was known as the Constructivist avant-garde of the 1920′s and 30′s.  The title of the film comes from a series of paintings he made, referred to as “afterimages of light.” These works record optical impressions caused by looking at the sun.  The film also highlighted that his estranged wife, Katarzyna Kobro, is one of the most esteemed sculptors of the inter-war years.  That’s one of the best aspects of a film like this – that it leads one to a part of history one might never have otherwise found.  Strzemiński’s life turned out to be terribly hard after he fell out of favour with the State in 1950 for failing to comply with the Socialist doctrine for Realist art.  The theme of independence of the artist against institutional pressures is clearly one that the Director, Wajda, held close to his heart.  It was the only one of the public film screenings I attended where there was a spontaneous round of applause at the end, i.e. it didn’t need the presence of anyone involved in the making of the film for the audience to show its pleasure.  

Group Poetry Reading

https-2F2Fcdn.evbuc_.com2Fimages2F303323502F37450622032F12ForiginalLast week, Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery hosted a collective poetry reading inspired by the artist, Mark Wallinger’s, Adam.  The poem forms part of his current exhibtion at the Gallery, now in its last few days.  Adam is a ‘found’ piece created from 33 first lines of poems beginning with ‘I’ from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury.  Visitors were invited to choose one of the poems to read, declaim or sing – or simply to join in as a listener.  Mark began the evening with a reading of Adam, followed by members of the audience and gallery staff.  A lot of the poems were rather sombre yet the tone of the evening was light and the event was touching for its bringing together of strangers and ages.  There was some excellent singing and a real sense of serendipity when it was agreed that each member of the audience should read a verse from the longest poem, Sydney Thompson Dobell’s The Orphan’s Song, and it turned out there were the exact number of verses as people.  Mark hadn’t conceived of such an event when he created the poem but it was clear that he was delighted with this evolution of his work.  It was an evening that not only took Duchamp’s philosophy of a work of art requiring the viewer to complete it, but one that also then added an entirely new layer to the piece.  A most enjoyable event and an idea that will hopefully be used again at future exhibitions.

 

Spain in Scotland

Edinburgh:Edimburgo by Hunter, at Custom Lane until 26 May 2017

Edinburgh:Edimburgo by Hunter, at Custom Lane until 26 May 2017

Had a wonderful fix of Ibero-American culture last week, which began at the opening of the Documentary Film Festival, Iberodocs, held at Filmhouse, and ended in Leith at Custom Lane with an exhibition by a young Spanish artist, Hunter – otherwise known as Félix Gordero.  As well as the type of  group scene shown here, there are also extraordinarily powerful drawings of faces he has encountered in Edinburgh.  The way he uses spray paint evokes the urban environment of the city and with the charcoal he achieves a beautiful delicacy of line.  I was reminded when I saw them of the British artist, Alison Lambert, whom I’ve long admired.  Both artists focus on the connection between people and their environment – in Hunter’s case, he literally incorporates the city into the figures.  The effect is that they are like mirrors reflecting back their surroundings.

Meanwhile, I’ve been discovering new parts of the city myself, as I wander about distributing posters and flyers for the forthcoming Hidden Door festival.  This is a non-profit and volunteer-run, multi arts festival, which this year takes place in the old Leith Theatre, an art deco gem that has been left derelict and decaying for nearly 30 years. It’s hoped this Festival will provide the initial spark to transform the theatre into a major Edinburgh arts venue.

Art with friends

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DOK Artist Space, The Steel Shed, in Leith

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Antony Gormley figure, Photo: Peter Stubbs

I’ve recently been lucky enough to have separate visits from a couple of dear friends – one from Union Hall in Ireland and the other from London.  Both were keen to see as much art as possible during their trip to Edinburgh so although I am a relative newcomer to the city, I was the tour guide, which turned out to be not at all as hopeless as it sounds.  One of the places I’ve been fascinated by since moving to Leith is the DOK Artist Space an extraordinary steel shed, constructed with ship-building techniques, that sits on the Dock just near the Royal Yacht Brittania and the Ocean Terminal shopping centre.  This time with my friend we were lucky enough to find someone inside, so we had a guided tour from artist Karen Fleming.  It is a brilliant space in a stunning location and they do terrific work in offering and campaigning for affordable artists’ studios and yet this historic building faces eviction from its site.  Tragic.  I hope a new home can be found for it.  We waved to the solitary Antony Gormley figure out at the end of the rotting pier, staring out at a forlorn housing development and proving to be a popular staging post for seagulls.  One of the galleries we really enjoyed is a new-ish one in gallery-laden Dundas Street, with the unusual name of &gallery.  We were particularly taken with the work of Liz Douglas, with its delicate palette and intriguing layering.  The Dovecot Tapestry Studios has become a regular haunt of mine and my London friend was as taken as I am with this tranquil hub of creativity.  One of its most recent commissions has been to work with the Turner prize-winning artist, Chris Ofili, whose tapestry ‘The Caged Bird’s Song” has just been unveiled at the National Gallery in London as part of an exhibition entitled “Weaving Magic”.  Another highlight for us was the Scottish Parliament building, which I know has its detractors but which I find visually stunning.  I’m a great fan of polished concrete so that might explain it.  I’ve been wanting to visit for years, not least to see an artwork by Alison Kinnaird called Psalmsong, which combines glass etching and music and didn’t disappoint.  

My Cat Knows What I’m Thinking

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One of the plates at the exhibition “My Cat Knows What I’m Thinking” by Eric Great-Rex

Not being a cat person, I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly attracted by the title of the latest exhibition at Edinburgh Printmakers.  But I’m really glad I overcame my cat prejudice because otherwise I would have missed a thoroughly absorbing and entertaining two-way talk with the artists Eric Great-Rex and Lesley Logue.  The waltz through the 40 years of Eric’s printmaking practice revealed how he came up with the title for his solo show – that he routinely talks to his cat about his ideas, hopes, fears and dreams. He says he’s always found it insightful and funny the way we process our inner thoughts through objects and animals: ” I’m interested in how we venerate our daily lives and how we talk to ourselves in order to make sense and give meaning to our experiences”.  The most inspiring aspect of the evening for me was Eric’s palpable enjoyment and dedication to his craft; even after four decades of printmaking and ceramics he still gets a kick out of revealing the print from the bed of the press and opening the kiln door to see the results of the firing.  Also affecting, was the way he spoke about the manual engagement with the materials, that working with one’s hands is the most human of activities.  The text on the plate that ‘spoke’ to me most strongly is the one shown here.  It reads “Courage to be Imperfect”.  It has connotations of Leonard’s “there’s a crack in everything  … “, and an evocation of his words is always welcome.

Concrete and Glass

Harry Morgan

Harry Morgan, Entropy, 2016, 60 x 30 x 30, Photo: Simon Bruntnell

The first time I came across Harry Morgan’s work was in London a couple of years ago during my ongoing research into the subject of impermanence in contemporary art materials.  I found an immediate affinity with his sculptures and his interest in the mutability of materials.  His sculptural pieces, which often combine concrete and glass, exploit the period of flux of the materials, i.e. the period when they are both moving from being liquid to solid, accepting the other’s presence and then solidifying to epitomise the qualities of strength and vulnerability.  Last week I had another opportunity to see the results of his processes, that “fluctuate”, as he puts it, “between accident and control”. This time the exhibition is in Edinburgh at The Scottish Gallery where he currently has his first solo show.  It was a real treat to see his latest endeavours; to my eye, they have an extraordinary, quiet presence that rewards spending time with them.

Dropping in to Life Drawing in Edinburgh

File0122 2 copyFile0120 2 copyIn all my moving around from one country to another, it was quite a while since I had done any life drawing but the abundance of drop-in sessions available in Edinburgh has ended the fallow period.  The first one I went along to was on a Wednesday night in the historic Summerhall building.  This was a couple of hours’ drawing to curated music, with the added attraction of being able to bring in a drink from the bar.  I’d come across this kind of event in London last Summer and I was an instant fan.  Until that time, I’d only ever been to silent, reverential classes/sessions so it was quite a revelation to experience the combination of professional life models in such an informal setting.  I think these kind of sessions are fun and a great way to get people drawing who might otherwise feel intimidated by the hushed, more traditional life room.  Another venue for this kind of life drawing, where they have music and up to three models, is on a Tuesday night at the Cabaret Voltaire organised by the wonderfully named All the Young Nudes.  I haven’t been to this one yet but I’m looking forward to it.  All that said about how great these alternative sessions are, I’ve also been really enjoying the more traditional sessions at the Saturday afternoon untutored groups offered by Leith School of Art.  I went along for several weeks in a row to take advantage of the long, continuous pose, i.e. the same pose each week. The bonus for me is that the School is only a ten minute walk along the Water of Leith.  Such a luxury.  Also on my doorstep, so to speak, is a drop-in group at Leith’s Custom House organised by Trina Bohan on a Thursday morning for a couple of hours.  The images above are from the School of Art short poses.

Edinburgh – New in Town

I’ve only been living in Edinburgh a couple of months – immersing myself in the process of finding what’s out there.  Having relocated quite a few times, I know from experience that this process is usually daunting and difficult.  But Edinburgh has what seems to be “an embarrassment of riches” for an artist newly arrived in town.

One of these “riches” is Creative Edinburgh which boasts the largest network of creatives in the city.  Their aim is to help “individuals and businesses create, collaborate and stay connected at every stage of their careers”.  Sounds good to me and the best part is that in doing so they organise really fun events.

On Tuesday night (21 March 2017) I had my first experience of one such an event, going along to a “Talking Heads” evening.  These are regular happenings, for which the Creative Edinburgh team brings together up to ten speakers from a wide range of creative industries to give lightening (definition = really fast and illuminating, no time to get bored) talks on their experiences of making things happen in their chosen field.

The networking part of the evening was way up the spectrum of informality – beer, wine and pizza providing the backdrop to all the chat.  Enjoyable and inspiring – what more could you want?  And thank you to Anna at Creative Edinburgh, who encouraged me to come along and who, on my arrival at the venue, greeted me with a  beautiful, welcoming smile and encouraging comments about my work.  Sometimes that’s all you need to keep believing in what you do.