Art reviews: Louise Bourgeois | Stephen Sutcliffe | Sara Barker
Louise Bourgeois: Prints ****
Glasgow Print Studio
Stephen Sutcliffe: Works from the Collection ***
Sara Barker: The faces of older images ****
Mary Mary, Glasgow
Louise Bourgeois began making prints in the 1930s and continued until her death in 2010 at the age of 98, using a small printing press in the basement of her home in Chelsea, New York. The two series of drypoints currently on show at Glasgow Print Studio were made when she was in her eighties, and read almost like an index to the central preoccupations of her long career. This show, organised by Hayward Touring, is apparently attracting the attention of the undergraduates at Glasgow School of Art, based nearby at the Tontine Building. Bourgeois is an important figure to many young artists, and has been much celebrated in recent years, with major shows at Tate Modern and (currently) at MoMA, New York. Her approach to art-making – personal, intense, emotional, drawing on a body of strong archetypal images – feels very much in tune with contemporary practices.
Autobiographical Series (1994) brings together some of the formative moments and experiences to which Bourgeois kept returning in her work: there are images of her mother, her father, her children. The woman in Empty Nest, perched on a high stool, her head in her hands, is a picture of loneliness; Sculptress seems torn – another common Bourgeois theme – between the domestic and the life of the artist.
These works are interspersed with another series, 11 Drypoints (1999), which delves more deeply into the imagery she uses to explore ideas and emotions. Mother and child images are prevalent in both series (she even manages to make a big pair of scissors positioned next to a smaller pair look like a mother and child). There are also stairs, feet, spiders, a pregnant mosquito. In Please hang in there, we are looking down through broken glass at a woman lying curled on the floor below: a catastrophe – or perhaps not. Bourgeois once said her approach to art-making “began as the fear of falling, grew into the art of falling and finally evolved into the art of hanging in there”.
They are simple drawings, perhaps deceptively so, clear lines softened by the slightest of aquatint shadows. If they appear simple, it is because they are the product of a maturity and confidence which knew how to distil a big idea down to its essence. They are not to be taken lightly.
Bourgeois is best known as a sculptor whose ambition and range increased as she grew older (case in point, that immense spider in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2008), but these prints are a useful reminder of the key themes of her long career, and a fine introduction for those seeing her work for the first time.
One could say something similar about the current GoMA show of work by Glasgow-based Stephen Sutcliffe, comprising five works from the gallery’s collection with additional works loaned by the
artist. Although more modest in
scale than his exhibition at Talbot Rice Gallery during this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival, it is a useful guide to his approach and his concerns.
Sutcliffe appropriates and subverts existing imagery, often but not always in film. He juxtaposes one image with another, or visuals with sound, to create new, often uncomfortable resonances. One of the films shown here, Come to the Edge, splices the voice of Christopher Logue reading his poem of the same name with footage of boys in a sixth form common room. Are they larking about, or is this bullying, ritual humiliation? The more we watch, the more uncomfortable we become. Sutcliffe likes to hover on the cusp of ambiguity, poised to tip over into something more disturbing.
Accompanying the films are wall drawings and photographs which draw on the work of New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg. Sutcliffe subverts the idea of an artist surrounded by thought bubbles (ideas) by scoring them all out (rejected ideas). In another, the artist wears a pair of sandwich boards on which are drawn images of gallery-goers chit-chatting at an opening. Artistic insecurities are made manifest, but not without an ironic chuckle.
The longest film here, Despair, is a reflection on Nabokov’s 1934 novel of the same name, a collage of material which includes elements of the novel itself, the 1978 film adaptation, black and white copied photographs of celebrities and baroque music composed by Lully for Louis XIV. It’s intriguing, but, like much of Sutcliffe’s later work, is less easy to engage with if one doesn’t already know something about the references he has chosen and how he is playing them off against one another.
Meanwhile, new work from Glasgow-based Sara Barker is inaugurating Mary Mary’s attractive new gallery in Oswald Street. Barker had a major exhibition, Change-the-Setting, at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh last year, but these works show she is already striding out in interesting new directions.
Barker’s work sits somewhere between painting, drawing and sculpture. These works resemble wall-mounted metal shelving units, extensively painted inside, partly overlaid with perspex panels, and with metal rods sculpted into shapes extending out from the painting. However, if much of her earlier work looked like sculpture which incorporate painted panels, these are much closer to fully realised paintings.
Though continuing to use car paint and working in a similar palette of pastel shades, she is now hinting explicitly at images and forms. 3 fabric figures on the Heath changes the sky reminded me of Cezanne’s fields, or Van Gogh’s drawings. Elsewhere, the images hint at photographs, perhaps images from the news: a partially collapsed wall; a crowd in a big space, like a railway station; two barefoot children, dangling their legs.
I could say we’re in a landscape of war, here, of ruins and refugees. I could be wrong. Barker isn’t giving us something we can decode, and her poetic titles – much as they resemble cryptic crossword clues – don’t deliver any answers. But it is pleasing to see her embracing the possibilities of painting more fully within her practice, with excellent results. One can only wait with interest to see where she goes next. n
*Louise Bourgeois until 29 October; Sara Barker until 28 October; Stephen Sutcliffe until 21 January.