The Glasgow artist pulls the wool off society's eyes with her latest portraits of the female nude.
Words: Susanna Beaumont
It might seem odd that while some artists are happy to carve their likeness in frozen blocks of their own blood or make portraits of convicted murderers, Alison Watt is wondering if her latest work might be seen as politically incorrect.
Glasgow-based Watt is known for her figurative paintings — melancholic figures carefully drawn with perfect limbs and dreamy faces. They might linger in slightly surreal surroundings but they are not what you would call provocative. Her latest paintings are different. We are talking nudes and
female nudes at that. Artists may be as promiscuous as they want these days in their choice of subject and medium but the conventional, time-honoured nude continues to flex mental muscles.
’To just say they are politically incorrect is an over-simplification,’ says Watt of her work. 'It’s an incredibly complex thing.’
The paintings entitled Fold are to go on show in Watt’s solo exhibition at Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery. Many are diptychs, one half of the canvas taken up with a stretch of female torso, the other with rumpled mounds of fabric. What is more, the paintings use quotes from the work of 19th century French artist Ingres, who is known for semi-recumbent, full-figured nudes looking out from the canvas with dark eyes, their flesh draped in the occasional swag of sumptuous fabric. In short, Ingres is seen as the archetypal peddler of female flesh for the covetous male gaze.
Flesh and fabric: Alison Watt's diptych Fragment II and Sleeper
What are you looking at him for?" is the knee-jerk reaction of some people,’ says Watt of her admiration for Ingres. 'But in may ways he was a prototype modernist.‘
Yet no way is Watt’s presentation of the female body pure lngres-ian. Her recumbent nudes are not seen in full — they appear more as if glimpsed through a keyhole, their feet or head out of view, out of the picture. Their skin may be smooth but there is no silk- satin finish. In subtracting the fabric — a vital prop in Ingres's work, for as the old adage goes, semi-revealed flesh is more erotic than a fully-exposed body — and painting it in isolation from the body, Watt shows the nude as more mundane than erotic. There is a steely objectivity to these pictures.
Watt has now painted professionally for ten years. She found acclaim soon after leaving Glasgow School Of Art in 1987, and after winning the annual portrait award of the National Portrait
Gallery in London, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of the Queen Mother. That is all behind her now. Recently Watt has reached a turning point.
'When you are young you have no idea how to edit your ideas and I’ve
‘10 just say my nudes are politically incorrect is an over- simplification. It's an incredibly complex thing.’ Alison Watt
had to develop in public,’ she says. ’Now I want to move away from the narrative and autobiographical and engage the viewer in something more universal.’ And there is nothing more universal than the naked body.
Fold is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Sat 4 Oct-Sat 15 Nov. On Fri 17 Oct, a forum, Representations Of The Female Body is to be held in the gallery. For details call 0131 225 2383.
Fra mens sur les Institutions Republicaines IV
Glasgow: CCA until 18 Oct ** ** There is probably never an ideal time to exhibit work which puts Irish terrorists/freedom fighters — delete according to your stance — in a human light, but that hardly makes for a cogent argument to avoid Shane Cullen’s latest painstaking work.
The year of 1981 was important for the Republican movement. The Thatcher administration was two years old and digging its collective heel into the belly of the Maze prison hunger strikers as they sought political status and tried to convince each other this Strategy would work.
Cullen‘s four-year task involved hand painting on to panels 35,000 words of communications, or ’comms' between the prisoners and the outside world. The panel formation recreates the shape of a maze. Two of the main correspondents are Marcella, alias Bobby Sands and Gerry Adams, code name Brownie.
The power of the work is in the words themselves - political strategy is
M TIIEUST 26 Sep—9 Oct 1997
mixed with frivolous banter such as mocking each others' poetry and connecting Rudyard Kipling with ’exceedingly good cakes'. There will be those who find such humanising of the IRA as offensive as the description of a South Armagh bombing as a 'cunning little operation’ — while the British government's insensitivity is a 'callous act'.
As the correspondence comes to a close, the final blank panel acts as a warning of the darkness and death ahead, should negotiations fail to bring a satisfactory settlement for all sides. (Brian Donaldson)
Stirling: The Changing Room until Sat 11 Oct *tt‘k
Misty moorland, a collapsing dry-stone wall, a curving velvet-green hillock — all are unremarkable aspects of the Scottish rural landscape. In this show, these strips of countryside are recorded empty of people in panoramic, colour photographs. Initially the compositions seem unassuming — visually pleasing but historically vacant; innocuous in green. Then the viewer's eye registers
the captions. These rural scenes are all one-time battlefields.
In a commission to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Spanish artists Jose Maria Rosa and Maria Bleda have taken a series of photographs of battlefields in the vicinity of Stirling. Simply captioned with the battle name and date - Falkirk Hill, 17 January 1746; Bannockburn, 23 & 24 June 1314 — the silent landscapes become charged with the
Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297 by artists Maria Bleda and Jose Maria Rosa
horrors of warfare and the weight of historical significance.
Battlefield is the first exhibition to be held in The Changing Room, Stirling. A new gallery and the first in the town to be devoted to contemporary art, it’s tucked away In an upstairs room of a shopping arcade. A light, bright and airy space, the gallery looks set — on the strength of this show — to deliver some interesting exhibitions.