When you walk into an exhibition of paintings and feel energy bouncing off the canvases and straight into the unconscious part of your brain which affects your mood, you know that something is working.
This happened to me last Saturday morning when I visited Glasgow’s Annan Gallery to see Meditations on Colour, a body of work by Alison McWhirter consisting of 36 new paintings.
McWhirter is known for her joyously sculptural still lifes of flowers, once described memorably by art historian Colin J Bailey as being laden with “buttery impasto”. This new body of work includes her famously crowd-pleasing still lifes of flowers, but also veers off in a new direction of pure abstraction which has been pared right back to the beautifully crude Scottish linen on which she paints.
The work has been two years in the making; a period during which the artist was hemmed in, not just by lockdown, but by an agonising spinal injury which left her unable to stand up. She was also dealing with the premature death of her elder brother, Alan.
Words and music are as important to McWhirter as pictures. Her titles revel in poetic musical references. Take Alicante Lullaby, an abstract painting zinging with pinks, oranges and a flash of emerald green, – a nod to one of her favourite poets, Sylvia Plath. Then there is On the Echoing Green, an abstract explosion of reds, greens and virginal white, which takes its name from William Blake’s The Ecchoing Green from Songs of Innocence.
As McWhirter points out when we talk a couple of days after I see Meditations on Colour, spending time with a poem – even one line of a poem – conjures up all sorts of physical and emotional responses as she paints.
Later, I root out Plath’s poem, Alicante Lullaby, written while the troubled American-born poet was on honeymoon in Spain in 1956 with Ted Hughes. I settle on the lines, Kumquat-colored trolleys ding as they trundle/Passengers under an indigo fizzle. I look again at a photograph of the painting on my phone. That orange… it’s pure kumquat.
The title of this solo exhibition by the Glasgow-based artist is Meditations on Colour – not Meditations in Colour and that one wee vowel shift in a preposition is everything. During lockdown, forced to lie flat for long periods and unable to get to her studio, McWhirter started reading the work of American scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is credited with bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society.
“At Christmas time last year, I was on my own a lot,” she says. “I had just lost my brother and I started reading Kabat-Zinn’s books about living with difficult situations. I started to realise that I was lucky in that I have a passion for painting. What I learned from reading his work was that, yes, you can be in pain, but the suffering is optional. Where you go in mind is important.”
As McWhirter admits, her painting has always been about vulnerability, but with this new direction, there is something more visceral in the work, especially in her new figurative paintings of reclining figures.
Forced by the back pain to lie on the floor of her home for long periods, pounded by the cocktail of angst and self-doubt which all artists are prey to, she started to study the likes of artists such as Ingres, Matisse, Boccioni and Modigliani, who constantly returned to the reclining female figure.
McWhirter says: “I also watched a documentary about the artist Maggi Hambling and how she draws with her non-dominant hand to free her up and that was a game-changer for me in the last couple of years.
“I’m left-handed so when I started to use my right hand to manipulate the paint it came from a completely different place. During that time I was also reading about mindfulness.
“Yes, I was in pain, but I found some points in the day when I had moments of joy. When I’d think, ‘wow, I have never mixed that colour before!’ I might not have been able to stand at the easel, but these moments helped me by pushing me on to work.”
Her reclining nudes, based on her own body, seem to float in a sea of intense colour, manipulated by fingers, brushes, palette knives… whatever she had in her non-dominant hand.
Although McWhirter’s paintings look spontaneous, each and every one has been thought about long and hard.
She explains: “Being unable to stand at my easel made me think about how important integrated movement is. There’s a real creative power in movement. When I am working big, the placement of paint and the way the body moves is important. I’m not thinking, ‘I am painting a painting’, it is just a meditation.”
Over the course of this process of change, her paintings, including her still lifes of flowers, have become more and more abstract. In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, Colin J Bailey writes about this “fruitful experimentation” achieving striking effects.
Bailey writes: “While painting Pink Nude, Alison’s expressed aim was to ‘create a feeling of euphoria, warmth, luxuriousness and repose’, a state of mind in marked contrast to her intense physical and emotional pain at that time.”
As any artist who makes their living from their art will confirm, it’s easy to keep following the same path and churning out work which you know will sell well. While she insists that she will stay loyal to still life, McWhirter’s push into abstraction has clearly unlocked something in her which is still ripe for exploration.
Paintings like After Fuchs and Kannon are painted with swift gestural movements, leaving swathes of linen untouched.
“I let myself off the hook to do a series of large abstract paintings,” she says. “It was all about looking forward. I gradually realised that I needed to make the work I needed to make… the work in my heart which brings joy.
“I want to go really big with my paintings; it’s about letting go. The older I get, the more confident I’ve become… so what if it doesn’t work? I’ve never been like that before in my life, but it feels good.”
Alison McWhirter, Meditations in Colour, The Annan Gallery, 164 Woodlands Road, Glasgow, G3 6LL, 0141 332 0028, www.annanart.com, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-5pm, Sunday 12-4pm, closed Mondays. Until September 26.
Part Cherokee and part Jewish, photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper was born in California and has lived in Scotland since 1982, having founded the Glasgow School of Art’s influential Fine Art Photography course.
A respected and well-kent figure in photography circles on a worldwide stage, earlier this year, Cooper appeared on BBC Four’s Great British Photography Challenge guiding six contestants through capturing the drama of Glencoe.
Cooper is THE man for such jobs as he has always been drawn to the margins and for more than 50 years has used a camera made in 1898 to take photographs at the most extreme points and locations surrounding the Atlantic Ocean.
Cooper makes a single exposure at each location. He then develops the negative and prints by hand, back in his Glasgow darkroom.
The result is an episodic journey that covers five continents: Europe, Africa, North America, South America and Antarctica. Along the way, Cooper has set foot on uncharted land masses through his work, contributing to cartography and earning him naming rights of previously unknown islands and archipelagos.
The only artist to have ever made photographs of the two poles, Cooper refers to this body of work as The World’s Edge — The Atlas of Emptiness and Extremity.
The World’s Edge was first shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2019 and now, his first exhibition for the National Galleries of Scotland is on show at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.
There are 35 of his photographs in this beautifully presented exhibition, which simultaneously memorises while chilling viewers to the bone. Ether swirls almost into oblivion while air, rock, sea and sand melt into one.
There are never any figures in a Thomas Joshua Cooper photograph – which might make this exhibition seem like an odd choice for a portrait gallery – but each and every one attests to the presence of the maker; an intrepid bear of a man who is on a lifelong quest to be where extremes meet.
Thomas Joshua Cooper: The World’s Edge, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD, 0131 624 6200 www.nationalgalleries.org, until January 23 2022, open daily, 10-5pm. Free but booking required.
Mull’s excellent An Tobar gallery in Tobermory has assembled a top trio of artists in Sam Ainsley, Eileen Cooper and Pinkie Maclure for its latest exhibition. The approach each artist takes varies greatly and for this group exhibition they present work in different two-dimensional media. The common thread in that each artist uses figuration, narrative and symbolism and a strong female perspective.
Sam Ainsley, Eileen Cooper and Pinkie Maclure, An Tobar Gallery, Druimfin, Tobermory, Isle of Mull, PA75 6QB, 01688 302211, https://www.comar.co.uk/, until November 19, Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-4pm.