GENERATION: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland

David Don
Writer

The late 1980s marked the beginning of a stark change in the UK’s contemporary art landscape.

While the Young British Artists down in London were pickling dead animals and leaving their beds unmade, something quite distinct and important was happening in Scotland, too – a vibrant creative regeneration, sprung largely from Glasgow.

This was a city that had been plagued with post-industrial uneasiness since locomotive manufacturing and shipbuilding had started declining drastically following the first World War, leaving it as a ‘depressed state’ and, in many ways, robbing the city of its identity.

A surge in the artistic community surrounding Glasgow over the last quarter-century has represented a firm attempt to regain a level of this identity. It has sometimes been referred to as the ‘Glasgow miracle’, although artists working in Scotland today would be the first to point out that it was no accident from on high.

GENERATION: 25 Years of Contemporary Art in Scotland, a mega-exhibition, housed during the summer of 2014 in over sixty galleries and spaces nationwide, that attempts to encompass a cross-section of key moments – paintings, sculptures, films and more – that have succeeded in raising Scotland up as a unique and important landmark in visual art worldwide.

At the top of the National Gallery’s entrance stairs hangs Karla Black’s ‘Story of a Sensible Length’ (2014), an abstract dream-like mass of powder blue and pink polythene sheets draped from the ceilings and walls and tied up with crude knots. This piece, made for the exhibition in response to the space, blends childhood colours and the distinct ‘newness’ of its polythene body to give viewers an immediate sense that this event is not just a history or an overview of the last twenty-five years of the Scottish contemporary art scene – it is a reminder that it still has an abundance of forward momentum.

Straight from this, visitors follow on to the re-staging of an arguable turning point in Scottish art and to many the birth of this movement, Steven Campbell’s ‘On Form and Fiction’ (1990). Far removed from Black’s abstract sculpture, Campbell’s sturdy benches point at twelve acrylic paintings, themselves surrounded by detailed sepia drawings covering the walls, of cats, nudes and guillotine chairs, while Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Je T’aime’ plays on a loop. It was his first step away from the ‘New Glasgow Boys’ and aims at something bigger than those paintings – he creates an entire immersive environment, one which helped to inspire the movement of artists who created the rest of the work featured in GENERATION.

Having moved directly from Karla Black’s completely fresh work to the conception of the whole exhibition, already the incongruence between the different pieces featured is clear, and this continues throughout. Other than their being made in Scotland since 1990, there isn’t a lot connecting the works in terms of style or chronology. This is sort of the point – modern Scottish art is so diverse and wide-reaching that it can’t be ordered into a neat pattern.

No artist addresses this more directly than the Glaswegian Roderick Buchanan, whose ‘Work in Progress’ (1995), a set of photographs of five-a-side Glasgow amateurs teams dressed in AC and Inter Milan’s strips, challenges identity assignation and shows how easily it can be played with, and perhaps says something larger about the ‘Glasgow miracle’ movement as a whole and how unnecessary it is to try and find connections between the individual works.

The whole exhibition continually reiterates the idea that Scotland, particularly Glasgow, is a significant hub for creative talent. It has certainly achieved monumental recognition in the art world – six of the Turner Prize winners since the nineties have been connected with Glasgow, including the 2010 winner Susan Philipsz, who is not even featured. This is a good indication of the scope of work the curators have had to pick from.

Previous winners who did make the cut for GENERATION include Douglas Gordon, whose influential ‘24 Hour Psycho’ (1993) slows down Hitchcock’s masterpiece of suspense to last a full day, and Hamilton’s Martin Boyce, whose popular 2002 Tramway installation ‘Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain the Sea and the Hours’ has been recreated in the National Gallery, staging trees made of strip lights and jagged benches to suggest a utopian park at night.

While GENERATION is an overview of important Scottish art, there is no need for explicit ‘Scottish-ness’ in the work for it to be featured. David Shrigley’s woodcut prints and ceramic boots fill a room; Jim Lambie’s ‘Zobop’ (1999) merges collage, sculpture and installation to turn a room in the Fruitmarket Gallery into a shiny, colourful, melting space; and viewers are presented with scenes from a completely fantastical island by Charles Avery’s drawings from his ongoing Islanders project.

This is certainly not to say, however, that Scottish identity and life does not play an important role in many of the works. Ross Sinclair’s ‘Real Life Rocky Mountain’ is an installation that looks at the stereotypical ways Scotland is represented, as he builds a picturesque hillside and belts out traditional Scottish songs from it with his guitar. In Glasgow, Cameron Morgan’s ‘Cameron’s Way: Coast to Coast’ (2014) is a striking mural that captures Scotland’s landscape, wildlife and social history ‘from the very old, to the very new’, as Morgan puts it. His open-studio work is housed by Project Ability, a visual arts company based in Glasgow that supports artists with disabilities and mental health issues.

Another important feature that characterises Scottish art since the nineties is the rapidly increasing prominence of female artists. As if to highlight this theme, Karla Black’s piece is the first item presented to visitors, and the radically disparate works of other sculptors like Claire Barclay, Christine Borland and Cathy Wilkes provide further examples of the staggering diversity that exists in current Scottish art.

As well as sculpture, female painting and film making is well-represented too, including Alison Watt’s detailed close-ups on fabrics from French nineteenth century portraits, Julie Roberts’ series of often harrowing medical apparatus paintings and Kate Davis’ ‘Denkmal’ (2013), an experimental short film that reflects on the obsolescence of various everyday objects in the dawn of the technological age, to name a tiny few.

It is impossible to cover everything important, because, in a way, everything in this exhibition is important. There has been so much inbound talent in recent Scottish art that each piece of work only serves as a starting point, a representative of a moment, of which there have been so many that the work pours out into corridors and, in the case of Richard Wright’s ‘Stairwell Project’ (2010), up onto the roof and the architecture.

Even so, there’s still too much, and certain artists – for example, the characteristically Glaswegian Alasdair Gray – are simply not featured. That the likes of his work has had to be omitted will be seen as a travesty by some, but from a different perspective, it’s really a testament to the stupefying volume of creative talent that has continued to pour out of this country for the last twenty-five years, and seems set on continuing to do so.