A rare opportunity to follow the career of one artist and her experiences within a complex and occasionally hazardous environment is to be found in a new exhibition at Da Gadderie in the Shetland Museum. It’s an artist whose career I’ve followed as it has developed over the last 25 years.
From an article in Artist Newsletter dated 1984 there was news of several promising Scottish art graduates who had been commissioned to produce work based around the oil industry. Sue Jane Taylor was one of those graduates who set off on an oil supply vessel to record life literally at the deep end on the North Sea rigs. It began an intense relationship that has continued to this day.
Challenging to say the least. Even more so in the male dominated world of offshore oil. Not only was she an artist but the fact that she was female meant that she set off at a disadvantage. However, she was clearly accepted and the work she produced is evidence that there was no compromise on either side.
She succeeded in getting the full support of the oil industry. An enlightening DVD charts this development succinctly.
Strongest among the many works on show are the prints, all etchings and aquatints. This process involves covering a copper or zinc plate with wax compound and drawing into it. The plate is dipped into acid which bites through the drawn areas. After cleaning, ink is rubbed into the plate where it collects in the bitten areas and is printed under tremendous pressure. Areas can also be bitten using a granulation process called aquatint which creates tone. This way a complete image can be created through overprinting and even adding colour.
The early prints remind us of the architectural structural challenges in recording the landscapes of the oil industry, towers, pipes, gantries, cables, and the like as found in Looking up at Santa Fe 140 and Aberdeen Harbour both from 1985. Here the artist has engaged with the forms tonally. The deeper the acid bites the more ink it takes up and the heavier the tone.
More recent etchings show how Sue Jane Taylor’s style had developed. The structure is still strong, especially in John Brown turbines PD4 Piper Bravo of 2005, and the perspective still giddy, but there is less of the abstraction and the image is cleaner. By this I mean that the approach to tone is more delicate, more subtle.
Another early print is Approaching the Rig with its representation of the oil rig’s supporting legs in a heavy sea. Here the acid has bitten the metal plate so deep that there is an almost relief – like embossing, a textural element that adds to its expressive mood.
One of my favourites here is Stormy Seas III, an semi-abstract image cut deep into the etching plate, a battlefield of marks and scratches reminding me of another Scottish artist who depicted the raw energy of nature, William Johnstone. The same can also be said for the only pure landscape in the exhibition, Eday (Orkney Landscape), at once bare, gestural and expressive.
Coloured etchings, while not having the direct impact of monochrome, allow for exploration of form and colour. Tea time at Kishorn has bold strokes picking out areas of light on gloves, helmets, and faces piercing a gloomy, oppressive atmosphere.
Other coloured etchings include portraits. Rigger of 1987 is a very strong image, the black face against the red also setting up an interesting visceral reaction. The related Rigger II with its blood-like flood of ink draining down the paper reminds us (as does the DVD) of Taylor’s close relationship with the ill-fated Piper Alpha platform where she worked only months before the tragedy in July 1988. She also worked on the subsequent memorial to the men who perished on the platform.
It’s impossible to approach graphic work like this without a thorough grounding in drawing. Not only does drawing form the structure to the prints but also the independent drawings in the show display a strong technique.
There is also a sketch from Sullom Voe which has energy and spontaneity. But it is to the powerful etchings that one returns. One of the largest, life-size indeed, is Oil Worker of 1989 which mirrors the figures seen in her memorial for Piper Alpha.
However, the story is not yet over. The North Sea oil industry may be heading for leaner times but Sue Jane Taylor has continued to follow it, including its more recent forays into renewable energy sources. Watch this space, as they say.
This is a fascinating show that shows intense commitment and abounding energy and deserves a good audience. The artist herself will be in Shetland later in the month to give a talk on her work in this exhibition. It continues until the end of May.Peter Davis