I’ve always been rather ambivalent about art awards and competitions. It’s probably because I’ve never won anything.
But then art is a personal thing, isn’t it? What I might think is absolutely brilliant and deserving of praise might be a load of absolute rubbish to someone else. It’s about personal opinions based on criteria – and those criteria are not absolute or objective in the way that running a race might be. That’s why the annual Turner Prize is not necessarily about good art but art that excites a small elite group and leaves the rest of us bored.
The nearest we ever get to prizes for art in Shetland is found during the Open Exhibition held each year at the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale Mill (next one in September).
Last year there were five winners under the categories of Best Painting, Best Print, Best Photograph, Best Craft and Best Newcomer. In an imaginative sense of programming all five have been given a group show currently running at the Bonhoga. Under those previous categories we have work by June Redman, Mandy Tait, Ivan Hawick, Jenny Deschenes and Helen Witham.
Starting with the most traditional, June Redman produces some lovely works on paper, nominally pastels but there’s almost a painterly look about them, especially in the larger images. Last of the Sun shows the effects of dying sunlight over the sea while Change in the weather is more a dynamic impression of those elements.
Broad strokes suggest movement pretty much in the same way that Turner did. This gives these basically static landscapes a sense of flow. Her pastels down on the stairs suggest cold, wintery days in their choice of colour. It’s also good to see June working on a large scale.
If we’re looking for the traditional arts and crafts, tatting and embroidery are certainly there but with a difference. Jenny Deschenes focuses on imagery in her decorated cushion covers. She likens the use of collected ephemera, pearl buttons, vintage silk piping and other fabric pieces to that of a journey in their existence, a narrative which reflects experience and ideas of past, present and future.
Screenprinting such as that in Boat and Profile delineate the images, sometimes highlighted with buttons and embroidery, which at its best is subtle and evocative. But not Bunny, which is just twee.
Bringing together pieces to form a whole is also significant in the prints by Mandy Tait. Close up they mean little; marks on paper, an optician’s sight test, a jumble of blurred shapes. ICD is a speckled colour lithograph like enlarged bits of old colour supplements cut into circles. Stand back and an image appears, fragmented but with clear facial features.
ICme is an excellent coloured woodcut with myriad cuts and gouges, close up resembling corrugations, even tree bark. This becomes a large self-portrait from halfway down the gallery space. A smaller woodcut in black, white and grey, if anything, works better, the fragmentation creating a rather disturbing face. Such “pattern” images work better I think than the smaller lithographs. An etching, ICu III is a fine image but cries out for more experimentation of colours which would give it a different emotional effect.
Colour or even absence of colour is at its strongest in the photography of Ivan Hawick. There are some exemplary prints here which say something not just about the quality of camera but also the quality of image printing. And he certainly has an eye not only for details but also for overall composition. Sumburgh Head is a perfect example with the sharp diagonals picking out the white spray at the heart of the image, while above, the buildings break up the lines of cloud and cliff.
I also liked the image from Sandness above it with its shiny wet seaweed and rocks balancing the almost painterly salmon pink sky. On these and similar coastal photos the long exposure has left the sea smoky and ethereal. Of the other evening images the one called Dusk is very calming (together with the gentle ambient music from above) in which moon and stars are reflected in the deep blue water.
There’s a lovely image called Huxter Burn that has a pleasing variety of textures and subtle colours in its composition. Cott has an outstanding collection of shapes both natural and man-made within a winter landscape. It suggests loneliness, sadness, dereliction and loss in its tight, well-ordered image.
It’s always good to see up and coming artists and young Helen Witham who won the newcomer award is certainly going to be a name to watch out for. Now at her first year at art college, Helen has presented a number of pieces radically different from last year’s open. Her paper fern wall hanging has been carefully cut and creates constantly moving patterns on the white wall. Two of her photographs show just some of its possibilities.
More mixed media works on the stairwell also feature cut paper with lovely filigree curlicues. Graphics is a strong point which will no doubt aid Helen in her choice of textile design next session. Earth Flower, Seeds of Change and Birds in Flight shows her working through linked ideas featuring, somewhat topically, windmills.
It’s interesting that although the five artists don’t share anything at all in common, other than being prize-winners, the show doesn’t have a completely bitty feel to it. Imaginative hanging has identified relationships between colours or shapes and makes for an exhibition well worth a visit.
You’ll also have the opportunity to catch a mini-exhibition on the stairs resulting from collaboration between children at Dunrossness, Cunningsburgh and Lunnasting schools, art teacher Fiona Burr and artist Niela Nell Kalran in response to Alison Willoughby’s exhibition of skirts earlier in the year, entitled T-Skirts. It’s full of colour and imagination.