Profusion of painting at 2010 Edinburgh Art Festival

This article is from 2010.

Profusion of painting at 2010 Edinburgh Art Festival

Richard Wright, Joan Mitchell and Julie Roberts head up painting programme

Rosalie Doubal asks whether the profusion of painting in this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival programme points to a resurgence of interest in the neglected medium

Painting has inspired some epic declarations over the years. In the 1960s Donald Judd declared the medium dead. In 2005 Young British Artist Damien Hirst advised people that they were more important than paintings. And this year, in light of the nomination of two painters for the Turner Prize, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones wrote, ‘The YBAs are over. Long live the OBAs!’ Hailing an end to the golden years of youth and concept, Jones referred to the recent success of more personal and mature work that stands in contrast to the sensational, market-grabbing art of the 1990s. This surge of interest is reflected in this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival programme which features a staggering array of painting exhibitions, and is typified, as Jones argues, by Richard Wright’s Turner Prize triumph last year.

Quiet, sophisticated and undeniably beautiful, Wright’s permanent wall painting at the Dean Gallery is a significant addition to the city’s art landscape. Engaging with the Doric architecture and melancholic history of this building, a repetitive floral motif disturbs the cornicing, ridges and angles of the stairwell’s upper section. Craning to appreciate its undulating patterns, one is struck by the physicality of the work and the demands that its production must have made on the artist.

Lauded for producing works of self-effacing charm, Wright’s paintings are often temporary, white-washed from gallery walls in preparation for subsequent exhibitions. Challenging the idea of a painting as a moveable and sellable object, his ephemeral practice poses questions about what the traditional values of painting actually are, and ever have been. This fine example of a wholly assured and committed practice is further complemented and endorsed by festival exhibitions of work by the American abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell and Wright’s fellow Glasgow School of Art-trained painter Julie Roberts.

The Inverleith House exhibition is something of a coup: the first solo museum presentation of work by Mitchell in the UK. ‘There has been an upsurge of interest in Mitchell’s work worldwide,’ explains New York curator and writer Philip Larratt-Smith. ‘In my opinion she’s been really undervalued and underappreciated.’

A contemporary of mid-century abstract expressionist artists Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, Mitchell left the States for France in the late 1950s. ‘It was in 1959 that pop art came into its own, pushing out abstract expressionism as the dominant aesthetic mode in the US,’ explains the curator. ‘Mitchell often joked herself that she was antiquated, that she had in one way or another been annexed as old hat.’

Oblivious to the whims of the US art trends, Mitchell’s practice has always displayed traits of quiet self-assurance. She was a poet’s painter and her bright, loosely structured canvases express a complex interplay of emotion, memory and sense of place. ‘With this spare and poetic installation we wanted to show the different phases that Mitchell went through,’ says Larratt-Smith. ‘Although there is incredible consistency in her work, she never stopped exploring the abstract expressionist tendency and continued it long after it had fallen out of fashion.’

With this new concentration on the work of Mitchell comes a re-examination of her legacy and, moving against tradition, it would seem that her influence is not painterly. Included in the exhibition’s accompanying publication is a text by American sculptor Lynda Benglis, an artist famous for making plaster and latex works in the mid-1960s. She readily acknowledges her technique as taking an abstractionist idiom, of the sort explored by Mitchell, and making it 3D.

A painter who drew strength from the work of woman American installation artists while she studied at Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s, Julie Roberts similarly cites cross-disciplinarily influences. In contrast to Mitchell, Roberts is a painter recognised for her neutrally observing and distanced style. Her canvases tell of the frailties of the human condition, and – as evinced by her interest in artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger – she is keen to lay bare society’s methods of exercising power.

A new body of work by Roberts, Child, featuring a selection of paintings from children’s institutions and homes, will be presented at The Talbot Rice Gallery. ‘With each thematic turn that my work takes, a greater story is continued,’ explains the artist. ‘I was in foster care for a while when I was a kid and in my own work I have always been working backwards towards that point. I’ve always made work about institutions, about places where the body or family breaks down.’

Adamant that these new works are optimistic, Roberts explains that the smiling faces of the children in her new paintings represent resilience. Yet this joy is not related to a jolly or the comfort of a care home. ‘We’re given this story about children, that they need to be protected, and yes, they do, but they don’t need to be wrapped in cotton wool,’ explains Roberts, suggesting that the celebratory tone in her work relates to the children’s liberated position outside of society.

Sophisticated and painstaking, Robert’s practice evinces exactly the type of ambitious and measured work currently hailed as vogue by the likes of critic Jonathan Jones, and yet you get the sense this particular artist wouldn’t care a jot. Wright, Mitchell and Roberts each have very personal, substantial and unassuming styles. Gifted with conviction, their practices reject the flippancies of the market and repeatedly question the values by which their works are judged. There is surely much to be unpacked from their Edinburgh Art Festival offerings.

Richard Wright: The Stairwell Project, Dean Gallery, Belford Road, 624 6200, free
Joan Mitchell, Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, 248 2849, until 19 Sep (not Mon), free
Julie Roberts: Child, Talbot Rice Gallery, 650 2210, until 25 Sep, free.

Joan Mitchell

  • 4 stars

The first museum exhibition in the UK by Joan Mitchell (1925–1992), one of the most important and singular American painters of the post-war period, whose influence is gaining increasing recognition today. Mitchell studied at The Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New York in the late 1940s where she became the…

Joan Mitchell

  • 4 stars

The first UK solo exhibition by the great American abstract expressionist painter Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) presented in 'the most beautiful venue of the festival'. The exhibition features key paintings on canvas and works on paper throughout a career spent in New York (where she enjoyed the support of Willem de Kooning…

Child: Julie Roberts

  • 4 stars

Julie Roberts’ painting plays upon attraction and repulsion, utilising exquisitely painted surfaces and colour schemes against an unflinching subject matter, which has previously included crime scenes and medical apparatus. This approach renders objects and environments uncanny, forcing the viewer to re-evaluate their…

Richard Wright: The Stairwell Project

An EAF Expo commission from 2009 Turner Prize winner Richard Wright, this astonishing, large-scale, black and white painting is the artist’s most complex work to date. It is situated in the dome of the west stairwell of the gallery, which provides a beautiful and challenging architectural backdrop for the painting. The…

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