Last week, I sat in the RGI Kelly Gallery in Glasgow and looked on as people walked into this small space only to be thrown back on their heels by the energy exuded by Kate Downie's work. After the initial hit, they would dissect the layers of the Edinburgh-based artist's paintings and drawings, which mix elements of traditional Chinese ink paintings and their preoccupation with the natural world with deft depictions of modern China as a rapidly emerging industrial superpower.
Downie spent several days at the end of last month taking part in "live drawing sessions", first in Glasgow's China Town with Chinese artist Chi Zhang, and then in the Kelly Gallery, creating The East West Road, a large-scale depiction - drawn directly on to the wall - of this particular city-centre stretch of the M8, complete with tenements, distant hills, people, carp, and foot and tyre prints.
Alongside this large drawing are a set of monoprints (printed paintings) called ShangriLa la la. Catching the lemony artificial light of a China afflicted by pollution on a vast industrial scale, these delicate windows on an unfamiliar world pay homage to the concept of shanshui (literally "mountain water"), a style of Chinese painting depicting the natural world using a brush and ink. Downie's title, ShangriLa la la, is an ironic nod to Shangril-La, the fictional construct of an Oriental paradise invented for 1933 novel Lost Horizon.
Most artists would be content to have just one exhibition at a time, but the irrepressible Downie currently has a parallel body of work on show at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. The title here is taken from US composer Frances White's 1992 electroacoustic composition, Walk Through "Resonant Landscape", which Downie found herself listening to during an extended stay in Beijing in 2011-12.
Downie first travelled to Beijing and Shanghai three years ago after being awarded the RSA William Gillies Bequest Award. She had been drawn to explore the Chinese style of ink painting after an intensive period working on her critically acclaimed Coast Road Diaries exhibition, which she describes as "a way of exploring her own home territory before moving outwards". Once there, she worked with renowned ink painting masters.
Then, in 2011, she successfully applied for a position on the Red Gate International Residency programme in Beijing, which allowed her to make a return visit to an artist's village outside the city. Working with a young dynamic curator called Iona Whittaker, she created a solo exhibition and drawing installation called The Concrete Hour. Downie returned to Beijing in April this year to complete the cycle of work started back in 2011 by having her series of four large shanshui ink paintings made into traditional-style scrolls by a master scroll maker.
"It was quite an undertaking," she says. "I wasn't sure it was going to work but when you don't know the rules you often create something by mistake which turns out to be what you wanted all along." These huge scrolls currently have pride of place on a newly painted scarlet wall in the Royal Scottish Academy on The Mound. If you check out the RSA's Facebook page, you can even see the magical moment when they were unfurled.
Alongside the scroll paintings are oil paintings, a medium to which Downie said she returned with renewed vigour after her voyage of discovery to the east. Downie's art is sure, deft and fearless. She says that her work "attempts to transform ordinary places into poetic acts of memory". Her gift is to make you feel that it is your memory too, albeit imagined.