Niki de Saint Phalle: The Eric and Jean Cass Gift
Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow
Until March 2014
The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
Until January 13
Reviewed by Teddy Jamieson
I think it's fair to say that the humour on display in Harland Miller's first Scottish exhibition is of the blacker kind. The title of one of the fictional book covers that are the subject of all his paintings reads: "Incurable Romantic Seeks Dirty Filthy Whore". Charming. Downstairs in the Ingleby Gallery, another Miller canvas features a black book cover with a pair of disembodied arms, painted a ghostly white, arranged under the title: "Heroin, It's What Your Right Arm's For". One of the ghostly hands holds a needle to the other arm. The book proclaims to be a Penguin Original, priced 4/6.
Miller, an artist who also writes, is a purveyor of what Tom Wolfe once described, disparagingly, as the painted word. However, the thing is, as the exhibition Overcoming Optimism makes clear, he's very good at it.
Partly this is down to his painterliness. The humour in his paintings is throwaway, the art isn't. The canvases upstairs at the Ingleby in particular are lovely imaginings of fictional Penguin covers, satisfying in their verity, graphic chutzpah and pure mark-making.
Paint slops and spills over the edges of the often severe design grids Miller has copied from old Penguin paperbacks. Other paintings show the book's spines creased and torn. The books in these paintings have been lived with. The images are blissfully blurred.
Is this what Miller is suggesting? That the postwar optimism and belief in knowledge that saw Sir Allen Lane launch the Penguin imprint in 1935 is now irredeemably shop-soiled? That's certainly one reading of these paintings and yet Miller is also clearly enamoured with Penguin paperbacks as objects in themselves. There is love here too.
Love and its opposites are at the heart of a new exhibition of Niki de Saint-Phalle's art at GoMA in Glasgow, courtesy of donations to the city from benefactors Eric and Jean Cass. However, looking around the resulting exhibition does raise a question. Do you need to know the artist's story to truly know the art? I think in this case it might help.
De Saint-Phalle's back story is a grand, glittering thing with a dark heart. Born Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint-Phalle into a French banking family in 1930, she was brought up in New York where she was expelled from school (for painting fig leaves on statues a Freudian red), eloped at the age of 18, became a front page model and then suffered a nervous breakdown. And all along she was carrying the knowledge that her French banker father, a strict Catholic, had sexually abused her when she was 11.
How do you deal with that? Saint-Phalle's answer was to shoot her own paintings. For a couple of years, in the early 1960s, she would insert packets of coloured paint between layers of white plaster on canvas and then shoot them. In 1962 she even built an altar, covered it in found artefacts such as crucifixes, a skull, a bat and a dead cat, attached paint canisters to it and then took aim.
There's film of the shooting on show near the resulting paint-splattered work Altar To A Dead Cat in GoMA. Filmed by documentary film-maker Peter Whitehead, it shows Saint-Phalle, a thin skelf of a woman in a black trouser suit and ruffled white cuffs, pulling the trigger and revelling in the catharsis of violence. "In 1961 I shot at daddy, all men, small men, large men, important men, fat men, my brother, society, the Church, the convent, the school, my family, my mother, all men, daddy, myself, men," she once said. "I shot for the sake of the magical moment. It was a moment of scorpion-like truth. White purity." A violent exorcism you could say.
It seems clear looking at her later work here that the exorcism worked. Here is the Saint-Phalle we are more familiar with: the buxom women, the dragons and serpents that are all curve and colour and symbol, all of them pregnant with life and energy. In truth, seen on their own they can look toyshop-shiny, almost tinselly. It's only when you see them in conjunction with Altar To A Dead Cat that their life force makes sense. You need the back story to understand the gift-store gaudiness.
For all that mortality and danger figure in her later work, you don't get any sense of fear or horror in it. Even when she made a devil, he was more spectacle than spectre. Partly that is as a result of her working in the sheen of painted polyester, a material that shines with the colour she applied. Partly it's because her devil – all hoof and horn and breast and male genital – looks in truth a little bovine. Her 1988 sculpture La Force sees one of her buxom women sitting blithely on a dragon's tail. There's no fear in this figure. She's gone beyond that. You could say the same of Saint-Phalle.
Back in Edinburgh there's more horror on show at the Fruitmarket. In a compelling three-screen video work by Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt), the topography of the Galapagos islands is turned into a fright flick. Crystals spawn and grow to a horror movie soundtrack. Smoke blossoms and billows from active volcanoes that, close up, reveal a rim that's a cracked, greasy yellow, like a topped boiled egg.
Worlds In The Making is the highlight of this rather mixed group show that draws on work from 12 artists who undertook residencies on the islands. Some of them (including Jeremy Deller) concentrated on the locals, some on the tourists, some on the animals. The latter produced the most eye-catching stuff here, as seen in the drawings of Alexis Deacon and the curatorial nature of Alison Turnbull's work. Turnbull's Specimens reduces the flora and fauna to gorgeous scientific charts, mindful of the prettiness of order and the poetry of naming.
In Moths From The Hebrides In The Collection At Canna House, the taxonomy of moth names – ingrailed clay, nut-tree tussock, dark marbled carpet and transparent burnet – are assigned lozenges of colour. Here is the painted word again, writ small but glowingly beautiful.