It was while working on a show of Scottish art with her colleagues at the City Art Centre a few years ago that curator Maeve Toal noticed that there were not a lot of books on abstract art in Scotland. “I really struggled to find anything,” she tells me by phone, surrounded by neatly wrapped packages of artwork ready to be mounted on the walls of the City Art Centre in a new exhibition devoted to contemporary minimalist art.

Most of her research for that exhibtion was done online, she says, gradually realizing that the work she was drawn to was the more minimal end of abstraction, the end inhabited by the likes of Callum Innes, Kenneth Dingwall and Sara Brennan. “I got so frustated with everything not being up to date and only ever featuring a few artists that I thought we should do an exhibition devoted to Scottish abstract art alone.” And so Beneath the Surface came into being.

Toal, faced with a wide array of non-representational work in Scotland, decided to set herself some parameters; a minimal aesthetic, and work that was “pared right back”. Toal mingled arts and crafts – “for me the divide between the two things doesn’t really exist” – to find work which had a commonality, “a real understanding of medium and materials and a consistent way of working...If you look closely at the artists’ work in this show, the processes that they’ve applied are ones they’ve gone back to again and again over the years.”

One of the first artists Toal contacted was Dingwall, who, it turned out, was already researching abstract art and its history in Scotland for a book he was planning to write. “A brilliant coincidence,” says Toal, “I went away thinking this couldn’t be better. We had a major discussion about the whole thing, about how well it is received in Scotland. There are outlets that artists can show in, but it’s still fair to say that a lot of them do much better abroad.”

Dingwall told Toal that it used to be the case that an artist might walk into one of the commercial galleries in the capital and be told, as William Johnstone was in 1935 by the then-director of the Scottish Gallery, “I fear that in this part of the world you can look to no future in your present line...”

And minimal art still doesn’t get the showing that other aspects of Scottish art do, says Toal, despite a lot of local galleries being very supportive.

Perhaps it’s for this reason, in part, that all the artists taking part in the CAC show are creating new work for it, bar Callum Innes. It is work that needs to be looked at, intensively perhaps, because its power lies in the texture and thickness of a particular thread in a tapestry, say, rather than any image which might otherwise have been there. It lies in the concentration of colour in a line rather that the capturing of a face or a personality, a landscape or a structure. Function is defunct, form is all.

Dingwall, in his fascinating essay in the catalogue that will accompany the exhibition, puts the emergence of abstraction in Scotland down to the period of “extraordinary change” at the turn of the 20th century, “when developments such as the x-ray, the electron, radioactivity, relativity, psychology, quantum theory, aviation, suffrage and social rights helped redefine human understanding.” Artists, musicians, writers, responded in a long drive for modernism and eventually, abstraction, which in Scotland in the 1930s was fostered by Johnstone, William Gillies and Hugh Crawford, encouraging a generation which included the likes of Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Eduardo Paolozzi. But it was in leaving Scotland that their abstraction could take flight, Dingwall points out, and it is still largely the case.

Here, then, is the contemporary crop of minimal abstract artists, whose work ranges from the weaving of Sara Brennan, to the contained boxes – in glass and ceramic – of Andrea Walsh; from the kiln-formed glass of Karlyn Sutherland to the basswood toothed sculpture of Dingwall. “I started unpacking it all yesterday,” says Toal, “I had a layout in my mind but it’ll change as I unpack. You get sent images beforehand, but when you open things up, the colours are so zingy! It’s like a kid opening a gift! This is the most exiting part.”

These works, many built up in layers with painstaking process, may prove a challenge visually for a few visitors, Toal thinks. “They are so spare, so perhaps people will think they’re easy to do or mistake simplicity of appearance with something being simple. But it would be lovely if there was an emotional reaction,” she smiles. “There’s a lovely, quiet quality to many of these works, so I’m hoping people will take some time to look and appreciate the skill beyond their instant reaction.”

Beneath the Surface, City Art Centre, 2 Market Street, Edinburgh, 0131 529 3993 Until Mar 2020, Daily 10am - 5pm


Don't Miss


Fiona Dean's freewheeling conceptual taxidermy – and yes, that is a thing – goes on show this month at the Fine Art Society in Edinburgh, juxtaposed with some wild bird prints from design studio Timorous Beasties. Ranging from a large cock pheasant perched on top of a birdcage to a short-eared owl escaping from its case, this is taxidermy with a strong dose of imagination, a treading of the line between science and art, a connecting of the natural world with the livings rooms and hallways in which it may end up.

Fiona Dean, Fine Art Society, 6 Dundas Street, Edinburgh, 0131 557 4050, 15 Nov - 23 Dec, Mon - Fri, 10am - 6pm; Sat 11am - 2pm 


Critic's Choice


Small is beautiful, especially when it comes to Christmas markets, so if you should, by any chance feel that your local city-centre market - not to mention any names - has now swelled to such behemoth size, despite selling only the same few items of festive tat, that the very idea of Christmas has been eaten alive like so very many stale mince pies in a rat-infested dumpster, then get ye to Dundee, where the V&A is hosting its first Design Market of unique wares from Scottish designers, artists and craftspeople this weekend.


Tea Green are the event organizers, set up by Fife jeweller Joanne MacFadyen, picking 59 of the best independent designers in Scotland for the two day market. Exhibitors include Glasgow steam-bent wood furniture company, HAME, and excellent Orkney textile and weaving design studio, Hilary Grant, who make graphical, block-design scarves and blankets. There are finely-carved wooden spoons from Louise Forbes and jewellery made with precious metals and linoleum – yes, lino – by Roslyn Leitch. Up and coming designers include Glasgow-based Ciarra Neufeldt, whose brightly coloured ceramics, informed by the Japanese Nerikomi pottery technique, layer blocks of differently coloured clay, forming the decorative surface of the piece. In a break with tradition, Neufeldt colours her clay in bright pastels, creating eclectic and joyful pots, mugs and plates. Edinburgh glass artist Meg McGregor is similarly fascinated by colour, making jugs and scent bottles in bright shades, alongside her stunning marbled Highlandscape candlesticks and baubles that will doubtless, if you manage to get your hands on one, lay claim to being the loveliest bauble on your tree. 


Festive Design Market, V&A Dundee, 1 Riverside Esplanade, Dundee, Today, Sat 23 and Sun 24 Dec, Daily 10-5 pm