When an artist raves about another artist’s work, my eyes start to twitch; it’s like a reflex. Even before I’ve had the chance to look at the work, I’m itching to see it. In the past year, most of the art I’ve looked at has been through a screen darkly. It’s never ideal but any port in a storm…

Last Saturday, when I was idly wondering what to write about for today’s Herald Magazine, an email pinged into my phone from the painter Alison Auldjo, who also runs Edinburgh’s UNIONgallery. I’m lucky enough to live with a wee Alison Auldjo landscape of a darkling moon looming over a sweeping Highland glen. I know that when she gets excited about an artist’s work, it’s worth discovering.

The artist she wanted me – and you – to discover is Edinburgh-based Pen Reid, whose first solo show in Scotland is currently installed in the UNIONgallery.

“Pen’s imagination is second to none, which is half the battle of being an artist,” Auldjo told me in her email. “Her work is like a series of never-ending inconclusive fairy tales; sometimes with an edge. On top of that, she handles her paint beautifully.”

I hopped on to the gallery’s website and found myself tumbling, Alice in Wonderland-like, into Reid’s realm; a landscape of her own making, in which she renders fragments of the human condition in paint with the eye of a poet.

Later, I discover that Reid, who is married with two teenage children, is a published poet. Her first solo collection, InValid, which tells the story of a marriage in the wake of her husband’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, was published by Appletree Press in 2016.

In Tea Party, a blonde glassy-eyed woman in blue is presiding over several cups of tea. She is marooned in a domestic setting with spidery plants encroaching on her personal space. Closer inspection reveals this is an oil painting on a battered old hardback book with fading animal prints framing the figure and what could be mould encroaching along its edges.

Another painting, Tethered, is presented almost like a split screen. On the left, an owl is tethered to a post in a domestic interior. On the right, a woman is frozen, mid-movement, in a hallway.

I move slowly through 49 of Reid’s paintings, wishing I could stroke the surfaces. Fingerprints, scumbled paint and layers of oil or ink are laid down with a bravura blend of tenderness and confidence. There are controlled accidents of transparency and texture using varnish and thinners. Working with oil paints or inks on linen or board, she builds up surface only to break them down, with a painting often made up of many half revealed layers.

Wild animals wander into exposed interiors; their walls laid bare to the natural world. In one work, Visitor, a dappled Bambi-like deer has wandered through a door into an empty room complete with ironing board, hanging shirts and a striped sofa.

She paints on old books plundered from charity shops, imbuing them with new life. A pink deer prowls over the battered black patina of The Oxford Atlas, while two horses rear up towards the spine of an old hardback copy of Anna Sewell’s children’s classic, Black Beauty.

Children are presented as solitary, almost robotic creatures. There’s a deliciously eerie beauty to paintings like Bathtime. The setting is a clearing in an inky black forest. A house with a missing gable wall reveals a bathtub with the heads of two small children visible. As if the case in many of Reid’s paintings, the fourth wall has been forcibly removed and the scene within exposed.

Reid’s exhibition has been running since the start of the month in the gallery, but with travel restrictions and social distancing still in place, most viewers have been virtual ones. Despite this, sales have been healthy. Even in the short period of time during which I was given a video tour of Reid’s work by Auldjo, three paintings sold.

There’s clearly a buzz about Reid’s work and even within the limitations of WhatsApp video, it’s easy to see why. The show was meant to take place last May, but with the initial lockdown, it was postponed. In the ensuing months, Reid added work to an already substantial body of paintings.

Reid, who works two days a week at the Edinburgh Steiner School, has had an circuitous artistic journey, Auldjo tells me. Born in Scotland in 1968, she gained her Masters in Painting and Printmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago on an International Peace Scholarship. On graduating, she was awarded the Institute’s Ryerson Travelling Scholarship and the Austin Museum’s Juror’s Award. Auldjo first came across her work a few years ago after she started visiting the gallery. “We started talking and she told me she painted. When I saw her work I knew instantly I wanted to show it.” According to Auldjo, she had such faith in Reid’s work, she offered her a two-person show in 2018 followed by a solo show for 2020.

This faith in Reid’s ability to play a blinder by blending dissonant painterly beauty with an unsettling narrative has paid off. She draws the viewer into a world which addresses the vagaries of childhood and adulthood set against a backdrop of our complex relationship with the natural world. In paintings such as Tea Party and New Vacuum, she also addresses traditional roles that women find themselves in and their unspoken longings.

In works such as Playroom, a light-suffused children’s space is taken over by greenery while in the background a dog looks longingly towards a closed door. Animals may prowl through many of Reid’s paintings, but this is no Disney dreamscape.

One of my favourite works in the show is Domesticate; a Vuillard-style interior scene of a dining room, presided over by two faceless portraits. Four empty chairs sit around a circular table. In the middle of the table, a mini fox and her cub stand cheek by jowl. The mother seems to sniff her cub while remaining alert to ever-present danger.

If this last year has taught us anything, it is that our idea of home is not straightforward. It can be secure and nurturing, but at the same time, a place of restriction, interdependency and ever-present danger. Pen Reid’s paintings offer up chapter and verse on this contradiction with a rich visual feast.

Pen Reid - New Works, UNIONgallery, 4 Drumsheugh Place, Edinburgh, EH3 7PT, 0131 225 8779, www.uniongallery.co.uk, Monday - Friday 10.30 - 5.00pm, Saturday 10.30 - 4.30pm, Closed Sundays (call in advance for appointment). Until April 30

Critic's Choice

This Monday, Inverness' estimable Castle Gallery reopens with a special exhibition to mark twenty years since it first opened its doors in 2001.

Denise Collins is the force behind the gallery, which is housed in a grade B listed building on Castle Street, Inverness. During the two decades it has been in existence, Collins, who moved from Cambridge to Inverness at the start of the century, has resisted the urge to present tourist-friendly art.

Instead, she shows a revolving roster of artists at the top of their game. Over the last two decades, the gallery has adapted and changed, introducing new artists and organising nearly 100 solo and joint exhibitions of work by artists from Scotland and throughout the UK.

To mark the occasion, a special anniversary exhibition is being held featuring the work of 20 artists who have been invited to respond to the theme of the number ‘20’. All the artists have contributed to the success of the gallery and its respected standing in the contemporary art world.

Inverness-born Will Maclean, whose long career as an artist has been rooted in his knowledge of the Highlands, its people and their history as well as his own early associations with sailors and the sea, has created a series of 20 numbered mixed media works called 20 Variations.

There's also a new original linocut by the hugely popular Angie Lewin featuring 20 feathers and sculptural ceramics by Blandine Anderson who works with the old Gaelic system of counting in twenties.

One of the original gallery assistants, who helped to paint the walls of the gallery before it was opened to the public is Cromarty-based Gillian Jones, who is also one of the artists invited to take part in this anniversary show.

Castle Gallery 20th Anniversary Exhibition: 20 Years – 20 Artists, Castle Gallery, 43 Castle Street, Inverness, IV2 3DU, 01463 729512, www.castlegallery.co.uk, Monday – Saturday, 10am-5pm, April 26 – May 29