19 August–23 September 2006, Collins Galery, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow
In The Four, the Lapland group of artists continue their series of idiosyncratic responses to exceptional cultural figures (Whistler in 2003, Cervantes in 2005). This time, they reflect on the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, Frances Macdonald Macnair and Herbert Macnair.
Commissioned as part of Glasgow’s Mackintosh Festival, the exhibition is germane in terms of Lapland’s own approach to working collectively and dissolving the artificial boundaries which divide fine art and design. Like The Four themselves, Lapland are a loose group of artists, designers and writers who come together intermittently to create dialogic works within specific contexts. This time, Lapland’s ambassadors are Hugh Pizey, Patrick Macklin, Tommy Grace, Kate Owens, Digger Nutter and Vicki Payton. Like many Lapland shows, its overall theme is not explicitly stated —indeed, casual observers may regard these responses or interpretations as too opaque, too tenuous. But for me, the fact that this exhibition refuses to act as a homage to The Four, but aims instead to echo the sensibility of Mackintosh and his contemporaries, is its most rewarding aspect.
Similarly, there is no evidence of an attempt to present an illustrative interpretation of The Four’s aesthetic. Rather, Lapland’s approach is more akin to method acting, in that pastiche is achieved not through the work on display but through the processes used in its creation. The most visible sign of this is in Tommy Grace and Kate Owen’s droll ‘We Don’t Do Duvets’, a printed quilt cover showing both artists crashed out on a bed following a party they had attended dressed as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald. The work is jocular and irreverent, but also knowing and subtle—the packaging design of discarded pizza box next to the artists acts as a reminder of the commercial leanings of Art Nouveau.
Owens’ ‘Just Food’ is much more than that: the cut-out cardboard food packaging acts as a disposable parody of the Japanese mons on the railings of the Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art. Meanwhile, Grace’s paintings of red wine on blotting paper, though delicate and gauzy, suggest a familiarity with the harder drinking habits of at least one of The Four. More loosely, they remind us that the hard stuff can be wrapped up to look romantic, how alcohol plays an integral role in the formation of friendships (and creative allegiances) among young artists and designers and how it’s good to see the world through rosé-tinted spectacles, if only at the weekend.
Just as the works by Grace and Owens refer to the Mackintoshes’ bohemian lifestyle, Patrick Macklin alludes to the notion of the ‘total work of art’ or Gesamtkunstwerk in his ‘Memo’ series. From an image of Grieve—the shop where anecdote has it that Margaret bought her dresses—to broader references to Aubrey Beardsley, Tarot cards and memorials, Macklin’s work is frequently deadpan yet tightly intertextual. His ‘baroque utilitarian’ lamps refer in part to Mackintosh’s paradoxical marriage of restraint and embellishment. One of these, ‘Memo 1’, is displayed alongside original Mackintosh drawings for unrealised memorials. Amid the punning and irreverence, Macklin’s work also contains an ironic cautionary note on the nature of collaborative practice (specifically that of Herbert Macnair and Frances Macdonald).
In ‘The Seven Princesses <slight>’, Digger Nutter and Vicki Payton have presented a sophisticated response to Margaret Macdonald’s long-forgotten gesso panels of the same name. The work comments on the history and status of the originals created for the music salon of the Viennese collector Fritz Waerndorfer.
Elsewhere, Hugh Pizey has painstakingly installed his series ‘Ikebana’, exquisite arrangements of ceramics, dried flowers, leaves and branches which recall the ikebana and Japonisme of the Mackintoshes’ domestic interiors. His timber handrails appear as abstracted and austere versions of Victor Horta’s overblown whiplash lines. Imposing in scale, they are nevertheless elegant—a Glaswegian response to the excesses of continental Art Nouveau. As with the rest of the exhibition, the placing and lighting of Pizey’s work are precise and utterly fastidious.
Whether incidental or not, in the delicate metal fronds of ‘Ikebana F’, Pizey also evokes Charles Jencks’ ‘Willowtwists’ from his Garden of Cosmic Speculation. Elsewhere, ‘<slight>’’s limited-edition multiples, the necklaces entitled ‘One of Four’ recall Tatham and O’Sullivan’s ‘HK’ necklace for the Venice Biennale, though here the material is silver, with each pendant bearing the name of one of The Four.
This is one of Lapland’s most successful and beautifully presented exhibitions to date, transforming the Collins Gallery from an unremarkable, institutional gallery to a spare and elegant contemporary space. With its subtle expansion of the web of allusions we read in the work of The Four, this is one of the highlights of the Mackintosh season.
Susannah Thompson lectures at Glasgow School of Art and Edinburgh College of Art