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Patti Smith taking photographs at the opening of her show at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow

This year’s Glasgow International was a modest affair—well, on the surface at least. There were gems amongst the rubble that were well worth searching for. Karla Black (at Mary Mary) and Fiona Jardine (at Transmission) managed to sparkle by presenting very reserved work, and Ross Sinclair managed to pull off a gluttonous visual feast at the CCA—many thought he couldn’t do it, others wished he wouldn’t. We will now be getting this Festival in the form of a biennale event, what we really wanted was something on this scale every second month. To pull out two exhibitions from those on offer is not too much of a difficult task, so let’s go for those that were wrapped in the greatest expectations and hopes: Beck’s Futures and The Work of Patti Smith.

Has Art always been such a difficult, unsurpassable state or a-temporal non-state to achieve? Maybe our contemporary standards are anachronistically ‘too high’, or maybe what we expect from young artists is too much—artists remain students for a very long time these days, and this is not a bad thing. To expect ‘twenty somethings’ to leap from the head of Zeus, fully formed and armed is silly. Very few manage it. We would end up with a world full of pseudo Hirsts. One is enough. So this is why this year’s Beck’s Futures is just ok, and it’s not too much of a criticism to say so.

There is not enough space here to discuss the work that all thirteen artists offered, and even that was split between two other venues: the ICA in London and Bristol’s Arnolfini. A quick but considered tour through the CCA’s offsite rooms at Glasgow’s Trongate will have to suffice. Jamie Shorlin’s intricate prints and water colour paintings of Fontana Modern Masters are a bibliophile’s wet dream—with saturated colourful drips running down the faces of the slightly garish minimalist covers. The books are presented on a graph that acts as a score board, recording the outcome of a rating system that Shorlin used to solve the problem of composition. This overly complex resolution may be a put on, but the outcome is satisfying. Daniel Sinsel’s small paintings offer a naughty little slice of an almost reactionary aesthetic, and ‘Young Man with Radish’ (2005) is almost edible in its sugary splendor.

Bedwyr Williams, 'Bard Attitude', 2005, colour photograph 
Bedwyr Williams, 'Bard Attitude', 2005, colour photograph

Sue Thompson’s work on paper rarely disappoints, but her paintings are difficult —or maybe it is just that they are not good. And even if they were ‘good’, good enough is never good enough in Art. Seb Patane’s little installation also fails to reach mediocrity. His video of alpine lovers, brothers or friends in Prada-like lederhosen is fashionable, or was five years ago. Is it about perseverance, about ‘boys together clinging’ in the face of diversity—it matters not.

I will draw a veil over Blood ‘N’ Feather’s paintings. Painting is dead, long live painting, and all that. That said, most of the work upstairs manages to hit the right mark. Richard Hughes’ ‘I’ll be having a word with someone from the council about this’ fibreglass doors, 2005 is a treat. Rachael Whiteread’s po-faced exploration of negative space (old chair legs and boxed-in bath tubs, etc) is turned inside out. The witty sculptural piece, propped up against the wall with the legend ‘No Pirates’ scrawled on it, has enough allusions, meanings, interesting formal and narrative elements to make you walk away nodding your head, thinking and smiling. Flávia Müller Medeiros’ film installation ‘Inaugurate’ also tethers thinking to smiling. President Bush’s inaugural speech is read out at a hundred miles an hour. There is no applause, no weird ceremonial standing up and sitting down after each gob full of half-baked rhetorical bullshit. What we are given is a panoramic shot of a room full of some very guilty looking hippies. Yes, blame them—their generation led to this state of affairs. A viewer with punk sensibilities will have to struggle from shouting ‘read a book hippy!’ at the dumb screen.

And speaking of punks—on to Patti Smith. The grandmother of them all has taken up camp in the Mitchell Library. Is it possible to write about one’s hero or heroine objectively, and would you want to? To try and do this makes you feel hysterical and exposed in equal measures. But this admission of guilty bias should be forgivable. There are very few heroes or visionaries, and it cannot be doubted that Patti Smith fulfills these roles, so, maybe rather than being lowly, biased fanatics, Smith’s followers are devotees. It would be irreligious and wrong for you to attack us for our faith.

Olivia Plender, 'The Road to Ruin (for yvind Fahlstrm)', 2006, and 'Vol. 5 of The Masterpiece, 2002 
Olivia Plender, 'The Road to Ruin (for Öyvind Fahlström)', 2006, and 'Vol. 5 of The Masterpiece, 2002

Like Ginsberg, Smith has an acute sense of the necessity of invoking and reveling in the sacred and the profane in a uniformly grey world. As mystic and occultist she rises up through realms of consciousness and experience, and simultaneously and violently drags these altered states down to our level. Her work, such as ‘Loves ass at rest—Loves secretion at best’, 1977, is mournful and celebratory, erotic and thanatoic. Her line moves in and out of the trap of description; a gut feeling expressing itself as a pissed-off scribble pulls the work back from straight narrative.

Drawings such as ‘Manifesto’, 2001, come to resemble the names of angels and devils, glyphs that have been passed down from adepts to lone wolves, wild visionaries, mad saints and holy fools—faces appear in the chained chaos. It is not difficult to find similarities, correspondences with Smith’s work and Twombly’s, Kitaj, Hockney even (‘Seeding’, no date) and, to a lesser extent early Pollock and de Kooning (‘Great Mississippi Sunburn’, 1968). Her work is serious, cathartic and ‘expressive’—it makes no apology for believing that Art should be all these things: ‘There is no place in my work for irony, no place’, she told me. Thank goodness for that.

Alexander Kennedy is art editor of The List