Artist Rooms at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Artist Rooms, at the Edinburgh based Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, will form part of 18 exhibitions of Artist Rooms across Britain this Summer. Other sites include Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, Tate Modern and Tramway in Glasgow. All of the exhibitions are the result of remarkable generosity by British art dealer Anthony d’Offay, who partially donated 725 post-war and contemporary works from his collection to the National Galleries of Scotland and the Tate. The collection was valued at over £125 million, but d’Offay sold them for £26.5 million: the amount he spent acquiring them. Accordingly the Dean based Modern Art gallery, like all the other Artist Rooms’ hosts, makes no charge to visit the exhibition.

Artist Rooms at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art poster

Francesca Woodman’s Artist Room provides an unsettling opening to the exhibit. Black and white self portraits of the artist build a heightened sense of fragility on the artist’s part. This eventually culminates in ‘Untitled’, which illustrates the fact Woodman took her own life at a young age as clear as the accompanying notes.

The use of charcoal, graphite and erasers is a simple concept which Vija Celmins uses to stunning affect when creating detailed images. Spider’s webs are accompanied by my personal favourite of stars in the night sky, which just beat the intricately etched waves of the sea. Yes, creating images in this way is a skill many crafts folk of the past mastered, but Celmins varied material has a quality and balance which catches the eye and imagination.

Andy Warhol’s Artist Room in Edinburgh is dedicated to his stitched photographs, including a couple of shots of Grace Jones. The emphasis though is on the mundane, every day scenes such as the self describing ‘No Parking’ or ‘Trash Cans’ - all of which I found rather endearing.

Ellen Gallagher’s work was, for myself personally, the least challenging. However this smaller Artist Room holds a wall full of ‘annotated’ pages from magazines aimed at African American women, which many will find interesting just for their historical footprint.

The introduction to Damien Hirst is ‘Away From the Flock’, which stands surreally in the centre of the first room dedicated to this British artist. ‘Away From the Flock’ was the first formaldehyde piece of art I’d seen from Hirst - I was captivated by the tranquility of the image, and the vibrant life which had been captured in this most real of three dimensional images. I certainly appreciated this more than the visitor who commented “Nice Lamb, shame it didn’t end up on my plate”!. Later the gigantic display of formaldehyde fish and the skeletons opposite, provided an impromptu game of ‘can you name the fish?’.

The majority of the Artist Rooms exhibit is dedicated to Hirst, with pharmacy themed items occupying much of the space. One of Hirst’s well-known spin paintings is present though. The drugs cabinet, pharmacy sign and medical cabinets run with the pharmaceutical theme. Some of you may remember the fixtures and fittings of Hirst’s pharmacy restaurant selling for £11 million at auction some time ago. While Woodman’s photographs explored the human fragility of life Hirst’s exhibit shows the same through our reliance on medical science and technology - I thought it a point very well made.

I was awestruck by the simple beauty of Alez Katz’s small paintings, particularly the landscapes, which were genuinely beautiful and the style of paintings I’d long to own myself. Katz’s room provided simple and serene imagery, heightened by its location just after the challenge of Hirst’s Artist Room. Saying that, Hirst had the last word with his pharmaceutical product posters along the exit corridor.

This is a prized exhibition for the city of Edinburgh and a flasgship display of the collection purchased from d’Offay. The six Artist Rooms in Edinburgh offer enough variety and intrigue to ensure everyone leaves the gallery with a spring in their step. Excellent.

Artist Rooms in Edinburgh is showing until the 8th November 2009. Daily 10am-5pm.

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