17 July 2016
When Alison Auldjo began converting a former charity shop into the second incarnation of the Union Gallery, removing a lowered ceiling and turning a pokey back storage room into a well-lit stairwell, she knew exactly the picture she wanted in the space. It was Phil Braham’s Ophelia Bathing, a painting she had seen in the Scottish Gallery a few years ago, when it was ‘best in show’ but went unsold. “I went to see him to tell him about the new place, ‘Phil, come and see the space, you will see exactly what I mean about your painting’,” she said. The work uses a backdrop from the Water of Leith; Ophelia is bathing, not drowning, It is unobtrusively thought-provoking: the bather’s shoulders above smooth water, calmly swimming a ladylike breast-stroke, in a moment of reflection, before Hamlet stirs things up.
Auldjo put a second considerable picture by Braham in the window of her gallery for its reopening a few weeks back. The work, 21st Century Sublime, shows rolling hills around a Scottish valley cloaked in misty skies, the kind of view you’d find coming down from a Munro, but Graham’s last touch was to put a fighter jet flicking across it. “We have all seen scenes like that in the Highlands. It’s eery, it’s quite bleak, but it’s beautiful,” said Auldjo. My first ill-thought guess is Glencoe; but it’s more the gentler landscape of Aviemore, where two low-flying planes roared past on a recent walk, their sound gathering behind them.
When Auldjo closed the Union Gallery in Broughton Street, after seven years on a wonderfully prominent corner of one of Edinburgh’s couthiest streets, I had wondered if she would really be back. There are too many stories of galleries that seem to wilt under pressure: in Edinburgh the old Doggerfisher, the recently downsized Ingleby Gallery, in London the impact of skyrocketing real estate. I’ve heard old dealers lately saying traditional Scottish art markets are dead, and artists facing hard times, though that is not exactly new.
In Drumsheugh Place, however, the new Union Gallery is bolder, and much bigger, with about three times the exhibition space. It sits on a West End street near the top of the Dean Bridge; it will never get the passing trade of Broughton Street, but the block has gone upscale in recent years, with upmarket cafes moving in. I was immediately taken with Elaine Spiers’ work, also given pride of place on the top floor.
It’s the choices of artists that will carry the Union. Auldjo has a roving eye and spends a good deal of time in artists’s studios; she is keenly aware of how much they have put into work in terms of training and life commitment. The artists feel newer, and less laden with pretension, and price, than some of the Dundas Street venues. The new gallery gives the chance to show them well.
The opening show, ReUnion, running until 31st July, is a group show of many of the artists that she has shown. (Missing for now is Audrey Grant, one of the notable successes to emerge from Auldjo’s stable.) From 14 August, she will show the work of Jenny Mathews; in September, a mixed show, themed on Night at the Opera, will set a pattern for the two-storey space of mixing group and solo shows. The long view of Mathews’ work in ReUnion immediately speaks to a Scottish viewer of Elizabeth Blackadder. But then you notice the dark cutting lines in the purple petals.
“She’s sensational,” Auldjo said. “Because I see Jenny’s work all the time, and we all know Blackadder’s work, all I see is the differences. She is a watercolour afficionado, she’s an absolute expert, she’s been doing it 30 years. She never rests on her laurels, she’s always trying to renew her work.”
An artist Auldjo proudly introduces in the ReUnion show is Keith Epps. The picture looks at first like a bit of Orientalist pastiche: a mounted warrior chieftain of Asia lording it over his kill, a bloody red mess stuck full of arrows; a kind of Landseer of the steppes. “That’s Genghis Khan who has just killed Santa Claus,” Auldjo says. “It’s quite fantastic.”
The picture was based on a sketch Epps did in 1979, and took him two years. He graduated in the 1970s, tried to be an artist, and then in a familiar story found another career, as a furniture restorer; varnishing and finishes and meticulous eye for detail are a big thing in his work The Union Gallery seems is particularly open to late-career or late-developing artists in its roster. Epps’ work is sardonically dark; the gambolling hound in one piece references the very first Russian space dog Laika, who died from overheating,
In the downstairs space, though the lighting needs a little trimming, are more of Auldjo’s line-up. Norrie Harman, brother and collaborator of the wonderful Kevin Harman, with his abstract of an old neglected laundrette in Niddrie; Samantha Boyes weird and witty piece mixing sculpture and taxidermy. I would single out Ian Rawnsley’s Campsie Winter as a find, by this self-taught artist in his 50s; and a bargain piece at the price. There were Barbara Franc’s toadstools out of recycled decorative tins, Marc Nicholas Edwards glowing little fish, and in the window Jessica Irena Smith’s beetle and bee bowls out of kiln-formed glass, which left me enchanted, but a little poorer.
Read the original review at the Arts Press website