A couple of thousand years ago, a dog walked across a tile on the floor of a Roman fortress in Perthshire. This tile was not yet dry and the dog left a paw print in the wet clay. From it, we can tell that it was about the size of a fox, that it was ambling rather than running and probably belonged to somebody in the fortress. The print is perfect, emblematic of every cartoon dog from Snowy to Scooby-Doo, ancient and yet instantly modern.
A photograph of it appears in Lorna Macintyre’s beautiful new show at Dundee Contemporary Arts. The image is large and nebulous, seeming to record the action of light and the slow materialising of the tile out of the shadowy past. It also speaks to the curious double nature of this object. The paw has gone deep into the clay, so that it looks a bit like a sculptural relief; yet the tile also captures the dog’s passing movements. It is both a solid form and a kind of snapshot.
The same might be said of the artist’s own work. Macintyre was born in Glasgow in 1977, and still lives and works in the city. She has always been fascinated by the primitive magic of photography: the transformation of the world through light into images. And her art seems to shift ceaselessly between two and three dimensions. So there are photographs here that could pass as sculptures – images printed on silk banners, suspended in glass boxes, appearing like shadows thrown over objects – and there are sculptures that make their way back into photographs.
A pair of captivating blue cyanotypes seem to show ribbons of light fluttering through empty air. In fact the ribbons are real, and also on display here, silky in their glass box. Cyanotype, invented by Sir John Herschel in 1842, is photography without a camera. Objects are placed on paper coated with a solution of iron salts, and the sun does the rest. Macintyre’s images are semi-abstract, but in their hint of summer flowers speak back to the pioneering cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, a subtle homage to that great Victorian photographer.
The deep blue of the iron tinges other works in this show. Swaths of silk suspended from frames, damp and dyed a marine indigo, ripple like the waters of the Tay outside the gallery. Crystals grown from the original solution form around the base of old Govancroft pottery, particularly the Lunar cups made in Glasgow in the decade of Macintyre’s birth. A film shows her baby daughter learning to use her infant hands, tiny fist clasping and unclasping. And then the result – a ball of clay, small as that fist – which bears the imprint of her moulding grasp, and traces of that same blue.
Macintyre rejoices in such connections, and the way they compress time. Only consider that the tile upon which the dog left his mark was made by Roman hands from the clay of the very place where it would later be found by archaeologists – the banks of the Tay, not far from Dundee.
The silk thrown over an empty frame makes a window. An empty frame, through which may be seen a low table of local granite bearing those cups, suggests a Japanese screen. Inside and outside are constantly evoked in her art. And a sense of domestic intimacy – of things made, and used, in the home – is played out against oceanic time.
Most subtle, and striking, is the relationship between a silk-screen photograph of some humble hyacinths given to the artist in the 21st century and the curlicues carved by Celts in sandstone thousands of years ago. And somewhere in between is the astonishing image of a standing stone on the island of Arran. Photographed by Macintyre, it seems to represent a sashaying female figure, as well as a sheaf of flowers, and at the same time a great hand, raised as if in greeting. Which speaks directly to the immense bronze hand from the Capitoline Museum in Rome, now reduced to a modest object, no bigger than a real human hand, as it seems in Macintyre’s silver gelatin print. This is how her mind works, through metaphor, deep thought and delicate transformation: so much like that of a poet. She sees the world in a grain of sand.
The American-born, Glasgow-based artist Margaret Salmon was the first winner of the Max Mara prize in 2005. Her slow, immersive films are often described as portraits in time – women passing through the long hours of the day at home, or at work, intensely observed on 16mm film with a generous and unhurried grace. At Dundee she has an installation called Hole, aptly entered through a hole in the wall.
A black-and-white film shows three different couples – straight, gay, non-binary – in the act of sex. What is so striking is the similarity of each sequence in terms of motion and emotion; as if the film was itself hugging these three couples together. A faltering voiceover explaining the behaviour of the diaphragm feels like an abrupt distraction.
But the installation, warmed by electric heaters, also includes a pair of television monitors, one above the other, in which two women caress each other, forming shapes that are repeated, variously, by miming hands, a diaphragm-like ring, written words and the art deco figures in a stained glass window. Somehow, seamlessly, without any obvious transition, the two films change screen: like human bodies, merging.
Star ratings (out of 5)
Lorna Macintyre: Pieces of You are Here ★★★★
Margaret Salmon: Hole ★★★
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