The Society of Scottish Artists (SSA) launched their intriguingly titled ‘Exquisite Corpse’ exhibition in St Andrews Museum at the weekend. This is the first time that the SSA have exhibited in St Andrews and this exhibition features 22 artists selected from 300 proposals submitted through an open call to SSA Members.
Gayle Nelson of Cupar Arts is also the current President of the Society of Scottish Artists (SSA). Here, she speaks with SSA Vice President, Paul Charlton and SSA Member of Council, Katharine Aarrestad, both of whom curated the exhibition.
How did you come up with the title of the exhibition (‘Exquisite Corpse’)?
PC: The idea for the title for the show came from number of discussions between Katherine Aarrestad and myself. We wanted to create a ‘theme’ that wasn’t too limited or prescriptive, trying to encourage as broad a range of submissions as possible. We decided to write a piece of text for members of the SSA to respond to. We used the ‘cut up’ method, a Surrealist idea, taking unconnected sentences and choosing them at random to create a new meaning. We looked up quotes of famous people from history, chose ones we liked then literally cut them up and rearranged them to create a kind of poem.
KA: Aha.. Well, this is a chicken or the egg type question- we came up with the egg first! That is to say we decided to create a brief that was a piece of art in itself ( well we tried). We hopedthe text was curious, a bit dark and amusing yet open and reflexive enough to be interpreted freely- we created the text using William S. Burroughs/ David Bowie’s cut-up technique, they in turn were inspired by writers/ artists of the interwar years hence the title.
Did you receive many submissions for this project and was it difficult to make the final selections?
PC: We received nearly 300 submissions from around 100 artists. It was quite tricky to narrow the selection down, the standard of submissions was very high, but the gallery space is quite small so we had to be quite strict. We chose work that we felt fitted the theme, was interesting/challenging and covered a wide range of subjects and media. Some of the work has more oblique connections to the theme which, I think, adds to the diversity and interest of the show.
KA: We received many more submissions than we had anticipated- we had worried that we may have ‘weirded out’ many artists. But we need not have been concerned, the SSA members rose to our challenge. It is always difficult to make the final selection for any exhibition. The selectors realise how hard artists have worked and how they have often put their, ‘heart and soul’ into their piece so don’t make their decisions lightly. We chose work which we thought responded most interestingly to the initial proposal and that we could envisage in an exhibition as a whole.
Tell us a little about some of the work we can see, including your own.
PC: One of the pieces in the show, by Cate Newton, called ‘Hiroshima Kimono’, is a larger than life sized fabric sculpture of a kimono with an accompanying artist book. Parts of the pattern on the piece have been burnt out, to reference the fact that the atomic blast vaporised the dark parts of pattern but not the light parts of peoples clothing caught in the blast. Another piece by Robert Powell, ‘Saints In Spandex’, is an installation piece made to fit inside one of the glass cabinets at the museum. It consists of a collection of wooden and printed objects, which represent the funerary commemorants and the reliquaries of a set of fictional superheroes, inspired by the Golden & Silver age of superhero comics! Many types of funerary sculpture are referenced but, in particular, 17th and 18th century Scottish graves lend a local flavour and also the magnificent Saint Andrew’s Sarcophagus was a special inspiration. My own piece, is a sculptural piece called ‘Cat & Mouse’. It is a small, hollow form with inlayed etched plates. It was inspired by Japanese ‘Inro’, which are little containers that were carried to store small objects and precious things, as traditional garments lacked pockets. There are two images on my piece, an evil eyed cat on one side and a dead mouse on the other. This represents the story of the cat and mouse, inside there is a dried kidney bean, which represents the part that my cat always leaves when she catches a mouse!
KA: We have tried to pick artists from as wide a spectrum of contemporary practise as possible: installations, sculptures, drawings, paintings, films, prints and work somewhere in between. Martin Fowler’s powerful pen and ink drawings completed whilst he was in residency at the Anatomy & Clinical Skills department of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Newcastle incise the surface of the paper as cleanly and skilfully as a surgeon’s scalpel. Robert Powell promises us, ‘Saints in Spandex’ conjuring a combination of superhero martyrs inspired by relics and Marvel comics. Sharon Quigley and Robert Baldock bring to us a wonderfully, heartwarming film and soundtrack of mythic beings with their very own superpowers from the imaginings of year 3 pupils from Dunbar primary school. We are also delighted to present a loomingly intricate sculptural skeleton by invited artist, Lea Cummings. My own work entitled, ‘thread of life; a lost golden age’ is reverse painted on glass. It considers the world possibly pre or post mankind: part apocalyptic, part primordial, part Darwinian and part sci- fi.
This is the first time that the Society of Scottish Artists has exhibited in St Andrews. Do you feel that it’s important that the Society exhibits outside of Edinburgh?
PC: Yes, it is important for the SSA to have a presence outside of Edinburgh and the annual show at the RSA. It gives members from outside the city a chance to be more engaged, and to showcase to a wider audience the work of our members. As the membership is made up from artists from all over Scotland, and internationally too, it’s very important to have as wide a spread of SSA shows as possible.
KA: Yes of course. The SSA ideally would show worldwide, certainly Scotland-wide. We have recently shown in An Talla Solais in Ullapool, and in Minneapolis and Slovakia.
Do you enjoy working on projects for the SSA, and what experiences have you found most valuable in relation to this exhibition?
PC: Yes, it’s been interesting to see the exhibition from an initial idea, through to the finished show, hung in the St. Andrews Museum. It’s also been a great way to get to connect with the artist involved in the show, some of whom I knew in person (or knew their work), some of whom I had not encountered before. The thing that surprised me the most with this show, was how much work was involved! Katherine and I have been working on this for some months now.
KA (speaking before the exhibition was installed): We have not yet hung the show, nor had the preview night and I expect both of these parts of the experience – where we create the show as an entity, creating a dialogue between the works and their gallery environment plus meeting the artists on the opening night – will be most enjoyable alongside the many jokes we’ve shared along the way involving, ‘Carry On Screaming’, the board game, ‘Operation’ and plagues of Dr Who-like ‘living bodies of caterpillars sailing majestically’. Who says art must always be deadly serious?!
For a full list of exhibiting artists and more information on the SSA, visit www.s-s-a.org
‘A Bouquet of Wild Poison’, Kirsty Lorenz
‘Saints In Spandex’, Robert Powell