Rock, Paper, Scissors

City Art Centre exhibition – Paper Trail: Drawings, Watercolours, Prints

Paper’s important role in visual art is often overlooked in favour of what is on the paper, rather than the material itself. Yet the City Art Centre’s “Paper Trail” exhibitionseeks to put this right, emphasising paper’s endless potential and recognising that paper is as much a part of the artwork as paint or charcoal. Drawing on the City Art Centre’s permanent collection of historic and contemporary Scottish art, the exhibition reconsiders the ways that artists can make use ofthe humble sheet of paper, showcasing watercolours and drawings, as well as a variety of printing techniques, including lithographs, woodcuts and screenprints.

The works on show vary widely in style, subject and technique, but even the same method can yield very different results. William Gordon Burn-Murdoch’s watercolour Hansoms at night–Mount Street, London(c.1910), for instance,is a slice of early twentieth century Londonat night, showing a string of cabs lining a street lit by smog-blurred streetlamps. In contrast, James Cadenhead’s Moorland(c.1895), also a watercolour,shows an Aberdeenshire landscape in hazy autumnal colours, a man and his dog just appearing over the crest of a hill (though this piece does bendthe rules slightly by being on parchment, not paper).

Older works like these sit easily alongside pieces like Jane Hyslop’s iconic Mappa Midlothian(1989), recognisable from its use in promotional material for the exhibition. The work is a large and striking linocut print, showing the intricate details of Midlothian life in black and white, aside from the red lifeblood of the river. It is an imaginative landscape thatfeels like life in motion,full of the ideas and creations of the people who live there.

The choice to use paper links works as different asJames Watterston Herald’s In an Orchard (1891), which portrays a subtle cherry blossom scene, withWork in Progress II (c.2003) by Hazel Restall, which uses a kind of printmaking called polymer photogravure to depict the construction of the Scottish Parliament. Restall’sphotographically detailed work recalls the industry of the nineteenth century as well asthe meticulous lines of architectural cross sections, and is in stark contrast to the delicacy of something likeIn an Orchard.Yet seeing these works in the same exhibition, connected by such an adaptable material, flags up freshaspectsinboth.

Other uses of paper include Victoria Crowe’s etching and screenprintLarge Tree Group, Winter (2014), whichshows the small figure of shepherd Jenny Armstrong moving through a bleak, wind-battered landscape, while Ian James Bruce Short’s Harbour Houses (1977), created using gouache paint and newspaper cuttings, depicts a coastline as if seen through a layer of salt and fog.Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Blue and Brown Poems (1968), a set of 12 lithographs on paper, offers a strikingly visual use of words in which specific layouts and typographies add extra dimensions and layers of interpretation to the words themselves.

Paper can also be a starting point, a space for planning, and there are several preparatory studies showing works in progress. The watercolour and chalk sketchof theSt Clair Memorial Window, Cartoon for a stained glass window, Rosslyn Chapel (1950) by William Wilsonacts as a precursor to the actual window, and Ken Currie’s preparatory study in charcoal of Peace: Build the Future (c.1983), showing a precisely composed scene of peopleworking in unison, was later realised in an acrylic painting.

The multitude of ways to make art on paper has a lot to do with adding texture and depth to a blank sheet. The exhibition successfully exploresboth the tactile, malleable nature of paper and the variety oftechniques that can be used with it, foregrounding the creativity of the Scottish artistswho make paper a central part of their work.

Paper Trail is free and open until 21 May 2017.

Image Credit: Kevin Maclean