EXHIBITIONS / Jam on the southbound carriageway: Fifty Scots painters take Edinburgh to Hackney

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The Independent Culture
SCOTTISH art critics are always claiming that their native painting has definite characteristics, but every time I see a show of Scottish art their concepts seem not to fit the pictures, or to fit some and not others. 'Freshness', 'Northern symbolism', 'sympathy with the people', 'directness', and so on: these are not specifically the possession of Scottish art, surely?

The latest person to examine Scottishness is Bill Hare, a curator at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh. I like his Contemporary Painting in Scotland (Craftsman House, pounds 28), which consists of 48 separate essays, clear and sympathetic accounts of artists who are really quite disparate. I suppose he cast the book in such a form because they don't have much in common. My impression is that the new Scottish art is more various than ever.

Pretty well all the artists in Hare's book, plus a few more, are in a big show at Flowers East. I recommend this exhibition for its wide scope, liveliness and revelation of differing personalities. Nothing similar is planned for the Edinburgh Festival. Indeed the Festival this year seems to have come to Hackney. At Flowers there are artists who live, work and exhibit in Scotland and are little known in London.

But are the Scottish Scots as good as the Anglos? One can't escape the fact that the most successful and/or ambitious artists tend to come south. The best painting in the show is by John McLean, who often sings of his native Kirriemuir but has been a Londoner since the Sixties. His Sanctuary is apparently spontaneous, certainly deft, with thinly applied swathes of black and a bold cream halo seeming to shelter a lower circle in which are placed ovals of pungent colour. Individual though it is, one gathers from this painting that McLean is devoted to Matisse and American abstraction of the Sixties and Seventies. In other words, it is an international picture.

This is the first British painting I've seen that responds to the Matisse retrospective in New York last year. It's interesting that Matisse's influence works out more in abstract than in figurative painting. But this is not a Scottish concern. Fred Pollock, another Londoner, also paints like a man of the wide world. Dennis Buchan, Norman Shanks, Glen Onwin, John Houston, Russell Colombo, all represent something closer to their home.

I'm not calling them provincial. I wouldn't dare. These artists look dependable because of their connection with art education. Scottish art schools, unlike English ones, still have a recognisable stamp that persists in successive generations. The Edinburgh College of Art, for instance, has bred many abstract artists who like palette- knifed impasto, a slightly lurid palette and hasty drawing in shallow curves. Over in Glasgow, figuration is strong - this is attributed to the teaching of Sandy Moffat, a portraitist represented here by his landscape The Rock.

Interesting figurative paintings come from two women who trained in Scotland and went on to study in Germany under the guidance of Georg Baselitz. Margaret Hunter, Hare says, learnt about primitive art from Baselitz. There isn't too much of that in her Woman with Apron, a picture that seems to have been frequently and lovingly visited by its artist, thus giving a sensation of passing time. Gwen Hardie's enormously enlarged examination of her own features is similarly slow- paced. Hare thinks Baselitz saved Hardie from dependence on 'the Scottish academic tradition'. If true, the result is an emphasis on her own selfhood.

Hardie's introspection contrasts with the boyish, noisy painting of Henry Kondracki and Jock McFadyen. This is street-kid painting, demotic and vivid, but none the less done with considerable expertise. It's been around for quite a while now, but I far prefer this manner to the depictions of mournful fisherfolk that are the bane of the Scottish imagination. Of the demotic artists, there's a characteristic picture by Jack Knox. Yet, once again, this is not completely and utterly Scottish painting. Knox's style owes too much to an American, Philip Guston.

A promising artist not much seen in the South is Fred Crayk. His little Poussin is more light-hearted than the factories and landscapes he usually paints. Peter Howson, the Bosnian war artist, contributes four small Scottish Scenes. I prefer them to his larger, more aggressive work, not being convinced by the Scottish tendency towards symbolism.

This said, there are good symbolic works by Craigie Aitchison (Christian) and Kate Whiteford (Celtic). Other interesting paintings are by Elizabeth Blackadder, Alan Davie, Ian Howard, Eileen Lawrence, Renny Tait and Keith McIntyre. All in all, a revealing survey. What does it prove? Hare has no doubts. He thinks that since 1979 the Scottish people have lived in a political vacuum, in effect disenfranchised. As for Scottish artists: 'They, unlike the politicians, have addressed the cultural and social issues which are directly relevant to most people in Scotland.' I find this exaggerated, but see what he means. Can one imagine a Turner Prize in Scotland?

Flowers East (081-985 3333) to 12 Sept.

(Photographs omitted)