Union Gallery, Edinburgh: Audrey Grant

Word of mouth is the happy fall back for exploring Edinburgh’s festivals, when thousands of shows shovel their star ratings at you in a noisy clamour for time and attention.  So when a Scottish artist and retired teacher,  asks what’s interesting in the Edinburgh Art Festival this year, we talk MC Escher and John Bellany – and I tell him to go see Audrey Grant’s show, at the Union Gallery in Broughton Street.

The exhibition is not actually in the festival.   Established galleries in the city have to opt in financially to get a mention there and some have declined to do so.  But that does not prevent them showcasing their top offerings.   Grant, though just turned 50, is an artist to watch,  and the word of mouth on her work is very good.

For customers of the Union Gallery, and of Painter and Hall, who now represent her in London, Audrey Grant is also an artist to buy. By opening night, of 18 paintings in the exhibition, all but three or four had sold.   Her last exhibition at Panter and Hall has now entirely sold out; she will go back to Pall Mall, with a solo exhibition in the gallery’s larger upper space, and who knows if she’ll soon be lost to London entirely.

Introducing Grant’s exhibition two years ago, the critic Jan Patience wrote how she scratched her head for days to articulate how the works affected her; I did the same.   The solitary figures she paints carry an immediate, accessible charm.   These still waters run deep; scratch the surface,  absorbing, grave, thought-provoking.   They are from an artist in a later-life career, making a series  of interesting shifts through different degrees of abstraction.

We project our own imagination on the characters in Grant’s paintings;  but they are caught in their own worlds.   Dancing, walking, sitting, they might crane their necks to catch something in the distance; but they look away. Painted often in pairs, they may have relationships with each other, but are not looking for us; we are observers of their introspection. They are both still, and sometimes full of frozen movement.

Audrey Grant Union Gallery Edinburgh

FIgure III, Figure IV

The picture Grant picked for her catalogue cover is particularly interesting.   It’s title is Siehe, wir lieben nicht, wie die Blumen, aus eniem enzigan Jahr – No, we don’t accomplish our love in a single year as the flowers do.   The line has a bittersweet Shakespearean feel,  but it is by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who died in 1926.

Siehe, wir lieben is  one of the more difficult pieces,  and better for it, and remained unsold at time of writing.  The girl, in blues and blacks, has a childish snub nose, sits rigid, straight-backed, as if struck, her clubby feet planted on the ground.   There’s something wild, apocalyptic,  in the way she’s been spattered with drips; paint pours down from her hair over the chair.

Audrey Grant, Union Gallery

Siehe, wir lieben nicht, by Audrey Grant, oil on canvas, 100x100cm

The exhibition, With all its eyes the natural world looks out into the Open, takes its title from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, his best known work.   The poet began them  in 1912, but struggled to fight  off an artistic depression, with his life as a German who had lived in Paris upended by World War I.    Grant’s technique includes scratching down through layers of paint, and she scars Rilke’s words into the surface.

In Paris Rilke became obsessed with Rodin.  And Grant spent a couple of years sitting in on rehearsals of Scottish Ballet, filling her sketchbooks;   four or five of the paintings are ballerinas,  spindly legs moving in a whirl of motion, causing paint to fly off their dresses, and one thinks inevitably of Rodin’s or Degas’ dancers.

Audrey Grant Union Gallery

Tanserin II, oil on canvas, 50x50cm

The largest piece, titled Welt war in den Antlitz der Geliebten,  World was in the face of the beloved,  could be a forlorn African girl standing in a yellow veldt, bow legged and with a great feeling of space around her.

Welt war in dem Antlitz der Geliebten, 2015, oil on canvas, 150x120cm

Welt war in dem Antlitz der Geliebten, 2015, oil on canvas, 150x120cm

Some  faces are have clear profiles, others are erased with paint. The dancers are poised and dainty;  a male figure walks with hanging hands, in daubs of bluesy greens,  full of calm and reflection.  Some of Grant’s people are expectant and looking out, others, surprised.  One could surely be a teacher, on a cigarette break.

Grant formerly worked in education at the Edinburgh International Festival. She went to Leith School of Art only in 2001, and has made the transition to full time artist just recently, after the success of her first shared show at the Union Gallery in 2011.

The show includes a series of reworked photographs of the sea, glazed over with smeary yellow grease, and gold leaf, exploring the theme of natural philosophy.  It’s an interesting departure,also with its own intellectual underpinning,  and at least two of the six pieces work well; but they struggle to stand  against the paintings, for now.

Grant’s figures are maturing through different styles of abstraction; where the palette in her show two years ago was chalky reds and greens, here it is thicker yellow, grey and black. She speaks of being inspired by Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff, and there are interesting similarities.

“They are single, solitary figures which I do,” she said in an interview,  “worked on by building up layers of paint, added and subtracted to, with palette knives, rags, scraping on and scraping off until I feel an image beginning to assert itself. They are nobody and everybody, invented and imagined, and come about through the act of painting. These figures connect to a sense of who we are, a sense of vulnerability, I suppose, and awkwardness in the world.”