This morning finds me in that quarter of the New Town where every second building is a private art gallery. My destination is the Open Eye Gallery and “Sketching Place,” an exhibition of watercolours by the artist David Forster.
At the RSA’s 2013 Open Exhibition, Forster’s two entries seemed, at least to me, to gleam like headlights through the murk. Indeed, to stretch this metaphor, Forster’s car was already a speck on the horizon and everybody else was left behind in the road, hobbling frantically to catch up.
This worried me because Forster’s paintings were also, in both execution and design, by far the most recognisably traditional artworks from the exhibition. Perhaps I am entering that weird stage which men go through in their thirties when their animal heat begins to fade. I shall soon send all of my Nirvana records to the charity shop and start enjoying the music of Vivaldi. I studied a taxidermy-sculpture of a dead puffin and tried to warm to it, but it was no use. I returned to “Everything in the Kingdom Shall Be Ruined and Destroyed” and “He Could Distinguish Each Leaf on the Trees…” (both titles are lines from the Grimms’ fairy-tales). These had the visual might of oils but the lightness of water, and they were, in fact, painted with acrylics on gesso. Each possessed a singing quality which all of the other artworks in the exhibition seemed to lack. This was possibly magnificence.
RSA exhibitions are inevitably an annoyance because they provide hundreds of snapshots of different artists, and if you like one in particular, you have to write their name on your wrist and go off and hunt them down. Today I have apprehended some more of Forster’s artworks at Open Eye, only to be disappointed. The exhibition is a humble affair and you could leave somebody waiting outside in the street for five minutes whilst you looked around it. There is one giant framed watercolour with the familiar singing factor, but the rest are unframed sketches and studies. It is like experiencing a premonition of something far grander; perhaps I am being punished for missing a bigger exhibition in the past or else I should remain patient for the next one in the future. Yet Forster’s paintings are always on sale for modest sums, and this no doubt makes the prospect of collecting them together for an overview unlikely.
Let us linger wistfully before these pictures a minute more.
Forster is exclusively a landscape artist and he paints lonely places from amongst Edinburgh’s suburbs and outskirts. We sometimes find him on Arthur’s Seat or Corstorphine Hill, but he can replicate exactly the same beauty when painting Drylaw or Dumbiedykes. As far as I am aware, no human being or animal has ever appeared in his paintings, and perhaps one searching for any sort of figure in Forster’s world is doomed to the same frustration as a ghost hunter in our own. Once in “Sketching Places” I was thrilled to suddenly spot some birds flying over a park, until I was eventually forced to admit that they were probably leaves blown above the treetops.
We nonetheless come across evidence of human life, like old bones left to bleach in the grass: an ancient council house, farms huddling in the distance, or a battered wire fence nearer the foreground. All are observed without curiosity and none of them impress us with more than a passing sense of significance. We may profit at this juncture from comparing Forster to another Edinburgh-based artist, Peter Standen, whose show “Future Cityscapes” I reviewed in 2011. Both artists are chroniclers of apocalypse, although with Forster this theme is only a shadow. Both give the sense that they have created a complete world, from which they are sending back a series of accomplished topographical images. Although each image observes its world from some fresh angle or dwells upon a new detail, there is no perceptible sense of artistic development running through either cycle.
There is a little stir to each of Forster’s landscapes, as if the breeze is humming a spell under its breath. He can paint foliage with the intense, radical richness that Lucian Freud had captured flesh. You can lose yourself in one of Forster’s hedgerows just by looking at it, so that the surface becomes the densest thicket. He can make grass as lively and vivid as a festival crowd. These paintings must have a special appeal for Edinburgh’s walkers and they possess an intimacy which is most likely to spook this constituency. On a long wandering walk down past the Water of Leith, when you turn a corner to surprise a ruined building, or pause briefly in front of a line of trees, you may have assumed that these moments were purely personal. But Forster appears to have been there all along, sharing your most fleeting and profound experiences.
“Sketching Places” runs until the 17th February.