“Is that…? No, it can’t be… Oh no, it definitely is!”
I should state immediately that I have not yet reached David Forster’s Edgelands. I am across the corridor, in the other wing of the Open Eye Gallery, where there is a career-spanning exhibition of pencil and ink drawings from Scotland’s most illustrious novelist, Alasdair Gray. It is called Selected Work: 1962–2018.
I have come to a stop in front of “Mother and Child,” a study for a mural that Gray had once made for the Ubiquitous Chip, a Glasgow eatery. I am bemused: the mother’s fingers are resting on a coffee cup and its outline is plastered in tippex. I am not so much bemused by the tippex, however, as by the price tag. “Mother and Child” has sold for over £2000 whereas many of Forster’s awesomely skilful acrylics across the corridor are currently on sale for significantly less. The tippex has been omitted from the gallery’s description of this artwork as “ink on paper.” I only hope that the purchaser was as eagle-eyed as I am and that they know about the schoolboy’s correctional fluid on their overpriced acquisition.
Gray’s exhibition is rubbish. All of his models look bored and their boredom seems to crowd the room. One portrait is subtitled, “Alasdair Gray drew this so long ago he forgets when and of whom.” The figure looks as blank as a caryatid – no wonder he has forgotten her. Maybe she’s Eve?
The tippex could be louche or alternatively it is just sloppy. It is implied that we should appreciate these illustrations because the grand old man had, in whatever decade, sprinkled his mind over each of them for a few minutes. Some of the pictures have visible fold marks in them. I am nevertheless grateful for the crudity of Gray’s heavyweight contributions, and the way in which they show up the wonkiness of the art market, because they provide a nice foil for the bantamweight finesse of Edgelands. There is a further, judicious contrast planted inside Forster’s exhibition since it has been interspersed with several bronze sculptures by Christopher Marvell. These are crude as well, but with a much more pleasing, surefooted naivety. His lion is fabulous.
This time, Forster’s paintings are predominantly seascapes and yet they are alive with the same paradoxes that are normal to his work and that have been probably there from the very beginning. Although everything is painted according to a stern formula, each image is keenly individual and slightly shocking in its beauty. As always, the formula dictates that each painting’s title should be a line from the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and that every location should be out of the way and Scottish. Most of the coastal spots are located around the Firth of Forth, but a couple are out in the Hebrides.
The formula dictates that these paintings should be beautiful but never with a generic, chocolate-box conventionality. Forster’s priorities are on display on Cramond Island, in “There was a great war and the King had many soldiers,” where the famous row of concrete pylons is rendered in impatient, uneven strokes whilst the grass in the foreground is dizzyingly rich and luscious.
The formula dictates that we should be taunted with meagre evidence of human existence – a washed-up boat here, a lone buoy there – but that no human being should ever show their face. If you ever see a person inside one of Forster’s artworks, it is not part of the painting. It is a ghost and it is imperceptibly creeping towards you.
Next there is the paradox of the enhanced colours. Forster’s Scottish bogs and ditches contain some submerged tropicality or a tiny glint of bird-of-paradise plumage. There are royal purples lurking in the shadows and aquamarines awash in the trees and a faint faerie gold slanting across the hillsides. With this, you are in a kind of double-consciousness. You will know, if you have ever walked along the John Muir Way, that there is nothing unrealistic in Forster’s colour scheme, and yet it is impossible that these colours could be true. I suspect that all of Forster’s pictures were painted indoors, where he could not be distracted from the mundaneness that he is striving to constantly drive out of the actual landscapes. Realism is henceforth his weapon but reality is the enemy.
They are a bit too alive, his landscapes. They are slightly too assertive in how they put themselves forward. The effect is never psychedelic – the eeriness is always tucked in, underneath these landscapes’ immense, terrible calm. Maybe his landscapes have discreetly swallowed all of their inhabitants. Or else nature only comes alive again when, as occurs in Forster’s paintings, nobody is around to see it.
The only alteration to the formula in Edgelands involves a potential conceptual joke. There are nine small images of the Bass Rock, all of them entitled “Then arose in the sea,” and they are laid out in formation like Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints. They are not prints, of course, but paintings. Neither, in fact, are they identical: the waves, clouds, light, shadows, and colours are all unique to each image. Soon you are wondering what exactly the common element is. Forster is not exhausted at nine – it is conceivable that he has the stamina to reproduce the Bass Rock differently a billion times.
One day I would like to see an exhibition of bigger paintings from Forster’s studio, and in a higher grain of detail, preferably using the medium of oils. But I am not privilege to the formula and this could infringe it in some way. Edgelands continues until next Monday.