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Abstract Zeitgeist or Free Painting?

By Bill Hare, 22.09.2021
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Abstract Zeitgeist at the Biscuit Factory, Edinburgh, September 2021. Images courtesy the Rafiki Gallery.

This brief three-day exhibition of fifteen emerging Scottish painters was organised and mounted by the peripatetic Rafiki Gallery in The Biscuit Factory, an abandoned warehouse converted into a multi-arts centre in Leith. Fortunately, many of the original structural fittings have been left in place and on this occasion, allowed the richly coloured works in the exhibition to stand out strongly against a background of rusting cast iron beams and columns.

Leo Sartain, who runs The Rafiki Gallery and curated this exhibition, hung the paintings in an intelligent and intriguing manner so that the spectator was constantly allowed the opportunity to view, compare and play off many of the pictures against each other. This, I would contend, should always be one of the strong attractions and critical purposes of any good group exhibition.

Abstract Zeitgeist at the Biscuit Factory, Edinburgh, September 2021. Images courtesy the Rafiki Gallery.

Another intriguing aspect of Abstract Zeitgeist was the title, as both words, in the context of the paintings on display, seemed initially at least, a little dubious and debatable. Leaving aside the Zeitgeist issue for a moment, I certainly experienced doubts concerning the use of the term 'Abstract' as applied to some of the work in this exhibition where traces of figuration could readily be found.

As an historian of modern art, I would concede that abstraction was never a clearly defined concept. It has continued to develop and change in form and intent since Kandinsky claimed to have painted the first abstract picture over a century ago. Even in its initial phase, there was a clear split in abstraction, between, on the one hand, a strongly motivated spiritual purpose as found in the art of say, Kandinsky and Mondrian, and on the other hand, by the decidedly materialistic approach of the Russian Constructivists. By the mid-twentieth century, abstract painting had changed and turned in on itself, becoming more and more hermetic and autonomous, especially through the influential critical writings of Clement Greenberg.

Abstract Zeitgeist at the Biscuit Factory, Edinburgh, September 2021. Images courtesy the Rafiki Gallery.

Until fairly recently, you wouldn’t need to have been an out and out Greenbergian formalist to raise an eyebrow at some of the works in this group abstract show. Now however, in our postmodern era, where everything seems to be in a constant state of flux, the previous demarcation lines, which separated one type of art from another, have been gradually blurred. This could readily be applied to the former distinction between figurative and abstract art. Thus 'Zeitgeist' in title is in tune with the amorphous nature of the exhibition and the world we now live in.

What of the word 'Abstract' in the title, is that also appropriate? Maybe not, for it comes with too much historical and theoretical baggage. Perhaps a better term might be 'free painting' as all the participants in this exhibitions demonstrated an admirable freedom in experimentation with an array of pictorial languages and painterly effects. Thus the visitor should take away from this exhibition the reassuring feeling that Scottish painting has a promising and exciting future in the hands of younger artists committed to seeking out their own personal ways of engaging with the contemporary world.

Abstract Zeitgeist was exhibited at The Biscuit Factory, Edinburgh between 10-12 September 2021