Iain Gale, 'Welcome to the Venice of the north' (Scotland on Sunday, 23/04/2006)

Welcome to the Venice of the north

It happens every two years. I find myself on a balmy, sunny day, pounding the street of an ancient city in search of contemporary art. I’m spoilt for choice. I’ve planned to cover 15 exhibitions in six hours but from experience you barely manage half.

It’s the classic international festival stuff: a serious art prize, a big name rock star artist, a survey of a decade of world-class, cutting edge sculpture. By the early evening my feet are aching, I’m finding it hard to remember exactly where I saw which artist, and as usual, I’ve had an argument with gallery staff about press catalogues.

But this is not Venice. It’s the second Glasgow International Art Festival, now officially a Biennale, and if Clydebank now feels like the Rialto then that surely must be a good sign.

Last year’s inaugural event was a brave and ambitious debut, potentially hard to follow. This year’s offering is a well-rounded, stimulatingly eclectic mix which gives a real flavour not only of artistic practice in contemporary Scotland, but also of how that relates to international developments.

A good starting point is with Ross Sinclair’s show at the CCA. Bright and witty yet with a serious subtext and filled with art-historical and social reference, it is the festival’s opening fanfare. Sinclair has painted some 80 large works in oil on board, each of which say wither ‘I love (heart) Real Life’ or use the real life title, prefixed by the name of the appropriate colour in which Sinclair has covered the ground. Thus we have ‘Blue Real Life’, ‘Yellow Real Life’ and so on.

The heavy impasto of the painting surface emerges as a multi-tinted abstract conjuring the ghosts of post-war and New York, giving new meaning by the knowingness of the floating text and posing questions about the notion and practice of painting and how it influences our perceptions of ‘reality’. With typically topical humour, Sinclair has also created a few dozen smaller paintings which substitute painterly versions of well-known tartans for his base colour, and incorporate the name of the appropriate clan in a clever twist on notions of national cultural identity.

The real star of the show, though, is the CCA itself. Newly appointed caretaker gallery director Francis McKee has worked with his own gut instinct and the suggestions of those of us who expressed concerns at the gallery’s recent precipitous descent into limbo. Prior to its reinterpretation as the new café, he uses the troublesome foyer space to house just six of Sinclair’s paintings, set at welcoming angles, while the shop becomes another gallery.

An international flavour is evident a few yards away from the CCA at Glasgow School of Art, where South African filmmaker William Kentridge has his first solo show in Britain for six years.

McKee’s greatest single coup, though, is waiting just a short walk down Sauchiehall Street at the Mitchell Library, where celebrated proto-punk poet/songstress Patti Smith is showing drawings and photographs made between the late 1960s and the present.

This is much more then it might at first seem: a punk icon indulging a hobby. Smith, it turns out, is a very serious and committed artist and her evident debt to De Kooning and Warhol is hardly surprising given her identification with the spirit of New York. The show, set in the Mitchell’s neoclassical architecture, contains some unforgettable moments, in particular in the series of engagingly honest self-portraits.

Understandably, too, one of the principle themes is her take on the 9/11 attack in a series of quietly harrowing screen prints in which gold dribbles down the jagged tooth remains of the south tower. Through her graphics Smith, ever the poet, deftly combines words in her spidery, calligraphic hand, with powerful images to create a revelatory body of work which places her among the most sensitive graphic artists of the late 20th century.

Depending on your stamina, you could now choose your direction. If you’re mobile, head across to Tramway where McKee himself has curated a show of video works. Unfortunately, though advertised as being open to the public from April 19, when I arrived on that day I was told it would not be ready for another two days, and so I must reserve judgement. Perhaps a greater degree of coordination is something to bear in mind for the next festival.

Alternatively, you might head to the festival’s main sites, starting off in the heart of the city where GOMA has arguably the most important show with a select borrowing of some 17 works from the sculpture collection of the Arts Council. While the first work you meet on entering is a typically sinister juxtaposition by our own Claire Barclay, in general the show is a trip through the big names of BritArt, including fine early works by Sarah Lucas, Hirst, Whiteread and Wallinger and Michael Landy and Kerry Stewart’s sublimely surreal This Girl Bends.

Walk from here along Ingram Street to Hutcheson’s Hall, where the Modern Institute has de-camped for the duration with the clever, seductive, everyday sculpture of US artist Mark Handforth. Then continue east towards the Trongate and you eventually find yourself at the real heart of the GI. Dip into Dawn Youll’s pithy ceramics of pigeons and cigarette butts at No 20 King St, Will Daniels’ ingenious, cloth-based paintings deconstructed from old masters (look out for Cezanne’s Mont St Victoire) at Transmission and Mark Neville’s unsettling films of himself jumping off Amsterdam bridges at Street Level.

At Sorcha Dallas’s tiny art space, Gary Rough has a two-part show. While in one room Rough shows drawings in which his pencil meanders between the confines of printed lines and margins, next door he plays side by side two TV monitors showing a skier in free-fall and a hand holding a burning match until it almost touches the skin. In each case he is talking about expectations. What we expect our lives to be and how so often they turn out to be something very different.

Also in the Trongate, you will find this year’s Beck’s Futures show, cleverly incorporated into the festival and packing a real punch. In fact this is the best Beck’s I’ve seen for at least four years, and for once justifies its existence. While it does still contain its duffers, they are outweighed by the genuine talent. Apart from the Modern Institute’s ubiquitous Sue Tompkins, particularly worth looking out for are Daniel Sinsel’s montage-paintings and Jamie Shovlin’s complex and thought-provoking deconstructions of the colour encodings of abstract book covers.

I also particularly liked Stefan Bruggemann’s exhaustive audio work suggesting over 700 potential exhibition titles and Olivia Plender’s cut-out stage set reinterpretations of Victorian morality paintings.

And while on the subject of morality, what would any art festival be without an excursion into sexuality. Wander up to Bell Street and there, in a suitably discreet little shop, you will find Miranda Whall’s curiously hypnotic animated watercolours of a faceless woman (presumably the artist) using a variety of sex toys while observed by songbirds, a cat and a goldfish. It might not be the most impressive show I the festival but it’s precisely the sort of experimental, self-regarding indulgence that I’d expect in Venice.

And that, although it sounds trite, is important. For McKee has pulled off a modest triumph. With a limited budget and facing the potential meltdown of his flagship gallery, he has worked against the clock to ensure a reinvigorating makeover for the public face of the Glasgow miracle.