Andrew Cranston, ‘Who Is This Who Is Coming?’

Summerhall, Edinburgh, 31 May – 12 July 2013

Summerhall, the always-interesting-not-limited-by-venue-seasonalism arts centre housed in the Capital’s old Royal Dick Vet School, is an extremely apt venue for painter Andrew Cranston. Part of the Summerhall complex, Hope Park Church hosts this solo show, appositely, for it offers a slightly eerie set of rooms that might have been designed with Cranston’s paintings as blueprints. As the press notes let you know, Cranston is interested in ‘architectural spaces as a catalyst for images, elaborating on situations experienced directly or found in cinema, theatre and literature’. This is the work of an artist also interested in pictorial space as a catalyst for images, which I’ll come back to, but the environment fits his images because its atmospheric space-as-mere-volume plays host more significantly to the walls, flats, nooks & crannies of an enticing subset of man-made gallery spaces. You see, Cranston’s painted architecture is the structuring of some inner set of rooms; compartments of a fantasy domain delineated not by isometric architectonics but by the completely incomplete structural notes of a dream. Looking up, Cranston’s depiction of rooms of inner theatre is corroborated in a way by the visible gap between the fabricated dividers of the Church and the something which surrounds. We are implicated in the drama, and the venue embodies a central interest of the pictures. The exhibition is effectively performed, therefore, and moving around these spaces in Summerhall is to meet an enigmatic spirit which permeates Cranston’s imaginatively-seen sets.

One recurring set in his oeuvre is the Art School life room. Cranston has taught painting for a number of years at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, and this experience is a salient point of reference in these works and others. The Art School is, by design, a sort of experimental safe house in a turbulent world, and the life room is, in turn (still) a constant of a kind within the mild turbulence of the needs-to-be-slightly sequestered Art School. The artistic production in that life room might be yet another layer or demarcation within a within within a within, and Cranston seems to me to be acutely aware of the stratum in which the artist exists and operates in this suggested concentric model. A creative life in the academy in the studio in the picture in the studio in the academy in the turbulent world is a creative life which enforces a retreat from the something-which-surrounds only for that something to return in all its forceful mystery by dint of creative musings by the agent of that creative life. And that simultaneity, of willing retreat and full engagement with the mysteries of the surrounding something, appears as a leitmotiv in Cranston’s mental architecture, and, arguably, in his practice as a whole.

‘The Silent Treatment’ shows an Art School tutor make an adjustment to a life model’s splay, witnessed by an obedient perimeter of students. The presentation and proximity of the female model to the male tutor is something to pay no attention to, normally, as you set about paying close attention to the splay with all good artistic neutrality. Cranston’s painterly reverie here exposes the absurd reality of the paradigmatic Art School moment, and he delivers it with his characteristic ‘God’s-eye’ view. We wee people are caught in an exposing gaze by the reflection, seen from somewhere beyond the partitions, screens and dividers. Captured in this image is an element of Cranston’s creative profanity – and in taking a ‘God’s-eye’ view of his own domain, he does not spare himself or his professional kin a palette knife-load of mischievous scepticism, or, at least, critical revealism.

One other example of Cranston’s humour and mischief is to be seen in his intriguingly bizarre large picture,  ‘After Canaletto’. Here we are given what I take to be an apocalyptic view of, of all things in this context, The Modern Institute. Beneath the ‘The Modern Institute’ emblazoned on the facing wall, Toby Webster stands with an accomplice to survey the packing crates round about upon a Jim Lambie floor. Adopting an impish perspective under Cranston’s tutelage, this episode appears to be, not the arrival of great works from abroad, but the final days of an enterprise run its course. All by virtue of painted meaning the artist tells us, perhaps, the walls crumble a bit, the mould builds, and the impresarios stand to consider ‘where next?’. It’s all good-natured painterly patter, but I do think Cranston’s gambit here is to set us up to face a contest of sorts between the transitory in contemporary art as he sees it and the substantive aspects of being a reflective artist with durability.

In line with this line of thinking is ‘The Problem With Painting’. A tortoise sits on a chaise settee, or psychiatrist’s couch?, all in front of a darkened backdrop. Here, as promised, Cranston offers a clever visual essay on a perennial challenge in painting, the business of satisfactorily representing the three-dimensionality of the life-world in a two-dimensional domain. At the same time, though, by telescoping the depth of the picture, he underscores the plasticity of the expressive form, and makes both aspects constructively coexist. His carapaced reptile tells us something about the pace of painting, and Cranston in an amusing way presents the life of the painter as a commitment requiring patience. On top of this, the aesthetic of the painting invokes a long and rich history of iconography, something that a serious painter must contend with patiently, and, looping back to Cranston’s main theme, he prompts us to consider what the symbolic import of the work might be. In keeping with the allusion in the exhibition title, what you see might be an inscription designed to materialise, in one of your inner rooms perhaps, something quite different from what literally faces you in the present.

The Problem with Painting

This show reinforces Cranston’s position as a serious painter, one who is unable not to deploy dark wit and askance vision. Summerhall’s conducive staging makes this an extremely rewarding display, and if you can allow yourself to venture from the perimeter to be cajoled by that humour and seriousness, ‘Who Is This Who Is Coming?’ gives you a stimulating tour of your own inner spaces summoned and structured as they are by images pictured through reflection upon images painted.