Black humour and concrete reality behind the ironic white abstracts

Published on Tuesday 5 September 2006 00:27

KEITH COVENTRY ****

TRAMWAY, GLASGOW

ERICA EYRES: I LOVE YOU BUT I HATE YOU ***

MARCEL DZAMA: TREE WITH ROOTS ***

CCA, GLASGOW

THE FOUR **

COLLINS GALLERY, GLASGOW

A SUPER-ABUNDANCE of art exhibitions in Edinburgh during August's Art Festival has drawn attention away from Glasgow. While everyone has been busy exclaiming over Ron Mueck's larger-than-life figures at the RSA building, another artist who was briefly part of the Young British Artist (YBA) stable has been happily occupying the vast aircraft hangar that is Tramway 2. The show is the largest exhibition of Keith Coventry's work to date, and a useful survey of his concerns. Unusual among the YBAs, he has made painting the centre of his practice, but it is painting with a hard conceptual edge.

Take, for example, the work he showed in the Sensation exhibition in the 1990s, his White Abstracts series. They seem to recall the strict formalism of Malevich, or the purity of Robert Ryman (currently showing at Inverleith House), whose main interest is in the paint itself. But they do not. Even the title is ironic, for they are not really abstracts at all, but representations created by the texture of the paint, pictures of traditional icons of Britishness: a cucumber sandwich, a plumed guardsman, the Queen granting a knighthood.

His Crack City pictures are even more reminiscent of Malevich, white-on-white squares. However, they are not abstracts either but floorplans of tower blocks: Archer Tower, Berwick Tower, Pegasus Tower. Like his Estate Paintings, plans of housing estates reduced to geometrical patterns, they speak to the visionary nature of modernism, which believed that good design could create a better world, until its utopias became concrete jungles and crack dens.

Coventry is knowledgeable about his predecessors, but he never worships them. He uses the term "White supremacists" in an ironic context in his Racist League pictures (1993), abstracts showing the colours of the 10 "most racist" football teams in the country.

His paintings are bleak, urban, none more so than the 64-strong Chartwell series (1996), each one a perfectly rendered section of brick wall. There is humour here: the Junk series, which manipulates sections of the McDonald's logo, the Kebab series, which uses the names of Greek heroes - and kebab houses - but it is the humour of bleak irony.

An interesting contrast is the most recent work, Echoes of Albany, a series of 31 paintings in shades of vermillion red which evoke the past and present of the Albany building, a mansion divided into luxury bachelor flats, home to the great and the good from Gladstone to Byron. They speak of a power structure to which painting contributes, but there is an ironic knowingness here, because these too are luxury items, becoming sought-after objects even as they comment on the act of doing so.

Meanwhile the CCA is presenting a double bill of artists originally from Winnipeg. Erica Eyres stayed on in Glasgow after studying on the School of Art's MFA course. The main body of work she presents here is a series of biro portraits of women-based on the "real women" photographs sent in to lads' magazines by women themselves.

The result is a series of self-images which seem to betray their own unease. The women try to be provocative, alluring, from virtually naked teens to wannabe glamour models to grotesque female body-builders, but there is always something that gives them away, braces on the teeth, too much eye make-up, a self-conscious stoop.

Somehow she has managed to convey the gap which exists between image and perception, to peel back the veneer of airbrushed perfection we're used to seeing and reveal the inglorious truth, the moment when you look in the mirror and know for certain that you don't measure up. It makes uncomfortable viewing.

In her film, Destiny Green, she takes her ideas further. The story of a precocious child star who decides to have her face removed in a radical act of plastic surgery, it takes the desire for physical change to grotesque levels, and in doing so reveals society's obsessions with ambition, perfection. We pretend we're interested in "what's on the inside", while watching voyeuristic TV makeovers. Eyres holds the mirror up and does not flinch.

Also from Winnipeg, Marcel Dzama recently moved to New York, and this major show, which was previously at Birmingham's Ikon Gallery, spills out from the gallery into the body of CCA, the foyer, the former shop, even the cinema.

Dzama lives and works within his own imaginative realm. His immensely detailed drawings, in pen and ink coloured with watercolour and - bizarrely - root beer, have their own aesthetic. His scenes are miniature dramas populated by animals, birds, people and mutants (people/animals, people/trees).

He is influenced by comics, mythologies, children's books, cowboy movies and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, though none of these adequately explains the bemusing strangeness of the finished works. As well as drawings, there are films - which switch between animation and live action - and costumes.

They are playful, surreal and uncomfortable, and many of them resound with conflict. There are pistols, rifles, even the occasional machine gun. One features a military funeral, a coffin draped with stars and stripes, another a homage to Goya's Disasters of War series, body parts hanging on a tree. Whatever kind of fantastical world this is, all is not well in it.

The more we try to decode these images, the more they shift, surprising us with one bizarre twist after another. The titles don't give us clues, nor do the pages from Dzama's scrapbooks, fascinating though they are to look at. Ultimately, we can only admire the diligence and coherence of his vision, and go away wondering what it's all about.

You'd have to be living under a rock in Glasgow this year to miss the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Festival, but so far the large community of contemporary artists has stayed well clear of the city's hero-designer whose legacy is feted in endless reproductions. The Collins Gallery has invited artists' collective Lapland to explore the story of The Four, Mackintosh, J Herbert McNair and their wives, the sisters Margaret and Frances Macdonald, who collaborated throughout their artistic careers.

Hugh Pizey has created a series of Ikebana, Japanese dried flower arrangements with added ceramic and painted elements. His wooden handrails are a clever addition to this aesthetic. Meanwhile, a quirky bedspread by Kate Owens and Tommy Grace seems to reference the endless Mackintosh commodification.

Patrick Macklin's Memorials refer to Mackintosh's plans for a war memorial and a ceremonial fountain which were, like most of his designs, unmade. But the plans for them are beautiful things, full of care and earnestness, and they compel us in a way the contemporary works do not. Perhaps they show us what is lacking.

• Keith Coventry runs until 17 September; Erica Eyres and Marcel Dzama until 16 September; The Four until 23 September