The Poetry of Place: Duncan Shanks


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In 2006, feeling rather uninspired, I took a walk to Bournemouth’s West Cliff and spent ages trying to draw a public toilet. A group of teenagers crowded round to take a look. I had my headphones on, with no music playing – yet I nodded my head as though vibing out in my own personal toilet-sketching nirvana, feigning total ignorance to their presence. ‘Why the f— is he drawing that?’ they asked one another not unreasonably. I felt my face redden. They thought I was a weirdo.

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in my life, but I was feeling fragile that day. Toilet complete, I quickly switched myself to another bench and drew a scene more traditionally acceptable to artists – a pair of windblown trees just above the cliffs. No more funny looks.

‘As a general rule’, I captioned this new sketch, ‘I hate it when artists resort to drawing trees.’ I’d summed something up that day, certainly in my own artistic universe. Pretty and picturesque feels like a safe dead end, somehow neutered of possibility. I suppose I’ve tended to mistrust the chocolate box-ey associations of pictures of flowers and trees, all too easy to fall back on. In the wrong hands they form a pleasing, mute, ignorable background – the painted equivalent of an Enya CD. They are so much more difficult to actually see.

Years ago, when I lived in rural Japan, I got a different sense of nature. My town was nestled within a mountain range, and generally speaking it was not a place to go wandering. In the dense evergreen forest which covered the craggy peaks, getting lost would be extremely hazardous. There wasn’t anything Enya about this backdrop. Just once I was permitted to hike up one of the mountains, in charge of a small group of fourteen year olds. The deputy head gave me a pep talk about safety, and proffered a whistle which I was to blow at regular intervals during our ascent. ‘To scare away the bears’, he explained. The mountain we climbed that day was not particularly high, and we followed a prescribed trail – but there was still the sense that this was no Summer stroll. For the last section we literally crawled on our hands and knees up muddy scree. At the top we looked down on the town from afar and laughed with delight. The scene was beautiful and wild, dangerous and pulsing with life. That’s what nature means to me. I love it, but I’d never take it lightly. It’s not decoration.

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I think it must mean something similar to artist Duncan Shanks, whose sketchbooks are currently on display at Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery. The nature he explores in this show is quintessentially Scottish – with changeable weather and light, not to mention settings which, one imagines, make thermal long-johns a year-round necessity.

The exhibition is small and intimate, filling just two rooms in the gallery. The centrepiece of the display is a large glass cabinet stuffed with a cornucopia of Shanks’ sketchbooks, propped open. For the most part, these are working books which help the artist plan compositions, and test ideas for his larger canvases. As a result they are small and intimate, selected with portability and ease of use in mind. The largest is A2, most are smaller.

These books don’t chart great geographical adventures to foreign climes, or the life of some peripatetic, questing sketcher in search of new frontiers. Quite the opposite. With only a few exceptions these books record half a century of Shanks’s immediate locality near Glasgow.

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As a result, Shanks is emotionally invested in this landscape – he’s not a tourist. He and his wife Una have spent most of their lives here, and he is intimately acquainted with every corner of these views, and the changing effects of the seasons. These pictures are about more than merely recording a scene in the perfunctory sense of ticking it off the list then moving on to another. They are about time and memory, and the ebb and flow of personal feelings as locations are seen and seen and seen again, sometimes over decades.

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The drawings are naturalistic, yet never stoop to dainty fussiness. They often celebrate the abstract qualities inherent in the landscape by approaching scenes from unusual viewpoints and framing them in unexpected compositions. An example of this can be seen in an early 90s hillside sketch. It provides just enough information (the side of the hill, a dash of horizon) for us to contextualize what we are seeing, yet revels in keeping three quarters of the picture surface an essentially abstract jumble of stones. I can sense the artist’s delight as he loses himself in the swirl of these details – yet he reins it in with a controlled composition that prevents it coming out like a strange, confusing abstract mess.

Shanks’s favoured media is pastel, often combined with the heavy black of compressed charcoal. These are wielded with a controlled gestural hand, calling to mind figurative artists like Lovis Corinth and Emil Nolde, and abstract painters such as Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky.

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The abstract expressionist influence is even more evident in Shanks’s large scale canvas paintings, a few of which are displayed as part of this show. We are encouraged to see how the sketchbooks have informed, in different ways, the semi-abstract oil paintings which make up the somewhat limited ‘public face’ of the artist’s career.

‘I have always believed’, writes Shanks, ‘in the invisibility of the artist when the work alone speaks.’ It’s curiously true in the case of this show. The strength and integrity of the art speaks for itself, evoking atavistic connections to landscape without the need for us to examine reams of biography or absorb pages of explanation. Of course Shanks, a Royal Scottish Academician, could not really be described as ‘invisible’, yet he is the next best thing – a publicity shy artist with a low profile outside Scotland, who avoids almost any contact with the art world. He has kept this staggering body of work largely private until now.

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These books are now no longer a private thing – the artist has gifted them to the permanent collection of the Hunterian for future generations to enjoy. Everything has been painstakingly catalogued and uploaded to an Internet Museum, where every single page can be viewed onscreen. This is admirable, of course, yet I can’t help but feel a little pang of personal sadness that the real, actual books will most likely never be flicked through again, destined instead to sit forever in storage or at best be seen in a glass case one page at a time, like a medieval manuscript. Interestingly, a few of the sketches have been removed (presumably by the artist) and framed up. One particular set of small pastel drawings of Tinto hill (‘Tinto Weather Studies’ 1977-80), mounted together in one frame, is a miniature marvel. Seeing these closely related pages together at a single glance makes a great deal of sense, and makes me wonder how it would feel to see all these drawings framed up, and displayed thematically, disrupting the page sequence of the books? It couldn’t (and shouldn’t) ever happen, of course, but it’s impossible not to fantasize about what a stunning exhibition this would make.

There is something valedictory about this display. Granted, the exhibition offers no sense that, at seventy eight, Shanks’ artistic powers have dimmed in any way. Yet perhaps this show, and the artist’s gift, consciously draws a line – acknowledging that his days of sketching outdoors in all weathers are at a close. Perhaps the Upper Clyde will never be looked at so closely again.

‘Duncan Shanks: The Poetry of Place’ is at the Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow, until 16th August 2015.

Online catalogue: www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/collections/collectionsummaries/art/duncanshanks

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