Magnificent beasts in a world of myth and metaphor
Beasts, by Helen Flockhart and Beth Carter, Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh
Review by Mark Brown
Imagine a series of paintings that combines the exquisite aesthetic of the famous American painter and ornithologist John James Audubon with a bold and, in our plague-ridden time, curiously apposite fascination with classical mythology and Old Testament imagery. Such is Beasts, the latest exhibition of pictures by Helen Flockhart, with splendidly complementary sculptures by Beth Carter.
Flockhart is one of Scotland’s finest and most original painters, a fact that is attested to by this reassuringly confident series of pictures at the lovely Arusha Gallery. The painter’s renowned hyper-naturalism (exemplified by her trademark huge, lush, pre-historic plants) becomes a platform for mythical narratives that are, by turns or simultaneously, ambiguous, disquieting, violent, humorous and beautiful.
A red-haired female figure, a long-established signature of the artist’s (and one who bears more than a passing resemblance to Flockhart herself), appears in most of the paintings. In Come Into the Garden, for instance, she features as Eve, sitting, with seeming equanimity, in a moonlit glade while a black panther attacks an agonised zebra.
On the left of the painting, Adam stands, partially hidden in a forest of vegetation. On the right, the Biblical serpent slithers out purposefully from its hiding place.
As elsewhere in this exhibition, the narrative uncertainty is part of the painting’s pleasure. There is in the picture a tremendous paradox in the coming together of the elegance of the painter’s brushwork with the distressing violence of her other Eden.
The painting might be partnered with Eve, in which the naked Everywoman lies, calmly and inexpressively, on the back of an equally unperturbed zebra. Behind them are dark, premonitory skies. On the path in front of them, again, the scriptural snake.
If this show draws meaningfully and beguilingly on the creation story common to the three Abrahamic faiths, it owes an even greater debt to the myths of the Ancient Greeks. In Leda and the Swan, for example, Flockhart’s female icon is not (as in a common interpretation of the myth) being raped by Zeus in avian form. Rather, as the bird appears to scream (whether in threat or anguish), the woman grasps the oncoming creature with a serene solemnity.
This picture, like many others in the exhibition, is characterised by a verdant pastoralism. Elsewhere, however, the painter takes her classicism indoors.
In Pallas Athena, in a neutral interior of greys and browns, the goddess of war stands, rapier in hand, wearing a dress emblazoned with many heads of Medusa, her expression, typically of Flockhart’s female figure, quite inscrutable. Meanwhile, a centaur looks, seemingly forlornly, at a pile of autumn leaves that have been swept into a corner.
Among these pastoral greens and beige interiors, there are a few paintings that address their classical inspirations in splendid, deep vermillion. In Labyrinth (which one can see in the window of the gallery) we find the Minotaur entirely encircled by a scarlet wall.
The poor creature lies on the ground tracing in the dust a labyrinth from which escape might be possible. Whether Flockhart intended this as a metaphor for a humanity that finds itself in the grip of disease and ecological destruction, one can only guess.
The partnering of these paintings with a series of sculptures (five in bronze, one in plaster) by Beth Carter is mutually beneficial. The bronze works are superb, in both technical and imaginative terms. In Crouching Minotaur, for instance, the wretched monster of Attic myth reads from a gilded book, almost like a partner (both knowingly humorous and unexpectedly profound) to Rodin’s The Thinker.
This review was originally published in the Sunday National on November 29, 2020
© Mark Brown