‘Lovely gallery, but so remote.’ I heard this a lot twenty years ago but less so now. Sitting here today, still geographically on the edge of Europe’s circumference, I feel that the gallery and its artists have a vital role to play. Here at the edge the air is clear – even if, as Yeats warned a hundred years ago, the centre might be a little confused.
Artists of the edge do what all artists should do. They explore feelings about nature, time, life and death; and they do it away from the chaotic distractions of power, money and celebrity that lie close to the centre. Few artists have tackled the personal stories that arise out of war better than Joyce W Cairns. For years she worked out of an old studio buried amongst the fishing houses of Footdee in Aberdeen. This work couldn’t have come from an urban centre. The artist needed time to unearth memories.
An artist like Steve Dilworth, who explores deep time and the sacred in objects, would be impossible outside the periphery. He could not exist at the centre. Not just because much of his sculptural medium is literally washed up on the shores of Harris, but because the Outer Hebrides go beyond antiquity and into ancientness. There is a continuity in their moon-like landscape that exists beyond human experience and into geological time.
There are other artistic voices from the edge that are just as vital to listen to. The sacredness and secrecy of the landscape is sung in the work of Allan MacDonald, Beth Robinson Fiddes, Jane MacNeill and others. What could be more relevant? In the last ten years wilderness has been given a financial value, and ‘improved’ into the industrial landscape of windfarm, track and pylons. Not long ago people of all political colours would look to nature for a direction. Some of them would tramp past the gallery. The environment is arguably the ultimate political issue of our days.
The periphery includes Eduard Bersudsky, the supreme artist on the absurdities of life in Soviet Russia; painters of the soul like Alan McGowan and Henry Fraser, and scrap metal artists like Helen Denerley. Even the late Gerald Laing was inspired by life away from the corrupting power of the New York and London art worlds. These artists don’t survive away from the centre merely because the psychological and physical air is cleaner. It is also because their unique qualities are recognised by private and public collectors. They are bought at a more gentle pace than the mass feeding of an art fair, and for more lasting reasons than vanity.
The internet, of course, has given the edge more visibility. Most vital of all, artists of the periphery connect us to what is most important. Like the hermits who chose to sit in unfeasible remoteness, and tell us about the continuity of land and water, the human and the divine – true artists show us what still holds true when the centre does not hold.