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D U N C A N S H A N K S   A C R O S S A PA I N T E D S K Y

S C O T T I S H G A L L E R Y   E D I N B U R G H F E S T I V A L 2012

D U N C A N S H A N K S   A C R O S S A PA I N T E D S K Y


Duncan Shanks’s ‘cloud’ sketchbooks: from figuration to abstraction

Some of us may wish to avoid knowing anything about the artist or his motivation; the provision of context might serve to demystify a work of art and seem a trivialisation, an imposition on the purity of an initial response. Many artists in the modern era will offer no clue as to how a work should be read. Somehow the integrity of a work of art must reside in the enigma of an individual’s response to it, unsullied by any wider cultural considerations so that great art, like great music, must be of its time but not defined by it. But art is not consumed and discarded; a longer, second look may reveal more and knowledge, perhaps only the simple poetry of a title, might give us greater insight and a deeper understanding.   As a good modernist Duncan Shanks has hitherto kept his counsel and allowed the work to ‘stand alone’ and perhaps been tempted sometimes to reply that meaning is whatever someone wishes it to be. But the reality is that each work does mean something and represents real emotional engagement with themes of destruction and regeneration.   For the first time Shanks has shared in words – which punctuate this catalogue – some of the thoughts, processes and inspiration which define the artist’s life. He has had a lifelong love of modern music and is deeply read in the lives of the composers, the tragedies and triumphs that make up their internal lives as well as the poetry and philosophy which are a common source to composer and painter alike.   The painter is at once composer, musician and conductor and a painting is without doubt a performance

but in this exhibition the artist is attempting more; he has given us three distinct movements as well as glimpses into his sketchbooks and words which could be notes on his score. He begins with the monumental, with the mountain and its igneous origin before he ascends to the cloud, sometimes the mirror of the burning hill-top but ever-changing, precocious and beautiful. The final movement, the valley in mist, is surely the existential state of ignorance; the precursor of revelation that may never come; we may touch the heights but must always fall back into the comfort of ignorance.   Shanks is ever a reluctant exhibitor (the work will be made whatever) but recognises that out of necessity comes the opportunity to orchestrate a grand production in the certainty that his paintings, the unruly, tumultuous and exuberant components of his symphony, will find new life and meaning in the minds of others. In the end he is happy for each work to fulfil its destiny; to have a life independent of its origin. That portion of the process of making which is always beyond the artist’s control is the key to its future independence. Guy Peploe

illustrated on previous spread:

[ 1 ]  Adrift oil and acrylic on paper · 31 x 94 cm

With my ambition huge and my hope of success minimal I take solace from the words of a great writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, which perhaps express the darker side of a divided self. ‘Ou r busi n e ss i n t h is wor l d is not t o succ e e d, bu t to fa i l i n g ood sp i r i t s.’ Never at ease with or feeling part of the ‘art world’ painting is for me a private activity. My work is a solitary and obsessive quest for a paint equivalent of the visually exciting. Communicating ideas or pleasing an audience have never been prime concerns, with publicity an embarrassment and showing a necessity to survival.

1 I look on an exhibition as an interlude in an endless search. Problematic, in that it is a summing-up of a time and a theme and forces me to face up to the idea of an ending. Noted in my sketchbook, in despair at my failure after years of work to bring a painting to a satisfactory conclusion is a quote from Edward Elgar: ‘G r e at is t h e a rt of beg i n n i ng, bu t g r e at e r t h e a rt of e n di ng.’

My inability to finish paintings and the inevitable proliferation of studies which result, is largely due to my doubt and indecision. It is also an understandable consequence of attempting to record the ever changing landscape before me. Confronted daily by change, it sometimes feels more telling to let a painting appear unresolved. Searching beyond the obvious and predictable demands a complete absorption in the process and the media, for only then is the unexpected made possible. To stand back and judge is to lose contact with the source. ‘You c a n not t r av e l on t h e pat h, be for e you h av e becom e t h e pat h i t se l f.’

Walking the hills and valley around me has been as constant as painting has been all-consuming. It is not only physically pleasurable, but gives me time to observe and to contemplate. I like un-peopled places. They invade my psyche and haunt my drawings. Like cubist upheavals, the crags and screes of the mountain take shape across my paper sky. These ancient rocks, little changed since the last Ice Age, have history drawn across their scarred and mottled surfaces and take me back to a time of the hunter and the hunted. Only the wind breaks the silence and the hare and hawk disturb the horizon.

Crossing the rough terrain of the scree demands total concentration and I discover beneath my feet a confusion of shapes and shadows, formed by the light of the low winter sun and forged into the jagged sculptured form of some great stone warrior of the past. ­ ooking beyond the rockface, the sky L opens up a restless infinity

No matter how wild the weather, reaching the summit of a mountain and scanning the horizon is like a spiritual release. Watching the heaving forms of the cumulonimbus expand and multiply over the mountain tops, I fly with the hawk and the raven into the turmoil of the storm and let wild swirls of paint like the whorls of Leonardo’s pen, draw me into the deluge.

[ 2 ]  Fire Crag acrylic on paper · 107 x 147 cm

[ 3 ]  Place of the Spirits oil on canvas · 157 x 203 cm

[ 4 ]  Sunset Crag mixed media on paper · 30 x 31 cm

[ 5 ]  Brittle Peaks that only Clouds may Walk acrylic on paper · 108 x 147 cm

How to paint the impossible? A cloud drifting across the sun allows me to study this primal life force, I think of the fourteenth century mystic who imagined a ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ between himself and God as a contemplative state which might enable him to go beyond intellectual reasoning to a deeper spiritual understanding. I make a vague cloudwall of abstraction, searching for my own equivalent in paint of this unfathomable space.


‘I di d not k now i t wa s t h e e a rt h I l ov e d U n t i l I t r i e d to l i v e t h e r e i n t h e c l ou ds’ Edward Thomas, ‘Wind and Mist’

[ 6 ]  Beyond the realm of birds acrylic on paper · 70 x 68 cm

[ 7 ]  Spin-off acrylic on paper · 68 x 70 cm

[ 8 ]  The wind and I between us shared the world acrylic on paper · 73 x 132 cm

[ 9 ]  The sky is torn across

[ 10 ]  Break the Clouds’ Anger

acrylic on paper · 70 x 86 cm

acrylic on paper · 70 x 86 cm

[ 12 ]  Deluge acrylic on paper · 39 x 35 cm

[ 13 ]  Goshawk acrylic on paper · 47 x 48 cm

[ 11 ]  Stormstruck acrylic on paper · 39 x 35 cm

[ 14 ]  Snow Forecast acrylic on paper · 56 x 59 cm

[ 15 ]  A west wind blows acrylic on paper · 70 x 68 cm

[ 16 ]  Towering Clouds acrylic on paper · 70 x 72 cm

[ 17 ]  The Cloud of Unknowing acrylic on paper · 50 x 58 cm

[ 18 ]  Red in the West acrylic on paper · 122 x 142 cm

[ 19 ]  Return of the Sun acrylic on paper · 50 x 48.4 cm

upper row, left and right

[ 20 ]  Storm acrylic on paper · 25 x 26 cm

[ 21 ]  Passing Storm acrylic on paper · 22.5 x 62 cm lower row, left, centre and right

[ 22 ]  Sun and Showers V acrylic on paper · 25 x 26 cm

[ 23 ]  Sunset gouache on paper · 19.5 x 21.5 cm

[ 24 ]  Blowing Past acrylic on paper · 35 x 35.5 cm

upper row, left and right

[ 25 ]  Sun and Showers I acrylic on paper · 24 x 25 cm

[ 26 ]  Sun and Showers II acrylic on paper · 25 x 24 cm lower row, left and right

[ 27 ]  Sun and Showers III acrylic on paper · 25 x 20.5 cm

[ 28 ]  Sun and Showers IV acrylic on paper · 25 x 24.5 cm

Nye: extend paper background left and right

[ 29 ]  Rain

[ 30 ]  Downpour

acrylic on paper · 37 x 36 cm

mixed media on paper · 37 x 48 cm

The cloud follows me to the village in the valley, patches of grey mist, like missing pieces of jigsaw, patterning my paper. Though mist, like an invisible rubber, erases the familiar images, the ghost of the drawing remains, for the memories are too deep to be forgotten. Tomorrow the sun and the green will return. Moving from the emotional excitement of nature to the physical activity of the studio is my life. Most days I draw, not to make studies for a painting, but to be an active part of nature itself and experience as directly as possible the power and vitality around me. It helps me to occupy the space of the world I create.


Drawing is like an injection of a stimulant. Outdoors the speed and constancy of change, forces me to improvise without thought or fear of destroying the image and back in the studio, helps me to stay experimental in my outlook as I search for a language to express this visual overload.

[ 31 ]  Swallows in the Storm acrylic on paper · 50 x 51 cm

[ 32 ]  Swallows in the Rain I

[ 33 ]  Swallows in the Rain II

acrylic on paper · 35 x 100 cm

acrylic on paper · 35 x 100 cm

[ 34 ]  Patterns in the Mist mixed media on paper ¡ 75 x 71 cm

[ 35 ]  Still white beyond the red hill track acrylic on paper · 122 x 140 cm

[ 36 ]  Among the Clouds

[ 37 ]  Drifting

acrylic on paper · 56 x 53 cm

acrylic on paper · 56 x 60 cm

[ 38 ]  The Still Sleeping Village acrylic on paper · 122 x 146 cm

[ 39 ]  A mist engulfed the valley acrylic on paper · 79 x 70 cm

[ 40 ]  Drifting acrylic on paper · 56 x 60 cm

[ 41 ]  A Soft Veil of Mist acrylic on paper · 50 x 50 cm



Born Airdrie, 1937 Studied Glasgow School of Art Post Diploma and Travelling Scholarship to Italy Part-time lecturer at Glasgow School of Art until 1979 Lives in the Clyde Valley Member of: Royal Scottish Academy Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts

Solo Exhibitions 1981  The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh 1984  The Fine Art Society, Glasgow and Edinburgh 1988  Falling Water, Talbot Rice Art Centre, University of Edinburgh; Crawford Centre, University of St. Andrews; MacLaurin Art Gallery, Ayr; catalogue introduction by Duncan Macmillan 1990  Glasgow Art Gallery – Contemporary Art Season 1991  The Fine Art Society, Glasgow and Edinburgh 1991–2  Patterns of Flight, Wrexham Arts Centre Touring Exhibition; catalogue introduction by Roger Billcliffe 1992  Roger Billcliffe Fine Art, Glasgow 1994  The Creative Process, Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow; catalogue introduction by Chris Allan 1994  Hill of Fire, Roger Billcliffe Fine Art, Glasgow 1997  Of Wet and of Wildness, The Scottish Gallery 2000  New Paintings, The Scottish Gallery 2002  Beyond the Valley, artLondon, with The Scottish Gallery 2004  Along an Overgrown Path, The Scottish Gallery 2006  Air, Fire and Rain, Roger Billcliffe Gallery, Glasgow 2007  In a Summer Garden, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh 2009  In Search of Time Past, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh 2012  Across a Painted Sky, The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh

Selected Group Exhibitions

[ 42 ]  Gathering Storm acrylic on paper · 28 x 28 cm

1975  Five Glasgow Painters, Edinburgh Arts Centre 1981–2  Contemporary Art from Scotland, Touring Exhibition arranged by The Scottish Gallery Scottish Painting, Toulouse

1984  Weather, Scottish Arts Council Travelling Gallery 1985  About Landscape, Edinburgh Festival Show, Talbot Rice Art Centre Western Approaches, Touring Exhibition of Contemporary Scottish Art, Rio de Janeiro 1986  Ten Scottish Painters, London 1988  The Scottish Show, Oriel 31 Touring Exhibition, Wales 1991  Landscape to Art, Four Scottish Artists, Dundee Art Gallery 2000  Scottish Landscape, The Scottish Gallery 2003  Six RSA Artists, University of Central Florida

Awards Scottish Arts Council Award Latimer Award and Macaulay Prize, Royal Scottish Academy Torrance Award, Cargill Award and Macfarlane Charitable Trust Award, Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts May Marshall Brown Award, Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour Provost’s Prize for Contemporary Art, Goma, 1996, Royal Bank of Scotland Award, RGI, 2001

Public Collections Highland Council Low Parks Museum Arts Council of Great Britain Glasgow Art Gallery Dundee Art Gallery Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea Lillie Art Gallery, Milngavie Government Art Collection Edinburgh City Art Centre Glasgow University Edinburgh University Stirling University Strathclyde Regional Council Education Authority Dunbartonshire Education Authority

Lothian Schools Picture Collection Pitlochry Festival Theatre Tapestry commissioned by Coats Viyella, woven by Edinburgh Tapestry Company, presented to Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1991

Private Collections Works in many private and corporate collections in Britain, Germany and North America including: Arthur Andersen & Co, Glasgow Clydesdale Bank plc Halifax Building Society Reader’s Digest, New York Ross, Harper & Murphy, Glasgow Rowntree Mackintosh plc Scottish Amicable William Teacher and Sons Ltd United Distillers plc Fleming-Wyfold Art Foundation Bank of Japan Royal Bank of Scotland

Literature William Hardie, Scottish Painting: 1837 to the Present, London 1990 Duncan Macmillan, Scottish Art: 1460–1990, Edinburgh 1990 William Hare, Contemporary Painting in Scotland, Edinburgh 1993 Duncan Macmillan, Scottish Art in the 20th Century, Edinburgh 1996

Films Scottish Television, The Scottish Picture Show, 1988, with Duncan Macmillan Scottish Television, Talking Pictures, 1992; with Vivien Hamilton BBC Education Scotland, Looking at Scottish Art, 1996

16 Dundas Street · Edinburgh EH3 6HZ Telephone  +44 (0) 131 558 1200 Email Gallery hours: Monday to Friday 10–6pm Saturday 10–4pm

Published by The Scottish Gallery for the exhibition Duncan Shanks: Across a Painted Sky held at 16 Dundas Street from 3 August to 5 September 2012 Text and images © Duncan Shanks 2o12 Catalogue © The Scottish Gallery 2012 All rights reserved Photography by John McKenzie Designed and typeset in Trump by Dalrymple Printed in Scotland by 21 Colour Cover: detail from The wind and I between us shared the world [cat.7]