Edinburgh

Calum Colvin

The Fruitmarket Gallery

Roland Barthes’ observation in Camera Lucida that “It is not . . . by Painting that Photography touches art, but by Theater” seems particularly apposite in relation to Calum Colvin’s photographs. Incorporating objects, architectural constructs, collage, paintings, and art-historical quotations, Colvin builds and photographs extravagant installations. Heightening the perspectival tricks and dislocations initiated within the “sets,” it is the glossy, sharply focused cibachrome print that constitutes the final work.

Playing off the conceit that the camera does not select—that it captures all that falls within its ambit—Colvin exaggerates the image’s plentitude, flooding the pictorial field with detail. His hyperreal depictions remind us that the eye is frequently deceived. In one of his recent computer-manipulated images, entitled Jacob’s Ladder, 1989, a kilted figure climbs a precarious ladder in a scene reminiscent of Hogarth’s engraving False Perspective. Part of the fascination of Colvin’s photographs is due to the fact that, as in an optical illusion, different elements become dominant at different distances. In Minotaur, 1989, at first one sees a painted profile, later a rocking horse, and finally the room on which the self-portrait is superimposed. In the right-hand panel night has fallen, the head has disappeared, and the scene has degenerated into disarray and ruin.

Images of Scotland, high and low art, sexuality, heroes, and machismo as epitomized by the naked Action Man doll, all come into play. The idea of the “hard man” is a recurring theme in Glasgow’s culture—or subculture—and one which Colvin is both haunted by and challenges.

Bagpipes, highland cows, postcard images of lochs at sunset, plastic pipers, the kilt, and the cartoon character Oor Wullie—all the Scottish stereotypes, sentimental and otherwise—recur in Colvin’s works, suggesting that clichés do perhaps hold an essence of the truth. Maybe it is even through cliché that the artist, a Scotsman working in London, can come to terms with his feelings about his homeland.

In a triptych entitled The Temptation of St. Anthony, 1989, what looks like ’60s suburban kitchen wallpaper is, in fact, comprised of illustrations of human organs from medical textbooks. Holbein’s ambassadors, the masked Action Man, and a sinister parade of garden gnomes all meet in a pastiche of high and low cultural imagery; Colvin does not distinguish between the two. His use of classical imagery is ironic, witty, and ultimately subversive. It is not presented on a pedestal but alongside low art and popular culture.

Colvin’s style has become more refined of late, the painting less crude, the preoccupations less narcissistic, and the sets more complex. Most recently he has employed a computer paintbox, which allows him to further exaggerate scale and perspective. As yet, however, the new images have failed to match the excitement and originality of his most extravagant sets. Colvin’s engagement with new technology may eventually yield decisive results, but for now the intellectual and visual complexity of the sets is missing. The quality of a fantastic reality seamlessly depicted has given way to the look of more conventional photomontage. The loss of impact is partly the product of the more obvious juxtapositions of scale which have destroyed the intriguing near-plausibility of the works created in the studio.

Natasha Edwards