Ian Hamilton Finlay (4 stars)

Ian Hamilton Finlay

Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sat 25 Jul


Off in a side gallery at this quasi-retrospective show of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work sits a neat pile of brown bricks arranged on a pallet. On the top of each of the bricks, their look and colour reminiscent of a loaf of bread that’s been fired in a conventional oven rather than a kiln, is printed the word ‘Hovis’. The literature which accompanies the show makes the joke plain: quite literally, the late Finlay has produced a piece of concrete (or in this case brick) poetry.

The piece, also entitled ‘Hovis’, is surrounded by prints of more familiar works of concrete poetry as published by Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press during the 60s. Six individual pieces by artists like John Furnival and Franz Mon are mounted over display cases containing original cards by Finlay, and across from the artist’s 12-part calendar series, ‘The Blue & Brown Poems’. This last selection is wonderful, both formally and aesthetically, and in its sheer joy at the shape and connotation of the simplest individual words.

There is a wealth of material on display in this anteroom, but the larger sculptural works spread out over the rest of the gallery delve even more deeply into Finlay’s considered use of mark-making and of symbolism. The lower floor expands upon the nautical themes which would often attach themselves to his work, particularly tooled lumps of marble, slate and wood inscribed with their own one-line-poem titles (‘Blue Water’s Bark’, ‘The Boat’s Inseparable Ripples’, ‘A Last Word: Rudder’). As with a trio of stone sculptures cast with shapes and serial numbers that suggest sailing yachts, these works bring to mind erosion – both physical erosion from the tide’s movement and erosion of meaning from the advance of language.

Upstairs, a range of works inspired by the French Revolution, including three strangely art deco window panes individually inscribed with the words ‘Liberty, Equality, Eternity’ and the Gian Lorenzo Bernini-inspired wall-painting ‘Apollo & Daphne’, are more inscrutable. The presence of a Georges Sorel quote on a slate tile hints at a thread of the mythic, but again the origin of each quote or phrase seems secondary to Finlay’s very considered method of presenting them.

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