David Pollock explores how Edinburgh-based artist Donald Urquhart brings an abstracting, conceptual approach to his depictions of nature
While this exhibition of drawings by Edinburgh-based Donald Urquhart, who is more commonly associated with sculptural public art projects such as ‘The Sanctuary’ at Edinburgh’s New Royal Infirmary, is billed as covering the period 1977–2007, that’s something of a misnomer. All but one of the works on display were created last year, the sole exception being a cursory study of a thistle from 1977, which illustrates little of the artist’s development bar his ongoing interest in closely inspecting nature.
The rest of the painted pieces here conform to an almost identical brief. Monochrome graphite and gouache drawings of painstakingly detailed but teasingly indistinct landscape scenes are presented alongside one form of unnatural intervention or other, be it a blacked-out strip which gives the appearance of an excised portion of the piece, or a block of colour placed within or alongside the drawn work.
Deeper study of and reflection upon these depictions of nature is not so much invited as depended upon, in this sense drawing our attention to the description of Urquhart as an ‘ecological artist’. The drawings themselves are not traditional landscapes, but are instead repetitive but definitely organic representations of small excerpts from nature’s scenery. ‘Forest Pool (Mayama)’, for instance, shows what appears to be a reflection of trees in water, while there’s an echo of grassy Highland plains in ‘Cairngorm Drawing’ and ‘Assynt Drawing’; the top of a brick wall studded with sunlight shining through trees in ‘Two Planes, Shenzen, China’; the hint of frost on a windowpane, or perhaps a topographical photograph of a forest, in ‘Harstad Drawing’.
Each of these scenes is described in fine detail, yet approximates the murky detail of black and white photography. Urquhart’s conceptual touch, then, is to offset these straight representations with the intrusion of an artificial element. In the triptych, ‘Two Planes, Lofoten’, three similar drawings of what seems to be a murky, lilied pond are presented alongside equal-sized rectangles in slightly differing shades of blue. ‘Two Drawings About Distance’ recreates the same trick, although its title tells us more about the artist’s thinking. It’s not, it seems, the sense of distance within the drawings which is the object, rather the viewer’s distance from them. And can a plain blue rectangle really be classed as a drawing anyway? At a distance, the bold sky blue stands out; as we get closer, we lose interest in its uniform brightness and become sucked into the fine detail of the black and white drawing alongside.
Other works offer different tableau with a similarly drawn-out reward. ‘A Platform to View the Moon (Katsura)’ and ‘Five Lines, Kyoto’ seem to have no basis in nature, but by omitting segments from each (physically, in the latter case, by cutting the work into six parts) Urquhart draws attention from their nocturnal, wilderness darkness. ‘Tiree Drawing’, meanwhile, is the sculptural centrepiece; a similarly blacked-out painting beside floor-to-wall aluminium rails, their moving shadows, depending on the position of the viewer, evoking a waterfall or shafts of moonlight.
That these works cause us to think of our relationship with nature while only granting a fleeting impression of it is admirable. That they are so rigidly conceptual before all else might mean a wider audience remains unimpressed.
Donald Urquhart: Drawings 1977-2007, City Art Centre, Edinburgh until Sat 16 Feb