The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh 2019
Trick of the Light
SCOTSMAN REVIEW by Duncan Macmillan
Hugh Buchanan revisits the New Town for a powerful series of paintings celebrating the architectural treasures of Edinburgh
The Enlightenment was just that. It brought light where there had been darkness, the darkness of bigotry that had consumed Scotland: the tyranny of belief only validated by the strength of its own conviction. David Hume and his friends were determined that truth validated instead only by experience should forever banish bigotry. The greatest monument of the Enlightenment they led was Edinburgh's New Town. In volume of stone shifted it is the equivalent of the pyramids. Appropriately too, light brought in by wide streets and big windows was at the heart of the project. Light matters too for the classical detail that adorns its buildings. Originally designed for the white limestone and sharp light of the Mediterranean, it was adapted beautifully to the soft light of the north and the gold and grey stone of the city.
Hugh Buchanan celebrated the quarter millennium of the New Town (while the city largely ignored it) with a superb exhibition of Edinburgh's Georgian architecture. Now he has returned with part two, he says, of the same project, not to repeat himself, but to take it in a new direction. Buchanan paints in watercolour, a medium uniquely suited to painting light and his previous show was literally luminous. But, as the wheels of history turn and the shadows threaten to overturn the Enlightenments legacy, so too light does not always illuminate. Bright light dazzles. It can seem to dissolve solid surfaces, make it difficult to see even as it illuminates and, casting deep shadows, it can bring darkness and obscurity into the full light of day. Some of this anxiety is reflected in the direction that Buchanan has taken in his new show. In it he paints details, especially capitals and columns, Doric, Corinthian or Ionian, and fragments of colonnaded facades, but whatever his subject, light dissolves or shadow threatens to engulf it.
He describes how first he paints heavy paper with the colour of stone. In different lights this can be black, grey, sepia, or under decorative lighting even pink. Then he attacks it with an abrasive, literally scrubs it away as though it really was stone. Under this attack the white paper shows through the paint as patterns of light or the texture of the stone. Then he finds the image in the painted and abraded paer. Thus, his process mimics the whole business of building with stone, an inert material, cut, polished, shaped, installed and then standing for centuries weathered by time.
In a superb series of grey-black paintings of the entrance to Old College, of other details of Adam's building, or details of the Doric columns of the RSA, sweeping abrasions seem to reveal the stone's geology before any human intervention, as the immensity of geological time dwarfs all human effort. Indeed, time seems to be the theme of these remarkable pictures. Sepia light suggests old photographs with their unique ability to collapse time past. Others are on paper roughly shaped and presented as though they were historic fragments, or in yet others the stone itself seems to be eroded as though, in some bleak future, like the sphinx, it had stood for millennia in some sand-blown desert.
In a pedestrian's view of the Caledonian Hotel in Lothian Road - Buchanan doesn't limit himself to Georgian architecture - the dissolving light suggests Monet's Rouen cathedral paintings. In them, too, the artist reflects on time, on history and the apparent solidity of things, but, at the same time and in contrast, under constantly changing light, their mutability and impermanence. In one picture Ionian White and Gold, a detail of a capital from Dundas House, Buchanan also quotes from T.S. Eliot's' The Waste Land. It is a poem about transience and permanence, about the persistence of memory across great stretches of time, just like classical architecture laden with its history over 2000 years or more. Eliot also contrasts all this collective memory with the mundane, transient details of life, day to day. In his pictures Buchanan invites us to look about us and like Eliot reflect on these imponderables.