Over the coming year, The Scottish Gallery's programme will give a sense of the range of its activities and a sample of the range of art and artists it supports and it begins the year with the oldest and the youngest. James Morrison [who is also showing] first exhibited in the Scottish Gallery in 1959. This is his 26th exhibition in a long and fruitful relationship that spans almost a third of the gallery’s life.
This is typical of the way it has supported its artists. More than a century ago William McTaggart enjoyed a similar partnership. Meanwhile however, to represent the youngest and show that it has never only handled safe, blue chip art, the gallery is also showing David Cass, a recent graduate from Edinburgh College of Art.
There is continuity there too however, not just in the way that the gallery has always been prepared to take on young artists, but because Cass has taken Venice as his theme and it is one that he shares with a good many of the gallery’s artists past and present.
If you take Titian as the start (and I do), Venice is the home of modern painting and artists have been drawn to it ever since. What Cass records, however, in a body of beautiful, mostly small paintings of signs, inscriptions and grafitti, is something of the modern city, or at least the most recent layer in the palimpsest that is the city. For Venice is covered in signs, not intrusive ones, but small, often extemporised inscriptions. Cass records many of them in a way that also captures their informality and the way they have become part of the texture of the city.
Frequently there is a hint of exasperation in them. On a particular corner where no doubt wretched tourists always lose their way, someone fed up with the effort of trying to explain where they are to people who speak no Italian and understand less, will have painted a notice with an arrow pointing to the station, or to San Marco.
Elsewhere with a hint of downright anger, and more than once, people have written up “No Grandi Navi” (“No big boats”), conjuring an image of big swanky boats infuriating the locals by mooring in inappropriate places, an obstruction and worse to those trying to pursue their ordinary lives. Another improvised sign points to the Scuola San Rocco and the paintings of Tintoretto. It is a reminder both of how deep the layers are of the city’s palimpsest and how rich, but also of the difficulty of living with a heritage that everyone wants to share.
So Cass captures a hint of the desperation of Venice’s rapidly shrinking population trying to carry on their lives between the twin flood tides of tourism and the overflowing Lagoon. In other paintings, however, he looks down from the collage of the walls to the place where they meet the water, but this is not in a sharp dividing line.
Venice is a city of reflections and so if you look at the walls you see the reflected light from the water and if you look at the water you see the reflected walls. Thus his art becomes a metaphor for the unstable balance of fragility and permanence that is one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
What could be more basic than water and wood, or more redolent of time's passage? Both feature organic patterns, images of endless repetitions with infinite variations. Wood grain and water - whether the water of rivers, of seas, or of pools - visually connote both continuity and endless change. As we observe the ebb of a period in which, for the past hundred years, it has been expected that visual art be resolutely modern or contemporary in aspect - in other words, have the shine of the new about it, David Cass's art turns in a novel way to recoup or garner material from the past, not so much the art historical past nor the politics of the past but the past, simply put. Without nostalgia, he seeks to honor the general sense of ongoing loss. His subject is found in the lapping of water on a shore, erasing and eroding as it repeats the endless process, or like wood, at once permanent, the stuff of the cedars of Lebanon and the California Redwoods, old as the Roman Empire in some cases, and yet subject to damp and drought, to rot, to abrasion, their cycle of leafing and shedding the most immediately obvious marker of the seasons, and those seasons easily connoting stages of a life. He often favors wooden drawers or the sides of boxes on which to paint, the flotsam and jetsam of antique shops and attics, seasoned with years of service as well as years of neglect - though also reminiscent of the wooden cradles on which Renaissance panel paintings were made, basic pallets for paint with orthogonal struts for reinforcement against the variations in temperature and humidity in the centuries to come. Trees and water are highly mythical entities, rendered in Cass's art prosaic and unpretentious, evocative without being symbolic. His sculptural assemblages similarly are studies in roughness finessed, in disorderly orderliness: microcosms of his studio.
He first visited Florence as the result of an award from the Royal Scottish Academy. The Arno, like a little Thames or Clyde, divides the respectable main bulk of the city from the traditionally less prestigious southern bank. Not a mighty river, but instead often low and mud-colored, it must have caught Cass' imagination as a force of transfiguration, as it had suddenly become one November a raging torrent of destruction that threatened not only the modern city and its people, but also what at the time might have been unreservedly (if somewhat irresponsibly) claimed as the richest repository of art in the world. Striving to recall a time well before he was born, a time housed in myriad dissolving personal memories, increasingly fragile, of decades ago, Cass made himself the visual chronicler of that which was archaically preserved in black and white photographs, those sparser, more mysterious and laconic photographs of a pre-digital era. Part of the project is the realization of how much our sense of visual record has changed since 1966. Using photographs and histories, some of them fictional, working in a way vaguely analogous to Renaissance artists who used their interest in antiquity combined with their ignorance of antiquity to make an imaginative space in which they could freely roam, David Cass began to imagine that brown water everywhere, rising up and staining the art objects - heads by Filippino Lippi and Bronzino, as well as Michelangelo's David - embedded in our cultural memory. Starting often from the imagery of period postcards or news-cuttings, the flood project has been made exclusively on old papers, and appropriately enough, given that Renaissance artists benefitted from the first easy access to paper on which to draw and experiment.
Quietly radical, Cass's art incorporates the activity of collecting into the process of making, so that the function of the artist for once utterly displaces the Romantic prototype of the wildman with the bravura brush, and becomes instead a sort of everyman, a Robinson Crusoe scavenging in order to build a new and stripped down life, an aesthetically curious Claude Lévi-Strauss walking through an apparently disordered landscape and finding structure there, an Erasmus, a citizen of the world who can be at home wherever there is water, wood, and weakening memory. In Florence in particular, that memory pings with images of busts and portraits, of buildings, doorways and piazzas, the treasured cultural memories of generations recently past, a time when visiting Italy was a rarer commodity and the art there promised to answer the question: what is high culture in a commercial society? Cass's art is neither universal nor individual in its foundation, but less stably based on the shifting sands of cultural memory, on a sense of self that is shared but has ever-changing boundaries. He paints and draws on old wooden functional objects, on garage doors, on antique post cards and used envelopes. The support is never neutral; the paint is never brash. Those varied yet constant patterns of shimmering waves, a sight resolutely resistant to photography, make a series of abstract surfaces that need not remind us of Canaletto, who both in paint and line studied wavelets with comparable intensity and sensitivity. They need not remind us of Vija Celmins, whose studies of sea surfaces similarly tackled the glories of a consistency that yields ever-changing variation. In Cass's case the task is more abstractly accomplished and the traditional hierarchical distinction between support surface and paint is startlingly absent. Not only do the wood surfaces have their own histories, their own objecthood, but even the paints in some cases are inherited and so similarly come with a sense of other, only partially known, only partially shareable experience.
David Cass's work offers us not a renaissance, but an excavation into what is near enough to be remembered and far enough to be forgotten. That historical distance of forgetting and remembering, that great gulf in every person's identity, is his enduring subject. His is an art that remembers what relics are but takes no interest in the preciousness of reliquaries, an art that refers to loss and yet utterly avoids sentimentality. This new art is camouflaged as vintage; it is suggestive of accumulated experience, like the earth itself. Although not overtly political, an art made of non-precious, natural materials, an art in which the motif of wavelets of water is studied to the point of insistence, suffices in our days to induce any viewer to bring to mind contemporary concerns about climate change and habitat destruction. The flood in Florence, initially thought of as an extraordinary event, a freak accident of nature, has been rendered by hindsight something of a harbinger of troubles that have followed, weather extremes of all sorts, increasingly frequent floods among them. It marks the historical hinge between the decades of utmost worry about nuclear holocaust and the subsequent focus on potentially equally devastating damage to the environment, measured in part by the ravages of flood and deforestation. Water and wood have become tokens of nature in all its vulnerability, that reconceptualization of nature as endangered being one of the great shifts in post-Renaissance history.
Fifty years ago, Florence was terribly threatened. Both the city and the world have since been transformed by a multitude of changes, while memory of the flood becomes increasingly remote. David Cass's Flood Project, the work of someone for whom the flood is purely historical, offers us the opportunity to meditate on the passage of time, on cultural memory, on that middle ground between the personal and the universal, on our sense of vulnerability, and on the consoling beauty of wood, water, watercolor and paper.
Roger Rotmann • Intern Director at Centre Pompidou, Paris
Cultural Development Department (2013)
David Cass’ rapport with nature and matter is at once deep and yet deliberately distanced: he has established the capacity to observe from not too far away. Cass has situated himself in the ideal position to describe balance: with tact, without over-indulgence, without grandiloquence.
One could say that Cass possesses the mad ambition to decant the sea - into a box of matches perhaps - or to send it to you, sealed & folded, painted upon the plane of a simple postcard. Yet it would be wrong to use these examples of his practice to describe the whole. A versatile artist, his output ranges from less than 10cm² to well over 10m².
In order to comprehend the true core of his work (the tension, the voltage that runs through it), one must observe it in the flesh. At one pole we are presented with the harshness, the humility of the materials he uses. On the other - the magnificence of nature, the fluidity of the sea and his scrupulous description of its perpetual motion, whilst carefully balancing literal depiction with abstraction.
Cass plays with this tension with bonheur, and an innate sense of material which is undoubtedly his own brand. Far from stopping there, he wisely expands his practice through research: into the history of modern and contemporary art, setting and acknowledging milestones along his conquest of new territories.
David Cass just turned 27. Already his work has enjoyed significant recognition in the United Kingdom - where he has worked on both solo and group exhibitions. Cass is recognized as one of the most promising young artists of his generation. This is in part thanks to the works he has thus far created, but also thanks to a practice rich in promise, new potential.
Département du Développement Culturel
David Cass entretient avec la nature et la matière un rapport tout à la fois profond et distancié qui est le propre de ceux qui ont eu la chance ou le mérite de ne pas trop s’en éloigner. Ainsi, est-il en mesure de choisir la meilleure position afin de mieux les ressaisir et l’une et l’autre, avec tact, sans grandiloquence et sans pathos.
On pourrait dire que David Cass nourrit la folle ambition de mettre la mer en boite (d’allumettes) ou de vous l’envoyer sous pli ouvert avec comme support une simple carte postale. Mais, ce serait bien à tort prendre la partie pour le tout puisque le format de ses œuvres peut aller de moins de 10cm² à plus de 10 m².
La vérité de son travail il faut aller la découvrir dans la tension qui le traverse. À un pole, la rudesse et l’humilité des matériaux qu’il utilise, à l’autre la magnificence de la nature, la fluidité de cette mer dont il décrit avec scrupule le perpétuel recommencement, tout en tutoyant les limites de l’abstraction.
David Cass joue de cette tension avec bonheur grâce à son sens inné de la matière qui est sans doute sa marque propre. Loin de s’en tenir là, il étend avec discernement le champ de ses expériences et de sa pratique recherchant dans l’histoire de l’art moderne et contemporain des points d’appui qui seront autant des jalons dans sa conquête de nouveaux territoires.
David Cass vient d’avoir 27 ans. D'ores et déjà ses travaux ont bénéficié d'une reconnaissance très significative au Royaume Uni où il a réalisé de nombreuses expositions personnelles ou de groupe. Il s’affirme aujourd’hui comme un des jeunes artistes les plus prometteurs de sa génération. Avec des œuvres déjà et un travail riche de nouvelles promesses.
David Cass returns from his journeys out to find the supports and substance of his works, carrying table tops, wooden drawers, bundles of ancient postcards, bags of matchboxes into his workspace. The studio becomes a refuge, its intimate, closed space set against the openness of distances travelled, the vastness of Cass's photographs of landscapes and painted seascapes. Its hearth-place anchors his journeying into the world. It is a trope of return, as the countryside and moorland around where Cass grew up, narrated in his writings with the ease and familiarity - 'Parking the car up tyre tracks I knew were there' - of a sleepwalker who crosses his home without incident, each object's place and heft so intimately known as to pose no risk.
Gathered in that studio space, the lives of these objects - discarded, discovered, haggled-over, hard-won - continue. They are reborn from one way of being into another. Their substance, dignified by age and use - surfaces scratched, worn by work and love and neglect, all the ordinary abrasions of time passing - are trans-formed, their form carried across into another life.
One might think of this as a collaboration with time and materials. His works are formed by the history that particular things have enjoyed and endured, and individual pieces are underwritten by their past. Knowing that a painting is made on the rear of a framed painting dating from the 1700's alters what we see. That the more recent layer depicts a seascape reminds the viewer of the sea's endurance. Today, as then, the waves come and go, the water's surface is crossed by winds, creased by currents. Then there is the aspect of the ribbon-like strands of Cass's seas relating to the grain of the wood, so that his paintings become a weaving of art and circumstance. The ground or surface, with its imperfections and the rhythms of its natural form and substance, resonates with the overlay of paint. There is a dialogue set up between art and matter, and another between past and present. In fact, since Cass describes his paintings as 'snapshot[s] from my memory', there is a further overlay. The final works are physically overlaid - paint on surfaces - but they also are overlays of memory: the memory and history of the object overlaid with the recollections of the artist.
Risk and happenstance: this work relies on the right materials being found. If not right, then right enough. The need for sympathetic surfaces, for objects that have had one life and are now ready for another. Sourcing these objects in the manner he does, of course Cass risks missing things constantly. There might be the perfect tabletop at a market somewhere near Ealing - it will likely not find its way into his studio, and so never be transfigured. But there is no preciousness here: it's not about finding the ideal object, but rather exactly about the ordinariness of what is found and worked with.
His photographs take different risks: using out-of-date film means Cass never can be sure what will come of his images - colours bleed, fade - and working with aged and damaged cameras means light leaks, lenses are scratched, mechanisms might prove unreliable at critical moments. These textures, artefacts, expected but unpredictable, anchor the scene (the seen) in the everyday, the ordinariness of life.
These new photographs on old film effect another curious folding of time. They have a quality of age, so that today looks like a postcard from years before. As the paintings enact an encounter of solid things, lodged in time and place, with endlessness and timelessness - the momentary glimpses of memory, the seascapes' unending motion, represented on particular objects with particular histories - so the camera's lens opens, and now is captured on film that dates from then.
Cass's forays into the world, wandering the flea markets of Brussels in the early morning, hunting London and Edinburgh's antique shops and barns, end in return. There is a motif of journeying and standing still, represented in a number of his photographs - views from the edges of roads and paths, double glances of the way ahead and the rear-view mirror's recall of the ground already covered, sea-photographs' beckoning openness and distance. And there is the warm interior of the studio, objects slant-lit, gathered in their taxonomies, bundled, piled, and at rest.