a plaid found at Cullodena plaid installation copy

Richard Dunn

When James Clerk Maxwell made the first colour photograph he used a piece of tartan as its subject. Tartan was part of Maxwell’s cultural and visual heritage but it was also the ideal subject: complex but clearly structured, with strong definition. So also for the painter Richard Dunn, who is Professor of Contemporary Visual Art and artist-in-residence at the University of Sydney in Australia. Dunn has a Scottish background and there is thus, as there was for Maxwell, a strong cultural reason for him to explore tartan in his work. But, as for Maxwell, he sees in tartan not just something culturally intriguing but an expression of the complexity of visual thinking, with which he can interact as a visual thinker himself, just as he has, for example, with the Fibonacci series. His work tends to address objects of visual complexity that derive from simple formal rules: Fibonacci, tartan, labyrinths, and consistent with this the work of the De Stijl school. In each case these visual objects are deeply embedded in our histories and Dunn uses them as points conceptual origin that illuminate our immediate experience of space. However radically two-dimensional his painted solutions may be they demand not simply to be exhibited but to be installed. These works are more than simply architectonically resonant, they imply architectures. It is appropriate, therefore, to find his work installed here at Sleeper, at the heart of an architectural practice.

Murdo Macdonald June 2009

a plaid heather 600

A plaid found at Culloden

A plaid found at Culloden, but predating 1745 in red, yellow and blue – the colours of twentieth century modernism – sections of which are identical with a Robertson plaid also from the ’45 which, incidentally is almost identical with a McDonell from the same time. Its not clear how the Culloden plaid repeats, so it stands as a puzzle requiring some archaeological work – like historical events, or even those of the present.

The plant opposite is a heather – Calluna vulgaris – presumed or likely to have been growing on the Culloden battlefield. There is also a very nice drawing by Ruskin of this heather that Henry Noltie found for me – a heather rampant. Unfortunately it didn’t fit my purpose although as a drawing it is more interesting than the one I have used. This drawing could be made to fit another context – that of the silhouette representations of plants by the German Romantic artist Philipp Otto Runge. Runge shared, and discussed colour theories with Goethe in1807 and it was he who developed the concept of the color sphere. His aim was to create a complete world of colour with the three primary colours – red, yellow and blue – and tempered by black and white. The plant images of Runge reduce the plant to its basic silhouette and, like his work on colour, maybe seen as truly abstract.

Goethe wrote several books on plant morphology as well, of course on colour theory, and this work influenced 19th century naturalists, through his ideas of transformation about the continuing flux of living things. This, through intermediate sources was to provide Charles Darwin with strong evidence of common descent and of laws of variation.

As this may be a key to much of the work I make, these connections begin to address questions of art in relation to the natural and built environments and their relationship to human use.

On the tartan, the first works using it, in the 1980s, were in one sense quite literal. Four paintings, nearly square, were each based on the crossing point of tartans associated with the names of my grandparents – MacFarlane, MacGregor, Anderson and Dunn. This was after the death of my parents in 1980. The last, Dunn, is somewhat problematic. There is no such tartan, although one can speculate on Erskine as district tartan. This begins in displacement, and reviews personal history – as much as can be reviewed from one’s recent biological decent. Equally, a new tartan could have been made up as many have been since the time of George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Scott’s romance of a ‘plaided pageantry’, is still visible in all its gloriously debased form at the top end of the Royal Mile. However, the implication of the tartan evokes its function in a Highland clan system of feudal identity and obligation rather than George’s “chivalry of a clan” and this has a political implication clouded by the 19th Century reinvention of tartan to connect to what is most generously described as family or clan, but may also be identified historically as a system of ‘fealty’. As a single word sign for a social system of relationships this idea of clan is quite complex. How is this different from, or similar to Australian aboriginal clan and language relationships, attachment to land expressed through abstract images?

[There has been a cultural policy developed in Australia since the late seventies to forefront the idea of ‘multicultural’ Australia – which is very good. But, for ‘multicultural’ one could also read non-Anglo/Celtic. As a consequence, second generation Australians of non-English speaking backgrounds were encouraged to reassert their distinction from the ‘Anglo’ world – which, as the dominant ‘culture’, was a kind of embarrassment. The implication was – and is – that the world excluded from the multicultural in practice (that of English speaking background) has no culture. So one aspect of the official tendencies exercised through Australia Council funding in particular was that the now majority culture is a kind of lack. There are both left and right political implications. This tendency also coincided with the rise of Aboriginal art (Western Desert painting) and its inclusion in exhibitions of contemporary art – which is also very good. My use of the tartan raised a different – and more complex – question about culture and cultural origins and bases. It was critical of the simplistic and exclusive developments in cultural tendency.]

The hiatus of prescription between 1746 and 1782 may represent a cleaving of meaning of the tartan. What is certain is that after 1782 the Highland Societies (these landowners’ clubs whose aims included ‘improvements’ – that is, the Highland Clearances) promoted “the general use of the ancient Highland dress” by obliging members to wear this when attending meetings, an effective method of cooption by landowners. Less exclusive associations, including the Celtic Society of Edinburgh, with Scott as its chairman, promoted Highland culture with all those attending meetings and dances wearing “the garb of old Gaul.”

As a ‘sign’ the tartan is socially, politically and formally complex. Its ambiguity as sign and ‘structure’, or of system, is of the order of Jasper John’s paintings of the American flag – at once, a flag and not a flag. The formal complexity and structure of tartan patterns provides a transition to the underlying characteristic of 20th Century modernism in grids, mathematical series and progressions. So, alternatively, the rhythm of the tartan grid with its small and large blocks of colour may also be linked with Mondrian. Further, in this connection, it is tempting to link the idea of Scots wauking songs and Mondrian’s boogie woogie with the body and, respectively, the rhythmic intervals of tartan and the last New York paintings. Paul Bowles writing in View in 1943 (“The Jazz Ear”), said that “Mondrian’s paintings can be fully appreciated only if seen in connection with the playing of a boogie-woogie record, an experience that Valentine Dudensing of Valentine Gallery [Mondrian’s dealer] offers to those interested.” The ambiguity within a single object is also a cleaving between painting as ‘text’ and painting as aesthetic (and material) object, or sense-based apprehension. Yet their cleaving, like the image of the duck/rabbit, retains both possibilities of the ‘concrete’ and of meaning. Mondrian is clear on this as a musical anecdote from 1941, relayed by Charmion von Wiegand, shows: The Café Society Downtown, frequented by Mondrian, and where he danced with Lee Krasner, featured the boogie-woogie trio of pianists Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson. Mondrian became upset when the music switched from Boogie-woogie to jazz, “Let’s sit down,” he said, “I hear melody.”

The paintings of the Nineteen-nineties make a relationship between the four autobiographical tartans and Mondrian’s block (blokje) paintings of 1917, from which time his work was abstract. These five paintings, that arranged floating rectangles on an underlying grid-like structure, are transitional and not yet resolved. This is what made them so interesting. They are the basis of Ad Reinhard’s paintings and are referenced by New Zealand painter Colin McCahon, and many others.

The tartan paintings do address identity at a fundamental level. That is of the personal, through history, and consequently in the broader cultural sense. Yet tartan is metonymic in this.

Excerpt from interview by Stian Grogaard, Oslo, 2000

SG I would like to move on to the next body of work, which makes use of the Scottish tartan, the clan pattern signatures. You told me Dunn is a Scottish family name. Is there a Dunn tartan to account for your use of these “grids” in the paintings?

RD There is an Erskine tartan, which is regional, that Dunn would be a part of. These clan tartans work as umbrellas, covering groups of family names. Initially I used tartans relating to my four grandparents. But there is also a kind of joke aspect to this in the sense we have been talking about it.

SG The way you remake or resign the reference to the Mondrian grid?

RD Yes, there is a family reference and a reference to classic modernism and a significant moment which came later, developing out of Jasper Johns into minimalism and conceptualism. I quite liked making these little references, which are in a way coded. These paintings are as much about the tartan as Jasper Johns “Flag” is about the American flag. So the reference remains ambiguous. As much as Scottish tartans refer to genealogy, they are mostly 19th century inventions popularized after King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1922 – and are therefore inherently ambiguous.

SG The Scottish tartans may also hold a personal story, connected to the Dunns moving down under to Australia. Is there an epic motivation behind the ambiguous references in the tartan pictures?

RD The Dunn story is altogether different. Looking at Scottish migration in general, however, Australian history is once again the history of the displaced displacing others. For what did these people do when they got there? Farms were established on clan lands of the indigenous people. It is really astonishing that those who suffered displacement themselves would go to another place and do exactly what had been done to them. That is one aspect of a quite tragic story.

SG But weren’t they forced to take the land from the Aborigines?

RD In hindsight, and in the view of Australian humanists at the time, there were alternatives to the brutal treatment of the Aborigines. At the moment the debate is not only about the question of ownership, but about how the land is used. The different uses represent different world views with different purposes, which can in fact coexist. As I said in my lecture, Australia of the nineteenth century was a highly urbanized society. Urban humanists opposed what was taking place in the countryside, but the countryside was often a long way away. These are tragedies of displacement and colonization. As much as the tragedy of the Scots was one of displacement — the prohibition on wearing tartan was, for example, an attempt to break down cultural identity — the aboriginal people in Australia are also confronted with questions of identity and cultural cohesion.

SG This is a difficult discussion about the burden of guilt of generations as well. You mentioned that the Prime Minister of Australia refused to apologize for the injustice done to the aboriginals. But what authority does he have to apologize for what earlier generations did to the native Australians?

RD That question is a bit legalistic, isn’t it? Of course he could and should have apologized. This is an important human gesture that people can make to assist the process of reconciliation.

SG What if we are unhistorical here, and say that the question is whether intolerance towards the native population is a precondition for modernization — unhistorical also in that native ways of life are not an alternative, and thus not exempt from this intolerance, if not downright brutality, just like the common intolerance known throughout history between the sedentary and the nomad?

RD I don’t agree with that. “Nomad” suggests a lack of attachment to land through farming or settlement, and this idea was used to justify the concept of “terra nullius” or unoccupied land. Because of the physical conditions in most of Australia, indigenous people moved across large tribal or clan areas that were culturally mapped and symbolically interpreted. This was their own country.

SG So to be Australian, you have to be a part-time anthropologist, so to speak, and avoid thinking in terms of European universalism?

RD Society becomes much more complex when aboriginal people are seen as being an essential component of broader national identity. Obviously we have something to learn from these people, not least of all because they are such good survivors. That means that we have become more open to different approaches to things. In Australia there’s a growing pride today in aboriginal people and aboriginal culture.

SG Australia is still an exotic place today, as it has been in art history – a topography of strange, undomesticated sites. This would also seem to apply for Australians themselves, since the landscape has dominated Australian art all the way up to the 1960s. This is, by the way, quite similar to the history of art in Norway.

Richard Dunn June 2009

Contemporary Painting and the Idea of Tartan: A Response to Richard’s Dunn’s a plaid found at Culloden.

Richard Dunn’s tartan-minimalist transformation of Sleeper, the gallery of the Edinburgh architectural practice, Reiach and Hall, provided an invaluable perspective on cultural space. What it offered me as a writer was a starting point for exploring both the spatial and cultural power of those traditional patterns and the response to them by contemporary artists.

On one analysis, that of the ethnomusicologist John Purser, underlying
structures in Ceol Mòr (the ‘great music’ of the Highland bagpipe) can be represented by recurring bands of colour. The resultant combination of economy and variety bears striking similarities to tartan. On another analysis, this one the visual hypothesis of George Bain in the mid-20th century, the knotwork interlace of Celtic manuscripts relates naturally to tartan. Text becomes textile. A text is a woven thing. Something that crosses over and back and forth to make sense. Contemporary with Bain’s Celtic Revival approach, J. D. Fergusson made modernist sense of tartan in his cover designs for Scottish Art and Letters in the 1940s. Soon after, Fergusson was to make a further uniquely Celtic contribution through his use of Ogham script in his decorations for Hugh MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce.

But what of the sense of the word ’tartan’ itself? Hugh Cheape has supported the argument that the word ‘tartan’ derived from Gaelic, as ‘a word for textile design with patterns of colour crossing it; the word can be identified with the cognate tarsainn in modern Scottish Gaelic meaning approximately “across”.’ This is a convincing observation about the Gaelic origin of the English term, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the modern Gaelic word for ‘tartan’ is neither tarsainn nor any variant of it. The word in Gaelic is breacan, which is normally translated as ‘speckled’ but as with so many Gaelic words it has no easy equivalent in English, indeed a full set of related words are required to get a sense of it. For example a trout is breac … what else would it be, speckled or dappled both in and out of the water? These breac words refer to things suggestive of visual complexity, full of possibilities of contrast but based on an underlying order. For Edward Dwelly, cirro-cumulus clouds or, as he notes, ‘a dappled sky’ are known as breac-a’-mhuiltein. Dwelly’s further contribution around breacan and related words in his dictionary is immense, extending over three double column pages.
The Gaelic word breacan thus leads one into a world of complex visual experience that shifts a humble textile from clothing a stereotype to clothing a mindset and an ecology. When the scientist James Clerk Maxwell made the first colour photograph he used a piece of tartan as its subject. Tartan was part of Maxwell’s cultural and visual heritage but it was also the ideal subject: complex but clearly structured with strong definition – breacan indeed. So also for Richard Dunn.
Dunn is one of a number of artists who have re-engaged with tartan in a way that interrogates both history and space – an entry point to an ecology of mind. These artists include Rory Donaldson in New York and John Edgar in New Zealand as well as – in Scotland – Calum Colvin, Ross Sinclair and, from the perspective of visualized text, Norman Shaw. Each response is made in full awareness of history. For example, both Richard Dunn and Rory Donaldson reference Mondrian but in very different ways. Indeed Mondrian was also very much there in the background of J. D. Fergusson’s tartan works of the 1940s, and appreciation of that shifts the whole discourse on and, indeed, back. What is also of interest here is the fact that so many of Mondrian’s paintings can be considered breacan in the sense that this Gaelic word implies the visually complex, while at the same time indicating a clear underlying order.
With respect to Dunn’s work, another relevant aspect of Mondrian is that he is the first artist of the modern period who develops his work to a point where it implies installation rather than just display, and very often installation in isolation, something rarely achieved in a gallery setting. Here I note a direct analogy with Dunn’s tartan paintings from the early 1990s. They retain their status as painted objects but at the same time demand careful installation. At Sleeper in Edinburgh Dunn takes this to its logical conclusion. The tartan is deconstructed into blocks of colour that are painted in the form of a kind of cornice onto the gallery wall.
Dunn’s contemporary response exists in the historical context of tartan-as-designed-textile. That designed textile in fact requires for its weaver a visual analysis that is closely related to Dunn’s work. Dunn is very conscious of this meshing of the contemporary and the traditional. In his Sleeper installation this is implicit also in his title, which not only uses the Scots word ‘plaid’ but refers back to the cultural disaster of the battle of Culloden in 1746, after which the wearing of tartan was made illegal for more than a generation (indeed one of the punishments for violating the dress code imposed on the Highlanders was transportation to Australia). Dunn embeds other cultural references also, for the colour blocking of the tartan is complemented by a lightly insistent wall drawing in outline of a heather plant. Again, instead of lending aid to a stereotype, this image of a Highland plant gives further context and illumination by feeding back into Dunn’s long established interest in botany and the mathematics of nature. Thus Richard Dunn’s engagement with tartan and its associated iconography gives tartan a new place at the heart of contemporary art.

Murdo Macdonald June 2009