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REVIEW

Society of Caithness Artists- 77th Art Exhibition 2012

by Christine Gunn.

Fresh from a fortnight in Orkney was probably a good time for me to visit the 77th exhibition by the Society of Caithness Artists, on show at Thurso High school until 11th August. The goldfish-bowl effect of living in a smallish community can mean it's hard to see local people, places and attitudes without a lot of attendant baggage, and artists working here can fall foul of the 'I kent his faither' syndrome that can undermine their efforts. If familiarity can breed contempt, I'm happy to report it's equally true that absence makes (my) heart grow fonder.

Stepping gingerly between the rows of work on display- 345 individual pieces, including painting, prints, drawing, wood craft, glass and sculpture- I began in a state of anxiety. How to give a fair overview of such a wide spectrum of work, fed by varying degrees of talent, insight, professional experience and technique, ambition and amateur enthusiasm? I remind myself this is an open exhibition, and upholds a very 21st century dedication to the democratic principle of inclusion. My note-taking becomes a little bolder. Bolder still once I spy a tendency amongst some not to let attention to detail stand in the way of an amusing title. Settling for the fact the playing field is uneven, I decide it's ok just to go with what I like/or admire. I turn a new page in my notebook.

A series of lignographic prints of birds by Madeline Mackay is the first to stand out and get me scribbling, I'm not familiar with the process - at first I assume it a catalogue typo and these are lithographs- but the effect serves to make the artist's cormorants and curlews both familiar and darkly strange at the some time.

Well-known names live up to well-deserved reputations; you could imagine David Body's brightly coloured acrylics used in cartoon animation, turning his May Moon, Orcas of Stroma, Northern Lights and Puffins of Hoy into a slightly off-beat moving Caithness narrative as well as a still one; Kitty Watt's aquatints and David Cameron Watt's paintings are well-established and familiar in style, colour and technique, yet always offer something new and closely observed - I make a note that the sheep in David's Westside Stroma are bigger than the empty houses, and darkly coloured where sky, land and sea are a riot of fire; the stark sinuousness of Paricia Niemann's mixed media portraits unsettles, the flaring passion if the subjects expressed in panels of bold red colour; Liz O'Donnell's  Steading in Winter finds rich colour in a white winter landscape; Helen Moore's mixed media Cable Sign Dunnet Beach, Cable Sign shadow Dunnet Beach and  Stroma Shed pluck out in colour the insignificant and the micro-familiar in local landscapes to give them totemic focus; Ian Pearson's irreverent glass sculptures take no hostages- you'll either love them or hate them; Dennis Mann's enamelled engraved glass plates appeal to the heart rather than the chuckle muscle; Ian Scott has an uncanny ability with pencil on paper - a portrait of RR Sinclair is so finely drawn it seems to render the subject in a kind of translucent, sci-fi brilliance, as if he's been illuminated by lightning (or might in turn strike the observer with his own mesmeric lightning).

There are unfamiliar names whose pieces also attract: Julie Dent's acrylics and John Luckie's watercolours have a vitality and humour about them that creates their own weather. Don Lyall's Home Soon should be taken up by Caithness Chamber of Commerce as the 'before' half of a before-and-after Thurso town regeneration graphic..... One watercolour artist is so well known that his signature has one letter: 'C' - I'll leave you to ponder the creator of Cairngorms from Glen Baddoch.

Finally, there is a heart-felt tribute from Alan Begg to his father George Sinclair Begg (1931-2011) - Upper Dounreay farmer, joiner and self-taught artist. The work on display reflects the broad interests and life-experience of a Caithness man who could turn his hand to anything, and did, even while battling Parkinson's Disease. His toolbox and other working items sit poignantly below some of his paintings, my favourite being a mixed media one of a church scene. Alan Begg referes to a Munch-like quality in some of his father's later work, and I think this would be one such.

My post-holiday, Orcadian visit to their 77th Exhibition finds the community of artists in this county in fine fettle. They're busy expressing unique perspectives on this corner of the northern hemisphere, and showing how it's that bit different from everywhere else. What more could we ask?

Go and see this exhibition, and take your wallet. You'll be tempted.