What strikes you first when entering the Talbot Rice Gallery’s latest exhibition is not the artwork, but the stark, white, and remarkably bare walls of the aptly named White Gallery. Christopher Orr: The Beguiled Eye is composed of a collection of small, compact images, whose depths create holes in the otherwise blank space. The works, oil paintings and watercolours, supplemented by his sketchbooks, are recent creations, and together form Orr’s first solo exhibition in Scotland.
A noticeable theme of the exhibition is dialogue, a sense of components working together and against each other. This is clear in the relationship between the paintings and the surrounding gallery: it’s a clash of seemingly traditional imagery within the ‘white cube’ space usually reserved for experimental and ideological contemporary art. Some works, like ‘Phantom Empire’, are forcibly separated from the space by their wooden boxed frames, as if they are separate, miniature realities of their own.
The content is another area where disparate objects are melded together. Orr’s work is composed of appropriation; landscapes and colour palettes from past centuries are juxtaposed with modern magazine, film and scientific images. Together the work becomes mythical, surprising and unsettling in equal quantities, as it subverts viewer expectations of what these small canvases should contain. A further dialogue is formed by the incorporation of Orr’s sketchbooks. The inclusion of an artist’s working development is always illuminating, and to see the different components which form Orr’s imagery heightens our appreciation of his final, carefully composed paintings.
The artworks become alive when you encounter them up close, something enabled by Talbot Rice’s understanding of the value of space. ‘Until Only the Mountain Remains’ is given an entire room upstairs. At first, attention is captured by the 1950s-style colourful dress of the women in the forefront of the image. The longer you stand in the curve of the wall and gaze at the painting however, more details emerge. In this case mountain scenery grows out of the darkness, and the wings of an owl become visible. Orr’s work is rich and rewarding if you take time to encounter it.
Perhaps the most successful of Orr’s paintings are found upstairs in the Gallery, where his watercolours go further than oil painting could to create a sense of growth, depth and movement in the pieces. Particularly of note is ‘Proudly Sing Cuckoo’, in which Orr’s delicate layering of colour makes the edges flicker with undefined forms and the water in the foreground become fluid.
The Beguiled Eye is an entirely fitting title for this exhibition of Orr’s work. The eye of the viewer is drawn into the worlds he creates within the small proportions of his canvases, where the darkness is enchanting.