I would hesitate to call Exit From Coaltown an exhibition. In fact, it is so unassuming I almost walked straight past it. What Exit From Coaltown is, is a collection of work by Edinburgh based artist Michael Dawson displayed in the Summerhall cafe. Perhaps my preconceptions of an exhibition are a little too rigid and traditional, but seeing people sipping flat whites and reading the papers was a little surprising.
That being said, the modest and unpretentious setting matches the rough and unaffected way Dawson paints, his work is bright and bold, and certainly makes a big impact on the space. Reminiscent of artists like Jean Michel Basquiat, Dawson’s paintings throw together seemingly incongruous images, drawn in a simple, rough, almost childlike manner. These pleasing line drawings are accompanied by words and phrases that seem like a stream of consciousness, the inner workings of Dawson’s mind scribbled directly onto the canvas. The room is small, and each wall is packed with work; the setup initially feels slightly overwhelming, but actually suits the Dawson’s eclectic style rather well.
Summerhall’s brief explanation of Exit From Coaltown flags up a remarkable number of themes in Dawson’s work, to name just a few: poverty, injustice, segregation. Interesting and worthy ideas, no doubt, but perhaps the small space could have been taken into consideration and the themes made a little less diffuse. These lofty political themes don’t quite come across in Dawson’s enigmatic paintings, which, while visually stimulating, are conceptually slightly baffling.
One of the first paintings that is displayed in the space is ‘Mad Drumbeats’, which is so filled with jarring colours, images and text that it is overwhelming to the point of unintelligibility. That being said, some of Dawson’s more simple pieces, like ‘George 1st’, are much more compelling and effective. Even a work like ‘Red Path’, which while similar to ‘Mad Drumbeats’ in its saturation with image and text, succeeds because of its restrained colour palette; the striking red, white, and black gives the wealth of imagery a chance to be taken in and understood. I think in all senses what Exit From Coaltown could benefit from is a certain amount of restraint.
While Exit From Coaltown left me overwhelmed (and a little confused), it must be noted that Dawson’s work sits within an important canon of contemporary art, one that started with artists like Basquiat and Keith Haring. Dawson’s imagery is rich and complex, a complexity which inevitably invites a multitude of interpretations. While I might not suggest one go out of their way to visit Exit From Coaltown, if you are near Summerhall between now and 7th January, get a coffee and relax in the company of some stimulating contemporary painting. I only hope you can make more sense of it than I did.
Until 7 January 2018
Photo credit: Effie Sutcliffe