TO MOST of the population of these islands, the county of Sutherland, lying at the northern end of mainland Britain seems far off, remote and impossibly northern. But the north coast of Scotland was called Sutherland because those who applied the appellation - the Vikings of Orkney, Shetland and Iceland - situated it in their mental geographies as a southerly place.
The artist Ann Davidson, who was born in Dornoch in 1950, has attuned her mental and emotional compass, not only to the county of Sutherland but also to its northerly cousins, Iceland and Greenland. The result is a powerful, evocative and fragilely beautiful set of images, made with great skill, a fine sense of colour and compositional clarity.
Discussing her approach Davidson has commented: "I do not depict views literally, but rather try to convey the feeling of the land. I don't usually know what a picture will look like or exactly where it will represent when I start working on it, though I generally choose colours intended to evoke a specific area."
Davidson's method is, therefore, intuitively and emotionally based, rather than mimetic and representational. Davidson's sense of land and landscape comes from within, while the imagery records her own complex response to her environment which extends well beyond the visual.
It is telling that the eponymous composition (an Icelandic landscape) from which the exhibition takes its name was made before Davidson had actually visited Iceland. This work - and indeed all of the work here - might more accurately be labelled 'mindscape' or indeed, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would have it, 'inscape'. Davidson is more interested in distilling the essence than giving an exact and identifiable literal description.
Her masterful 'A Gale in Strath Fleet, Sutherland' succeeds less in conveying the particulars of a given place but, rather, suggests a mood and presence of weather and light. A line of small wind-blown birches occupy the middle ground while a band of cool, clear light fills the horizon. Elsewhere peaty browns and smoky blacks express the prevalent tonality of Sutherland in winter.
Allied to Davidson's great ability to communicate a genus loci is her technique - a combination of watercolour and collage. Davidson often creates her own coloured paper by applying "muted colours with a large soft brush in wide bands" and then tilting her drawing board "to encourage the paint to flow and merge through the water".
When these newly created sheets of subtly varied colour have been created and dried completely the most attractive bands are torn from the sheets to serve as new collage pieces. Davidson has clearly mastered this technique and made it her own. In a work such as 'Blue Iceberg, Uummannaq, Greenland', the coloured fragments of paper are assembled to give the feeling of gradated light as distant ridges recede into the distance. In the foreground a purple navy blue gives way to the cold turquoise of the iceberg above which a band of light grey, and another of darker grey-blue, suggest sky and land. The work captures a sense of northerly, sparse light while conveying something of the climatic and geomorphological connectedness with Sutherland.
Davidson's work certainly deserves to be better known. This show can only serve to bring her art to a wider and - one must presume - highly appreciative audience.© Giles Sutherland, 2009