The bloody, ro­man­tic fairy­tale of Mary, Queen of Scots is per­fectly suited to He­len Flock­hart’s evoca­tive por­traits

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Su­san Mansfield on He­len Flock­hart’s new show

Had she been born in a dif­fer­ent cen­tury, one feels He­len Flock­hart might have been a minia­ture painter, fash­ion­ing keep­sakes of se­cret lovers and lost chil­dren. While her strange, sad por­traits and myth­i­cal vi­gnettes be­long al­most en­tirely to our own time, her highly fin­ished, im­mac­u­late style would not be out of place in an ear­lier age. Per­haps this is why, in her lat­est body of work which is in­spired by Mary, Queen of Scots, she seems so per­fectly at home.

The bloody, ro­man­tic fairy­tale of Mary’s life seems ideally suited to Flock­hart’s style, her mys­te­ri­ous, sadeyed souls adrift in cir­cum­stances be­yond their con­trol. Mary, of course, is one of them, a woman of royal birth who, on ac­count of her gen­der and her youth, be­came a pawn in other peo­ple’s dra­mas, shunted from mar­riage to mar­riage, from coun­try to coun­try, spend­ing the last 20 years of her life as a pris­oner.

This ma­jor se­quence of paint­ings will trans­fer to Lin­lith­gow Burgh Halls from 12 Oc­to­ber to 20 Jan­uary, near the palace where Mary was born. Flock­hart paints her in por­trait af­ter por­trait, com­plex ex­pres­sions flit­ting over her pale face. She stands against Rousseau-es­que dense fo­liage, with back­grounds full of sym­bol­ism: a split fig, a peeled le­mon, eyes which glint among the leaves and – in one paint­ing – a hand which seems to reach for her from be­hind. Mary was al­ways watched and, one sus­pects, al­ways watch­ing.

Flock­hart also paints imag­ined scenes from her life. The ti­tle paint­ing of the show has Mary and her first hus­band, the Dauphin of France, mar­ried when they were re­spec­tively 15 and 14, ly­ing to­gether in a bed strewn with flow­ers, wed but still in child­hood in­no­cence and – one guesses, one hopes – hap­pi­ness. In Rizzio, the Queen’s friend/lover is painted as the god Pan, while Mary flies, care­free, on a swing, and men­ac­ing dogs gather in the bushes. In Suf­fer or strike, Mary, just be­fore her ex­e­cu­tion, waits in a dark­ened room in front of a blaz­ing fire, pre­fig­ur­ing the bon­fire used to de­stroy her be­long­ings to stop them be­com­ing po­lit­i­cal props in the hands of her sup­port­ers.

Flock­hart clothes her in sym­bol­ism, too, some­times in pe­riod ruffs and gowns tex­tured with tiny brush­strokes, some­times in fab­ric on which is printed scenes from her life or lines from her writ­ings. In O El­iz­a­beth, her hair is down and she wears a loose wrap-around dress, sus­pended be­tween her time and ours. Clothes display her grandeur and re­strict her move­ment, a woman whose sup­posed royal power meant she had no free­dom of her own.

Rabiya Choudhry is a very dif­fer­ent painter, though she too weaves a rich seam of sym­bol­ism through her work. COCO!NUTS! is her first solo show, and an im­por­tant chance to see a body of her work and tease out the dis­parate strands she brings to­gether. Her work is comedic and poignant, per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal, play­ful and se­ri­ous, all at the same time. A graphic style, bold colours and vis­ual jokes run through paint­ings which com­ment on war, men­tal health and per­sonal loss.

Like Flock­hart’s work, the more you linger the more you see: sym­bols in the de­tails, words and sen­tences wo­ven into the paint. Im­ages from con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, ad­ver­tis­ing and her Scots-asian back­ground are brought to­gether to form a highly per­sonal vis­ual lan­guage.

Ter­rorvi­sion shows a grin­ning bat-shape atop a pair of hu­man legs, one hand clutch­ing a pass­port, the other a paint­brush. Dream Baby Dream is a cross-sec­tion of a head, in which lit­tle bearded min­ion-like fig­ures

Flock­hart paints Mary in por­trait af­ter por­trait, com­plex ex­pres­sions flit­ting over her pale face

run de­part­ments for ears, eyes and mouths; the word “sui­cide” is spelled out on the jagged teeth. Prayers for

Moona is full of love: “can­cer re­turns” and “keep the faith” are writ­ten into the colours. Car Crash, Jan­uary 25th is named for the day when a num­ber of or­gan­i­sa­tions, Tran­mis­sion in­cluded, lost their reg­u­lar Cre­ative Scot­land fund­ing.

Just as Flock­hart paints el­e­ments of Mary’s story on to the fab­ric of her dress, so Choudhry takes colour­ful mo­tifs from her paint­ings and uses them to make a range of printed tex­tiles, which are made into dresses, purses and ties, a small homage to the fash­ion shops her dad ran in Glas­gow in the 1980s and 90s. It’s a promis­ing show, and af­firms Choudhry as a dis­tinc­tive voice in Scot­tish art. Turner Prize nom­i­nated artist Paul

Noble has spent 15 years mak­ing de­tailed draw­ings of Nob­son New­ton, a fic­tional new town dystopia. At Dun­can of Jor­dan­stone Col­lege of Art & De­sign’s Cooper Gallery, cu­ra­tor Sophia Hao makes an in­spired pair­ing of his work with draw­ings by Patrick Ged­des, 19th-cen­tury town plan­ner, poly­math and one­time res­i­dent of the city. As Dundee re­flects on cities and de­sign, in the spot­light of the newly opened V&A, it makes a quirky and pro­found ad­di­tion to the dis­course.

The ma­jor work here is Nest (2004), an eight-panel mar­quetry screen fea­tur­ing an em­broi­dered scene of fu­tur­is­tic hous­ing units made from egg boxes and a dead tree. Eggs re­cur in Noble’s work, here in Black Egg and the film Eg­gface, so Noble and Hao were as­ton­ished to dis­cover, in the Ged­des archive held by Strath­clyde Univer­sity, a draw­ing ti­tled The Earth as a Float­ing Egg.

It is in­cluded here along with seven other Ged­des draw­ings which he ref­ered to as “think­ing ma­chines” – mind maps, per­haps, a cen­tury be­fore the term came into use. Drawn in blue and red crayon, they burst with en­ergy and ideas as his er­ratic, poly­mathic mind grap­ples with the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of eco­nomic and so­cial sys­tems, phi­los­o­phy, re­li­gion, Kant and karma. “Life?” he writes at the top of one sheet. And “Life?” is his sub­ject.

So the works, pro­duced 150 years apart, sit to­gether, Ged­des’ en­ergy-fu­elled mind-maps and Noble’s im­mac­u­lately re­alised draw­ings, the Vic­to­rian try­ing to make sense of the world and mould it into some­thing bet­ter, and the 21st cen­tury artist who has seen the other end of too many failed utopias. Both re­flect on the de­sign of the city (Ged­des in­vented the word “conur­ba­tion”) which con­tin­ues to bring us the best and the worst of hu­man­ity and, like it or loathe it, dic­tates how the ma­jor­ity of us live.

He­len Flock­hart un­til 7 Oc­to­ber; Rabiya Choudhry un­til 20 Oc­to­ber; Paul Noble and Patrick Ged­des un­til 6 Oc­to­ber

Clock­wise from op­po­site: Linger Awhile and Di­vorce Ball ,bothby He­len Flock­hart; Coco!nuts! by Rabiya Choudhry; Black Egg and Nest, both by Paul Noble

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