The art of goats in trees and rodeo monkeys

PERCHED on branches, busily munching on argan berries, the tree-climbing goats of northern Morocco are a delightful sight to behold.

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It is their intelligence and adaptability that has inspired artist Fiona Watson in her beautifully crafted digital print Goats in Trees.

The tree-climbing exploits of these goats perfectly demonstrates the thinking behind the new show at Glasgow Print Studio.

Living Proof refers to the research undertaken by Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle voyage around the southern hemisphere in the early 1800s to find living examples to supplement the fossil evidence that led to his theory of evolution and the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Our enduring fascination with the creatures we share the world with and their portrayal in art is the focus of the show, which features fine art prints and paintings by Aladair Gray, Ashley Cook, Helen Fay, Elizabeth Blackadder, Eileen Cooper, Murray Robertson and John Byrne, as well as sculptures by Kenny Hunter and Andy Scott.

"The goats are a reference to the strange branches of evolution that take place, and the adaptations animals make for their environment," explains Fiona, who is co-curator of the exhibition along with Glasgow Print Studio director John McKechnie.

"Most of evolution is to do with nourishment, food and population control. If there are too many animals there's not enough food, so it's all to do with where they get their food from.

"The goats in Morocco have perfectly evolved to be able to climb up the trees in an area where there is not much food. It looks crazy but it's not."

The very complex imagery in Murray Robertson's digital prints and etchings almost look like they have fallen out of the pages of Darwin's book.

Towns and cities have been created on top of a flat fish, laid across an ancient map and surrounded by mythological motifs.

"He did some work with these big flat fish a long time ago and said he was imagining the fact we were all living on top of these flat fish but didn't know. We used to think you came to the end of the world and fell off, so we could be on a big fish. Although it would have to be a very big fish," laughs John.

The unsettling images in Diane Dawson's prints are a direct response to Darwin's theory, selected from work that explores the corruption of animals and raises questions about what it means to be evolved and to be human.

In a rodeo scene a monkey, dressed in a red shirt and a cowboy hat, rides on the back of a sheepdog.

"These have more to do with the question of what evolving means," considers Fiona. "That's a human interpretation, more of a philosophical question about evolving in a different way. It's not necessarily always good, it's a human idea about evolving."

The starting point of the exhibition was the realisation of how many artists feature animals in their work, according to John.

"We did do an exhibition over 20 years ago called Menagerie. That was the starting point, and Fiona came up with the idea of Living Proof as a working title.

"The exhibition is a mixture of work people were doing, and some have responded to the title and done work that specifically relates to it."

Fiona's scientific background - she studied for a degree in biology - has influenced the exhibition. All five animal groups are covered: mammals, fish, reptiles, birds and amphibians.

"People have drawn animals since the start of time - cave drawings were the first," she says "It's a universal subject matter, people identify with it. Even kids at school will draw what they're familiar with."

The world of crustaceans feature in Elizabeth Blackadder's screenprints and etching. Detailed drawings with a subtle delicacy, they celebrate more unusual forms of life on this earth.

A series of woodcuts by Adrian Wiszniewski look at unicorns, Scotland's national animal. Sculptural work includes Kenny Hunter's over-sized Lab Mouse and miniature bronze versions of The Kelpies by Andy Scott.

John says he sees the submissions by John Byrne as self portraits.

"He's a rakish guy so it's nothing like him at all," he admits. " At the same time it's certainly based on memories of him as a child."

Fiona especially loves the picture of a man almost folded in two, reaching out to the shadow of a crab lurking a corner.

"I think the person in it is like a crab," she says. "It just reminds you that you are also an animal. I think the whole figure is animal-like. It reminds you that you are also an animal, struggling for existence."

In the months before a retrospective of the work of Alasdair Gray opens at Kelvingrove, there is a chance to have a closer look at his Scots hippos screenprints.

"It's his translation of a TS Eliot poem called The Hippopotamus," explains John. "He has translated it into Scots partly because he couldn't get permission from TS Eliot's widow."

l Living Proof runs at Glasgow Print Studio until February 2.

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