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Reviews / Review: An amazing journey in the form of etchings

Horses on the steppe, Mongolia.

The new exhibition at Vaila Fine Art is Richard Rowlands Mongol Rally 2011; an account of an amazing journey as well as a wonderful body of work.

Richard and fellow traveller Richard Price (Deadeye) set off in Florence, a converted ambulance from Shetland to Ulan Bator.  The blog of the trip, part of the Mongol Rally makes a fascinating read in Richards accompanying book A Short Blog in Steppe and ‘Stan. The book is illustrated with most of the works in the exhibition.

The record of his travels is in the form of etchings, from small intimate scenes of the European cities to large works of the wide and empty Central Asian steppe and mountain landscapes.  Richard uses various etching techniques all helpfully explained in an exhibition handout.   Origination from the 15th century and used by great masters including Rembrandt etching is technically skilled and uses acids to etch lines into the metal plate from which prints are made.

His use of the difference is masterly and each technique suits the subject matter, the detail of hard ground etching lends itself to the fine architectural detail of European cities and Iranian mosque.  Softground and aquatint highlight the drama of mountain and empty plains.

Not a stranger to etching, Richard has previously produced atmospheric Shetland landscapes. The current exhibition with its wide and challenging range of subject matter and technique has developed his skills further.

Shrine of Iman Reza Mashad, Iran.

The exhibition is sensibly hung in the sequence of the journey:  you can follow the map in the book. Starting with the European formality of Vienna things slowly change as the journey heads east. Romania is unknown to me but seems very appealing with the Old Town Square, Sibiu (A Google search led me to discover this amazing cultural city), and mountain landscapes.  Ottoman influences appear in Bulgaria and are full blown in Istanbul.  Cappochia’s strange conical rocks become stranger.  Getting into Iran was familiar territory for me.  Unfamiliar shapes of huge blue tiled and gold leafed domes appear with picnicking families and devout pilgrims.  I’ve picnicked with a very extended Iranian family under those trees in Oljeitu Mausoleum at Soltaniyya, been in the Valley of the Assassins and I wonder how Richard managed to get a picture in that holy of holies the Shrine of Imam Reza at Mashhad.

Perhaps he sneaked a mobile phone photo as I did, mobiles seemed to be OK but cameras were left at the gate.  So far most of these works have been in hard ground to pick up the architectural detail.  Getting deeper into Asia, landscapes become vast and cities exotic.  A favourite is Shahriyar Ark, Merv, Turkmenistan where a crumbling mud citadel becomes a dramatic abstract form of angles and shadow.  From a short distance this etching could be mistaken for a 1930’s photograph by Robert Byron.  I need to look up my favourite, and still useful, travel book, Robert Byrons The Road to Oxiana to see where their routes crossed.

Further east – and here Richard is free from the tight confines of hard ground detailed line drawings.  Aquatint prints get bigger as does the landscape. Towns are left behind and we have Bactrian camels, wild horses, nomadic yurts and huge snowcapped mountain ranges.  

The exhibition is well worth a visit for various reasons, to follow the trip and marvel at unfamiliar countries and also to see an accomplished collection of etchings using a range of techniques carefully suited to the different subject matter. For Richard this must be a satisfying record of a drive which was challenging last year, and perhaps impossible now following recent events en route.

Richard Rowland – Mongol Rally 2011, at Vaila Fine Art, Lerwick. Gallery open: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 11am to 5pm.

Mike Finnie