Richard Wright ‘The Stairwell Project’

Richard Wright, The Stairwell Project, 2010, Acrylic on wall, Dimensions Variable, Installation view, Dean Gallery, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2010 (part of Edinburgh Art Festival, Edinburgh)
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

The most complex and ambitious painting to date by 2009 Turner prize-winner, Richard Wright, was unveiled today, 30 June 2010. One of three major artworks commissioned by the Edinburgh Art Festival with support from the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, the painting is located in the west stairwell of the Dean Orphan Hospital, now the Dean Gallery, which is part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The striking black on white design was created in an intensive four-week period.

Thomas Hamilton’s design for the Dean Orphan Hospital, which was completed in the early 1830s, is a curious mix of neo-classical and baroque features. The inward inclination of the windows makes it look as if the towers are falling in on themselves and the exaggerated height of the banisters gives an Alice-in-Wonderland effect to the stairwells. It is almost as if they had been built for giants. Wright’s initial approach to work was to follow a natural instinct towards simplicity, but as the painting developed it was, as he says, ‘deflected by the architecture, and the work turned out to be very complicated.’

‘This building is strikingly solid as a piece of architecture,’ he adds, ‘but it also has these extraordinary, beautiful details and little hidden elements, and it has this melancholic history as well, which has crept into my thinking.’

‘I have been aware that for me the work is as much for the people who were here before, as for the people who may come here in the future. Although I wouldn’t want to overload that idea by suggesting some kind of narrative, or that the work should be understood in a particular way, those aspects have definitely been occurring to me as I thought about this building over the last month, as I have got to know it more.’

The work is at once a remarkable addition to the space, but also so much part of the fabric of the building on to which it is painted,

‘I like the way that work is as ignorable as it is interesting – the idea that the work might have this sort of abandoned quality,’ says Wright. ‘You may almost glance upon it absent-mindedly – you might not even register that it is there – and that sort of daydream space interests me.’

Describing his approach to making the painting, Wright adds:

‘I did a lot of drawings for this work – a lot of thinking about it. I even made a model, which I never normally do, influenced in part by a sense that the work may remain.’

‘I tend to work with certain colours, certain materials in quite an austere or restricted way, and this entire work is made out of two small pots of black paint. That’s something that fascinates me about painting: if you painted this wall solidly with that paint you might only get a very small area, but when you approach that material in a slightly different way, the possibilities are infinite.’

The commission of the painting has been made possible by a grant to the Edinburgh Art Festival from the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund which was established to recognise the exceptional creative talent that exists in Scotland and provide an international platform upon which it can excel.