Alasdair Gray is no doubt amused and bemused by the fact of an entire season devoted to his life and work – the sort of retrospective that’s often posthumous, when there’s less risk of the living artist’s still-prodigious output making this sort of survey outdated.
He seems to relish the intricate detail in a patterned duvet cover, a floral-print dress, or a painting of an interior in which newspapers are scattered around the room
At the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow, a selection from his vast and hugely varied painting career does well to highlight what’s been consistent in his work over the decades since he was a student at the Glasgow School of Art. These are mostly portraits, though no one material or medium predominates, suggesting not just someone who simply seizes up whatever drawing implement is closest to hand, to quickly get down the image that needs recorded, but also that there’s no way of working in which Gray isn’t preternaturally proficient. His line, whether he has employed paint, felt tip, pencil or (in one swift and brutal self-portrait) red biro, is unmistakable. Dense pattern, too, recurs frequently: he seems to relish the intricate detail in a patterned duvet cover, a floral-print dress, or a painting of an interior in which newspapers are scattered around the room, each requiring the neat reproduction of headlines and text.
I know Gray predominantly through his writing – among his other works is Scotland’s greatest contemporary novel, Lanark, which does for literature in the back half of the twentieth century what Joyce’s Ulysses did for its first half, destroying and remaking the entirety of the canon so comprehensively and dizzyingly that you’re surprised anyone ever bothered writing a novel again. The books almost always feature Gray’s own paintings and illustrations; the word and the image are, if not interchangeable, deeply interdependent. While it’s slightly mystifying that the Kelvingrove exhibition eschews mention of Gray’s published writing, it’s nonetheless fascinating for showing that text and artwork cross-pollinate one another here too. Many paintings are annotated (Gray happily writes on the canvas itself) with details of the subjects’ biographies, or the precise date, time and location the painting was assembled. In one, Temporary Typist (Frances Gordon, Glasgow Teenager), a portrait of a young woman with a handbag over her arm, the contents of that handbag on the day the painting was made are collaged around her: bus tickets to East Kilbride, flyers for nights out at the dancing, passport photographs of friends and relatives. Every element is in turn annotated and explained by the artist and his subject in parenthetical, yet vital, textual asides.
Gray and Glasgow are as inextricably linked as the image and text. The novelty of seeing Gray wandering round the West End when I was a student in the 1990s soon wore off, but the artefacts of his engagement with his city remain surprising, gladdening and diverting. It’s impossible, for instance, for me to walk around Park Circus without looking for the address in which Gray sets his story of a postmodern Prometheus, Poor Things. The story has infiltrated the real. There are murals in some of the West End’s most significant buildings, from the underground station at Hillhead to the former church, now arts venue Òran Mór; a room in the Kelvingrove in which an old mural is recreated can’t help but lack the real things’ overwhelming scale and impact.
Perhaps oddest of all Gray’s engagements with Glasgow life is the period he was employed by the city as Artist Reporter in the 1970s
Perhaps oddest of all Gray’s engagements with Glasgow life is the period he was employed by the city as Artist Reporter in the 1970s. The subjects of these portraits are the city’s worthies, from council leaders to religious figureheads, and they’re portraits that betray no partisan feelings on the artist’s part; they’re notably well-balanced (no emphasis given to one particular sectarian church branch over another, for instance) and unsentimental. To me, most of the names were unfamiliar, yet to see the series together like this is to think of the Glasgow of the time as almost a mythic place.
I was delighted, too, to recognise among the many portraits here the image of one of my university contemporaries (he’s now in a Glasgow band, De Rosa, the cover of whose second LP Gray painted). I feel that for many visitors to this exhibition, a similar experience awaits: “Oh, that’s ––!” In eighty years, Gray has depicted so much of Glasgow, and so many images of the place are mediated through what he has made of it, that the person and the place are almost synonymous. This is a terrific show, for the city and the corncrake-voiced, endearingly shambolic figure: Glasgow’s muse, servant and best ambassador. C
From the Personal to the Universal, until 22 February 2015
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Argyle Street, Glasgow G3
0141-276 9599; glasgowlife.co.uk
Neil Stewart is Civilian’s arts editor, and the author of The Glasgow Coma Scale, published by Corsair