This week I visited the Alasdair Gray exhibition running at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery.
‘Pictures and stories were the closest I could get to the magic that might make me powerful and loved.’
Such an insightful quote from Alasdair Gray, describing his emerging interest in art and writing as a young boy.
His mother taught him that ‘the gaps between people could be bridged with words and music’. I love that idea, because of course it then makes me think about ‘the gaps’. Social gaps. Status gaps. Emotional gaps. The gaps between people.
I found Gray’s art varied so much as the chronology of his works unfolded. Some seemed unfinished – the brown paper that Alasdair used ‘because it was freely available and because it was cheap’, was often left uncoloured, or as the skin tone for faces, hands and limbs. Many of the paintings are unfinished, or have been reworked/remastered, often with notes and dates of the reworking, like a diary entry (his handwriting is so neat and beautiful and art deco, in itself).
In some ways the unfinished aspect only adds to the vibrancy of his work; the art, real and brimming with the life that he so clearly immersed himself in and wanted to portray. Ordinary people in ordinary settings. Seventies prints. Detailed and fussy carpets, curtains, furnishings and backgrounds. Rooms festooned with the accumulation of life. Plants and vases and cushions and clocks.
In one particular work there is a girl at a piano and it is noted in the description text that Alasdair couldn’t bring himself to paint all the detail of each of the piano keys, and yet, he’d done intricate work on the wallpaper, on the carpet, denoting the carvings on the wood of the piano, and on a painted dish. Painstaking repetitions. The fact that only the piano keys being played by the girl in situ have been marked out actually make their image all the more striking, as if the sound of their chords will be audible any second.
Many images held such detail that they invited commentary and discussion on what might be going on within them. The murals were particularly engaging with their industrial undertones (or overtones) of smoking towers and pylons and dark clouds.
The women had very masculine faces, and in the nudes, large protruding nipples. I particularly loved their hair, outlined in undulating waves and curlicues, and each face so full with emotion it drew you into the scene completely.
The image in the postcard above of the girl, haughty in her leotard [Two Views of Katie Mitchell, 1980], really resonated.
The sadness emanating from the girl above, [Marion Oag and the Birth of the Northern Venus, 1977], the patent boots and her patterned tights so well captured, made me feel empathy with her and her lost dreams or sorrow, of which I could only guess at. But the painting made me want to guess.
Much of Gray’s work features a cat or cats, sleeping and draped about. The postcard top, middle, [Night Street Self Portrait, 1953 & 2006], to me features a cat roaming the streets like the ‘black cat of death’, omnipotent, prowling; a dark reminder of a fate that comes to us all. It could also be a dog or even a fox. The meaning is in the eye of the beholder. But the light/dark relief of chiaroscuro in the face is menacing and knowing, presiding over the scene as if in a modern-day graphic novel of crime and intrigue. The other colours only add to this sense for me.
I revelled in the details of the night sky and the moon and stars in much of Gray’s work. Some of the skies could just as easily have been waves on the sea, and I loved the idea of the tide rolling in to a perfectly arranged West End living room.
Halfway through the exhibition there was a reference to a book called Dancing in the Streets by Cliff Hanley. I had to write down this fantastic quote:
There are prettier cities but few of them that I know have the seething cauldron effect that Glasgow has always had for me. Out of its horrible smoke-bleary streets it keeps throwing up jokes and songs and poetry as well as bloody murder.
And I couldn’t agree more. Glasgow has always been an inspiration to me and it sets my imagination on fire everyday for writing, poetry, photographing, living, doing, seeing, drawing, experiencing all that the ‘mean streets’ have to offer.
‘Glasgow is a magnificent city. Why do we hardly ever notice that?’, observes a character in Alasdair Gray’s first novel, Lanark.
Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal runs until 22nd February 2015 at Kelvingrove Art Gallery.