Saturday, 6 November 2010

Alisdair Gray, Blake and cigarette cards

I must come clean. I am a fan of Alisdair Gray. As an artist, a writer and also as benign and wickedly unconventional character, who likes to play 'the holy fool'. Like the disingenuous boy who cried that the Emperor had no clothes, Alisdair states what others think but do not say, in childlike simplicity, knocking pretention in himself as much as in the art, and literary world or exposing inhumanity caused by the political powers that be.

Alisdair will admit that he is as influenced by cigarette cards his dad gave him in his childhood as much as by Blake (and the latter's Book of Job because 'I liked the naked bodies of men and women who flew through the air'); he tells us (at the launch of his autopictography, 'A Life in Pictures' (Canongate) at the Scottish National Gallery recently) that they didn't much like his drawings at Glasgow Art School, so were quite happy to let him do murals, which removed him from attending the painting class at the school; who is pleased that the Scottish establishment are at last putting on exhibitions of his work (having largely ignored him for most of his life) because they would not want to admit that one of their artists has been left to die in penury (a throwaway line on a Scottish TV News clip).This last said in a melodramatic falsetto rise and basso profundo fall of voice for which Alisdair is famous. This histrionic performance is as much self-mocking as self-defence. His sense of humour is always self-deprecating.

I must also declare a personal interest. I am privileged to have been one of Alisdair's C/W students. Having a drink and chat with him after a seminar, I remember him saying something profound about the practice of writing and then adding, in mounting falsetto, '..but I would say that, as Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.' (This was when the professorship was held by the triumvirate of Alisdair with Jim Kelman and Tom Leonard, instigated by Kelman so that each of them could share the administrative load and free up time for their own writing and, in A's case, art-work.)

Renowned as the author of 'Lanark' , the great Glasgow novel of the 20th c, (the Scottish answer to Joyce's 'Ullysees') and now in his 70's, it is about time Alisdair Gray's art work was recognized. Better known, as a writer, Alisdair has never stopped working on his artwork - and indeed, his magnificent autobiography/pictography not only includes both text and illustrations by Alisdair, but he was involved in every detail of the design, layout, typesetting etc, just as every other book published by Alisdair: text and art a unified whole.

The publication is twelve years' after the deadline originally given by Canongate, said Francis Bickmore, his latest editor (one of a series over the years) at a talk yesterday at the Talbot Rice Gallery (See podcast link below) but its appearance now happily coincides with two current exhibitions in Edinburgh of his work - one of graphics (posters and illustrations for his own novels ) at the Talbot Rice and a room of portraits at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. Of course, the murals have to be seen in situ, (where possible - many are in private homes), the most famous in Oran Mor, a former Gothic church, with Alisdair's mural making it the Sistine Chapel of Glasgow.

Alisdair is famed for his line, his playing with perspective, acute observation of character in his portraits, achieved through line again (to rival Hockney) - my favourite is perhaps a portrait of Jim Kelman, sitting leaning slightly forward, conveying the intensity of his intellectual scrutiny of ideas and of any co-locutor. As well as portraits of friends, which he often gave as gifts, and tender wee portraits of his son as a child, there are his vast, public murals which are semi-realist and semi-fantastical, often full of mythical and biblical references...when asked why he painted murals, Alisdair has said that he wanted to be seen by as many people as possible. A way of reaching out to the people.

In other words, Alisdair's work celebrates all those things that went out with Modernism. Don't get me wrong, I love Modernism but there does seem something wrong with the state of contemporary art, that traditional skills in art, such as life drawing, are not taught in Art School - at least not in Glasgow. At the launch of his book at the Scottish National Gallery recently where Alisdair was interviewed by the Director of SGOMA, Simon Groom, it was rumoured by someone in the audience that there are a group of current students at Glasgow School of Art who are hiring a room and life models themselves, since this is not provided as part of their course. If this is true, good for them. Alisdair, tactfully, declined to comment.

Back to Alisdair - the disingenuous honesty of his revelations, also involve his private and sexual life. First, I must point out that Alisdair is never unkind, nor does he say anything about people he has known, other than what they would say about themselves.

Quoting from Simon Groom's interview, here are some examples of Alisdair's ability to be humourous and uncomfortably honest at the same time:
AG: 'I find it quite easy to like people. It's less bother.... I have to confine my inherent nastiness to pornographic elements of my writing, and to my wife and best friends.'

SG:' Did he draw to impress the opposite sex?'
AG: 'Yes, but I was not successful. I only got lucky later in life, mostly through marriage.'
SG : 'I don't want to go into your sexual history but (I ask more concerning) the development of your art.'
AG: 'Sorry, I've wandered from the point again.'

The wandering from the point is the joy of any interview with Alisdair, as anyone who has heard him knows. Which reminds me, if you have not already read Rodge Glass' biography of Alisdair, then you are in for a treat: a secretary's account, in other words, Boswell to Alisdair's Dr Johnson.

A selection of Alisdair's work is also included in the British Art Show now touring the UK, co-curated by Lisa Le Feuvre, whose brilliantly incisive and witty comments can be heard on the Talbot Rice podcast below - along with other well-informed and thoughtful panellists. A fascinating talk.

Some examples of Alisdair's art work, interviews in press etc here: