From the Personal to the Universal

Publication: The Times.   
October 2014

Kelvingrove is a fitting venue for this show. Alasdair Gray, who was born in December, 1934, attended art classes here as a boy under the tutelage of Miss Jean Irwin. Even then, it was clear that Gray had the makings of an artist, especially where drawing was concerned. This show, which concentrates on Gray’s drawing and painting, has been curated by gallerist Sorcha Dallas and is the first in a series marking Gray’s eightiethbirthday.

Gray was born in Riddrie, Glasgow and grew up there, spending periods in Lanarkshire and Yorkshire as a wartime evacuee. He studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1957 to 1961 where he specialised in mural painting.

Gray is a celebrated and critically acclaimed writer with a long list of credits to his name including fiction, poetry, drama and political commentary. His best known book is the novel, Lanark, published in 1981, which Gray designed and illustrated.

One of Gray’s earliest mural paintings, The Horrors of War (1955-57) commissioned by the Scotland-USSR Friendship Society, is reproduced here using a combination of digital imagery and actual paint.  This series of paintings occupies an entire room and shows a Glasgow landscape, including Sighthill Cemetery, combined with a crucifixion scene.  Gray has based this work Breughel’s Triumph of Death and Dürer’s Apocalypse, an approach he has employed variously elsewhere.

The show is divided into discrete, roughly chronological sections that range from Early Years, Art School, City Recorder to Friends and Family. Now and Then focuses on a series of paintings made for a BBC film about a doomed love affair, shot in a Glasgow tenement. Liz Lochhead wrote a series of poems while Gray’s paintings, featuring a young couple living together in a flat, formed a series of flashback sequences. The film was not made, and these narrative images are the only tangible reminder of the project.

Gray and Lochhead were, famously, part of a writing group set up at Glasgow University by Philip Hobsbaum that included James Kelman, Aonghas Macneacail and Tom Leonard.  Portraits of the group are to be found here, placed alongside fragments of texts written in their own hand.

The combination of text and imagery is a common device in Gray’s work. It is found in Temporary Typist (Frances Gordon: Glasgow Teenager), (1977).  The central image is surrounded by fragments of newspaper, concert tickets and photographs ¾ the contents of Gordon’s handbag which Gray had somehow persuaded her to reveal.

The show highlights Gray’s strengths and weaknesses. Some of his landscapes are less convining than his cityscapes, and his line can sometimes be harsh and overworked. Although his work is often stylised, it can also be generic, as in his depiction of facial features.  The upside is that much of Gray’s imagery lends itself readily to reproduction, a fact not lost on the exhibition organisers who have set up a small Alasdair Gray industry in tea towels, tee-shirts, posters and trinkets.

Gray is on firmer ground when depicting the intricacies of juxtaposed urban architecture as in Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties (1964). His skills as a portraitist, illustrator are formidable. They reveal a talented polymath, comfortable portraying a mainly urban milieu, surrounded by friends and family.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the last word to Gray himself: “Oh dear, I’m becoming popular in Glasgow… I never expected that in my lifetime,” he chuckles, somewhat sardonically.

Alasdair Gray – ‘Phil and Hope’