The painter, printmaker and sculptor Ian McCulloch, now in his mid-seventies, deserves to be better known – and appreciated. As a talented and prolific artist his position of relative obscurity is representative of that peculiarly Scottish paradox – that those writers and artists with the most talent can often go uncelebrated in their own land, while other mediocre but modish artists attract greater recognition and funding.
This impressive show should go some way to redressing that imbalance and this - coupled with McCulloch’s exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy two years ago - is indicative that recognition may be coming, albeit slowly, to one of the country’s most gifted visual artists.
McCulloch’s work is not easy to categorise and the wisdom of doing so is perhaps questionable because his work with found objects, ceramics, printmaking and painting is really part of a continuum. His large scale ‘paintings’ are, on closer inspection, revealed to be collage and even sculpture – what the Polish artist Tadeusz Kantor termed ‘emballage’ because real objects are embedded in the painting’s surface. McCulloch’s ceramics (pots, tiles and other fired objects such as electrical insulators) are also a form of painting and sculpture. His painted pots arguabley preceded those of Grayson Perry who gave this hybrid genre its notoriety and appeal, although its roots extend back to the Classical world and beyond.
A work such as ‘Eve’ from 2006 illustrates how McCulloch’s work ‘trespasses’ conventional genres and demonstrates the artist’s delight in so doing. This relatively small piece (60x46cm) is partly painting and partly collage but the surface onto which the paint and ceramics fragments are attached is a piece of discarded linoleum, on which the marking of the lino-cutters tools are clearly visible. Elsewhere in McCulloch’s immensely powerful, disquieting triptych ‘Sappho’ each panel is a figure painted directly onto white ceramic bathroom tiles, again raising issues of nomenclature and categorisation – is a it a ceramic, a mosaic, a painting? In a sense such a impulse to categorise should be resisted and the overall impact of the work allowed to occupy all of our attention. As elsewhere, McCulloch has chosen themes and stories from classical mythology and antiquity to comment on current political and moral issues. Here the images of the monstrous figure devouring its own offspring might be read as a commentary on the Leviathan-like state devouring its own children as in a time of war.
These works date back up to fifteen years or so but although McCulloch’s most recent work from this year is smaller in scale and less dramatic in its use of colour and imagery, it is amongst his most accomplished and powerful. ‘Woman in Bird Hat’ (made using acrylic and cut calico) adopts the strange bird’s head like motif form the earlier ‘Sappho’ and incorporates it into a smaller, more delicate form where the soft pastel colours are directly at odds with the disquieting imagery. Such visual dissonance lends the work an impact not easily achievable in a larger piece. Using a similar palette ‘Lady in the Landscape’ pays tribute to one of McCulloch’s great artistic heroes Joan Miro, while a recent series of six companion pieces contains the work ‘Head After Archimboldo' pointing to another of McCulloch’s various and varied artistic precursors.
Yet it is Picasso - with his range of materials and genres, the boldness of his imagery, his use of archetypal forms and his fascination with the relationship between the mythological and the contemporary - with whom McCulloch seems to be conducting the most productive, mature and considered dialogue.