Bruce McLean & Michelle Cotton in front of his One day Tate Installation
Bruce McLean said, ‘This is the best exhibition of my work, ever, even better than the German one. It has been mounted by a very good team in an excellent gallery’. I agree and would add it is not only an excellent show of his work, past and present but also a wonderful first sight into the beauty of the Firstsite gallery in all its use of angles and reflected light from the architect’s plans brought out by this stunning display which for the first time utilises the whole of the gallery just concentrating on one thing, Bruce McLean’s considerable oeuvre.
The decision to feature his work for their summer-long show is an inspired one. McLean represents that era from the early 1970’s, post Beatles and Hockney’s heyday and post Caro’s break with Henry Moore’s form, when it seemed everything had been done. What to do next? McLean came up with some suggestions. His art was like the stance of the Rolling Stones who took the previous and challenged it with new ways of presentation. With the Stones it was Rhythm & Blues, for McLean it was sculpture for he still prefers to be seen as a sculptor and some of the ‘paintings’ in this show are in fact sculptures. One, which reflects his thinking in a series of very large canvas ‘paintings’, comprised of several images which mirror and reflect aspects of each other. Shades of Henry Moore’s imagery and, dare I say Barry Flanagan or Joseph Beuys’s hare, inhabit the canvas along with naked figures drawn in his own unfussy way. When you walk out of the main exhibition space you see to your left, on the way to the café, two paintings on the wall with another standing in front obscuring most of them and an old plastic and metal chair. You wonder why the gallery didn’t get the show ready by now until you see the chair in one of the paintings and you realise it is part of the work and the work is a sculpture piece. It is a typical McLean break with convention, a break he instigated whilst still at Central School St Martins when he created some sculpture with curtains and plywood boards on the roof thus making the building itself the pedestal. Caro had brought over from meeting David Smith in the USA the use of industrial metal (girders) in his sculptures and now one of his pupils was extending the material which could be used with not a little tongue in cheek, for cheeky is what McLean’s art invariably is. As is the man, with references to Scottish transvestites being more severe and colourful than any others to illustrate the severity of Scottish weather with its dominant displays of lugubrious grey which, with his being born and bred in Glasgow, is McLean’s favoured colour. His greys however, like his Scottish transvestite analogy, are rather more colourful too.
McLean represents the consciousness that emanates from the (2nd world) ‘war babies’, born 1944, with all of its energy, influences and contravention of previous canons.
Ex-owner of New York gallery which showed McLean first in USA.
A mentionable crowd from London turned up but most importantly McLean was there, not only at Firstsite last Saturday, more importantly he was there as a daring pioneer, a mischievous player in 1965-69 when art was bubbling up with great potentials like the world of rock music and film much stifled since by the adoption of the Duchamp take by the Brit Pack and Saatchi lot. McLean was one of the foremost advocates of that potential with its experimentalist breakaway and its creating new grounds on which to place ponder and see ‘art’. McLean was in St Martins under Caro and King (Philip) when Paolozzi was making and breaking his plaster of paris takes and re-assembling them into traditional bronzes. Meanwhile McLean was adopting non-traditional materials; industrial steel like his tutor Caro, fibre board, plastic, his nose and glass mirrors reflecting the influences of Robert Smithson and others across the Atlantic. He saw Gilbert & George doing their human body sculptures so he did his own poses, even creating a ‘band’ of posers who opened gigs for groups like Roxy Music just as John Cooper Clarke had for the punk bands and John Dowie was to do his talks fashioned on the work od Ken Campbell.
The show reverberates with energy. Michelle Cotton and her team of curators have placed McLean’s work throughout the gallery space in every nook and cranny. Making full use of the space for the first time since its inception this show exhibits the gallery itself and utilises all of its marvellous facilities through film, video, personal appearances and discussions, artist’s books and more. This exhibition shows off the attention to detail, like the wooden flooring, which the architects considered in their design of gallery’s spaces and the ways it was designed to be used with the geometry of the walls, ceilings and windows mirroring and reflecting the light from both inside and outside.
A London Lady in her Vasarely hat
With subtle shades of colour and geometric form, counterpoising the same content that echoes throughout McLean’s works which are indeed sometimes enhanced by these reflections as in the long glass case which houses his far from o’puscular artist’s books.
Part of a McLean book in glass case.
Cotton’s monograph, written and edited to coincide with this thorough showing of his full life work, is a fitting measure of its importance. Its knock down price of just under £25, paralleling similar books from more financially secure galleries like Tate, who do in fact endorse firstsite, is more than reasonable and it should become a collector’s item.
McLean’s work has a lively, daring, vibrant, ebullient immediacy which is almost always subversive too. Like a song of Tom Waits, ‘I don’t have to ask permission. If I want to go out fishing.’ it inspires you to try things out. A visit, indeed several visits, would be well rewarded and could help lift the rather grey cloud that has hung over this golden gallery since its inception. ‘A Whiter Shade Of Grey’?
This is, like McLean said for other reasons, the best show so far.
McLean ‘at home’ in firstsite with friends.