Visiting a retrospective on Bruce McLean
Brad Yendle visits Glaswegian artist Bruce McLean’s retrospective exhibition, a multimedia mix of sculpture, paintings, film and photography, at the Rafael Viñoly-designed Firstsite gallery in Colchester
A critic said of the great Edouard Manet that he was ‘inconsistent’. Glasgow-born artist Bruce McLean has taken this perceived insult and translated it into his devious artistic modus operandi … he strives to be consistently inconsistent. His current show at the Firstsite gallery in Colchester – the first true retrospective of his work (his classic King for a Day March 1972 ‘retrospective’ not withstanding) – shows just how successfully consistently inconsistent he has been for almost 50 years.
McLean enrolled at Glasgow school of Art for two years of initial study in 1961 and struggled to learn what he wanted to learn after being told he couldn’t be a sculptor or a painter. Like your author in the ’90s, he was told that St Martins in London was ‘the place to be’, so he upped sticks and headed there. McLean has since gained international recognition for his paintings, ceramics, prints, films, theatre, and his frequent collaborations with his good pal, architect Will Alsop.
In a recent conversation with Bruce, he told me how, when his wife and he initially visited Firstsite, they thought it was an ‘awful space’ to work with. Now the hang is up, he gives the subtly changing light of the gallery a glowing review, and even reckons the work ‘wouldn’t look better at the Tate’.
After being greeted and treated by the large steel sculpture Ludgate Head (1992) in the reception space, a selection of McLean-designed exhibition posters dating from the late ’60s to the present are mounted on the curve of Viñoly’s walls. The posters are numerous and colourful, in fact a designer would be proud to say they had made them, and they show McLean’s signature visual dexterity. The building’s circular plan then draws you into the heart of the space, a little like Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim. As the exhibition spaces open up we are shown larger works such as Jaffa, Jaffa, Jaffa (1991) and a new typeset version of the original Tate King for a Day ideas for projects (999 of them) which is fantastic to see, ‘a list of a list’ as McLean likes to call it.
His ’70s and ’80s work show how he’s fascinated by a variety of things: social posturing; the world’s first ‘pose’ band, Nice Style; the art world; the carefully crafted film Urban Turban (1994) about modern art collectors, which is accompanied by some lovely and quite architectural-looking letterbox-shape drawings; architecture; the Masterwork Award Winning Fish-Knife (1975-79), a sarcastic and deliberately baffling satirical play on an architect’s designs for the whole world.
McLean’s most recent large studio paintings are my favourite pieces. The techniques of Two Henrys, two Barrys, a Constantin and a Chair (2012) hint at a little bit of Euan Uglow, early 20th century Matisse and Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical studies. These paintings of paintings and other contents in his studio (the sculptures are cardboard maquettes) show that, while he is more than handy at other disciplines, he considers himself first and foremost a sculptor.
Bruce McLean: Sculpture, Painting, Photography, Film
Until 30 November