Inquiry into the nature and causes [1]: on Alan Grieve

'Real Bothy', (2014), Alan Grieve

‘Real Bothy’, (2014), Alan Grieve

Having attended the opening of a large retrospective recently, where the CEO of that City’s Services stated, ‘Everyone knows that art is really made in the cities’, (even when one of the rooms was dedicated to landscape studies), I would like to continue to write and accumulate a section of reviews and essays that witness art that is made and presented outside of the city.

Kirkcaldy’s civic centre represents the historical nexus of philosophy, economy, life, death, labour, learning and art appreciation. Industrialist John Nairn, a linoleum manufacturer, bequeathed the building of a war memorial with museum and galleries to the town of Kirkcaldy, in memory of his son who was killed in the Great War. Built in the Classical style, the building, designed by Perth architects Helton and McKay, along with the gardens, opened in 1925 and established the area as the civic square. The Adam Smith Theatre, named after the social philosopher, economist and writer of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ (1776), is directly across the road. Kirkcaldy Art Gallery and Museum contains a series of rooms for the John Waldegrove Blyth Collection. Blyth (1873-62) was a local manufacturer who collected the works of Scottish painters, including William McTaggart and Samuel Peploe as well as, more surprisingly, the Camden Town Group [2] who were Walter Sickert, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman. Blyth was chair of Kirkcaldy Museum’s Trustees and honorary Curator for 36 years. The wall panel about the collection states that he visited the paintings weekly on a Monday morning, to spend time with them.

This essay will look at the work of artist Alan Grieve, collector of stories and objects, entering via the latest project he has led on, Real Bothy’, at Kirkcaldy Art Gallery and Museum (11 Oct 2014- 18 Jan 2015). Adam Smith wrote in ‘The Wealth of Nations‘, that ‘What everything costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it’. A key factor in Grieve’s practice is that he works to gather the stories that would usually be left locked in a person’s mind. The turns of phrase or surreal fortunes of objects and people, under Grieve’s custodianship take on a new significance. Categories for Grieve have included those relating to his own personal history, such as the boxing history of his effervescently stylish father Jock or his own existence as a hairdresser and artist [3]; to the wider social history of Dunfermline, where he, as the parlance of art cv writing would state, ‘lives and works’, with projects on The Kronk Disco or Jim Leishman’s stewardship of Dunfermline Athletic; to this latest series on the collective experience of landscape.

The Real Bothy, an OSB plywood assemblage, which has been flat packed then reconstructed at a series of locations over the Kingdom of Fife for the last 18 months, rests easily in the middle of one of Kirkcaldy Museum’s classical rooms. Designed to the simple layout of the bothy hut, a shelter to be found in a wilderness situation for anyone to use, its threshold encourages visitors to have to turn in around a corner;  a passage way so designed, as Grieve illuminates, because ‘Scottish folk are as wary as fuck‘. The bothy contains a row of coat pegs, a shelf for books, a bench and an animation of a crackling fire by Claire Lamond. In the midst of these physical nods to bonhomie, Grieve met with bothy visitors and charted their recollections across the bothy’s interior, alongside fragments of bothy history. Comments range from ‘My gran met Vivienne Westwood in public toilets in Galasheils‘, to someone who had to meet the call of nature on Portobello beach; to a photocopy of a letter from the Palace secretary, thanking the Mountain Bothy Association on their letter of condolence following Lady Diana’s death, concluding that they were pleased that Gelder Valley Bothy on Balmoral Estate was being enjoyed by so many walkers. The cacophony of comments on the walls form a map that criss-crosses from the personal to universal experience; a hallucination of place, with points of recognition for the viewer, through humour, names and situations.

'Real Bothy' (2014), Alan Grieve

‘Real Bothy’ (2014), Alan Grieve

How do you meet a contemporary artist out in the landscape? One inscription reads:

Rebecca born in Dunfermline, moved to New Zealand, hitch-hiking met artist and bought his work. Bothy Story. Post Bus- Durness. Artist as vagrant + pram.’

I surmise from these clues that the artist that Rebecca met must have been Pete Horobin [4], on his personal pilgrimage ‘Year of the Tent’, when he lived outside from 01.01.1989 to 31.12.1989, tramping the length and breadth of Scotland. The pram contained all objects that Horobin needed, including tent and plastic yellow chicken. Rebecca bought one of his artist books.

Alan Grieve has been an aficionado of bothies since his hair was big in his twenties to the present day, where he takes his own family or his ‘bothy partners‘, who include his mates Fred and Gary. The Real Bothy in situ in Kirkcaldy, is surrounded by a panorama of framed cut-outs from family albums, showing bothy gatherings from different times. One includes a picnic which looks likely to have followed a heavy night before, with muted males languishing around sandwiches re-captured in the bread bags they came out of. Another is more of a classic Casper David Friedrich lone figure on a peak. Giving an example where Grieve combines additional facts and fictions to assemble a new work, many of the figures in the photographs have been coloured out by a blue or black felt tip pen. This follows the artist seeing someone else’s album where a divorced ex-partner had been double excommunicated from the family book through their being systematically coloured out of each photograph of each album.

Grieve’s love of the quirk of language and action is also illustrated by his on-going painted text series, here shown in the wall painting ‘Scotlad the Brave’, which edges into the margin of the dark wooden door surround of the gallery. The phrase is one that Grieve heard about, the result of an amateur tattoo done far too late at night, challenged by spelling and a lack of space on the available arm.

'Real Bothy' (2014), Alan Grieve

‘Real Bothy’ (2014), Alan Grieve

Grieve has also worked to have on loan a number of the objects that were mentioned in the stories he gathered during ‘Real Bothy‘. The objects give a validity to the credence of a potentially tall story. Presented as museum objects, they also bring another layer to the creativity of people and their social history. Norma Ferguson’s picnic blanket, has been mounted on the wall like a banner on a rampart. In an object which resonates with the founding cause of Kirkcaldy Museum and Gallery and its memorial gardens, the tartan of this blanket comes from the kilt of Norma Ferguson’s father John, who survived active service in WW1. After his death in 1972 and the subsequent house clearing, Norma ironed out the pleats of the kilt, and tacking it in squares with an edging of a white material with a simple yellow and pink pattern, she made the blanket which is still used by the family to this day.  Other objects include Roger Hayward’s Pigeon Rings, a necklace denoting another kind of battle, made up from brightly coloured identification rings replete with the odd stray pigeon bone gathered by Hayward, during his study of Peregrine Falcons and their nesting sites for Scottish Raptor Study Group. Roger Hayward has sadly since passed away.

The surface syntax of Grieve’s work could be said to share allegiances with the REAL LIFE tattoo, social history and fake scenery of Ross Sinclair’s ‘Real Life Rocky Mountain‘ performance and installation, most recently to be viewed at National Galleries in Edinburgh as part of GENERATION, 25 years of contemporary art in Scotland; or the separate artist-led ‘The Bothy Project’, which has continued to build a formidably bespoke rival to Premier Inn network of bothies as sites for artist residencies across Scotland. With the former, Grieve shares the desire to show the disparity between “the reality of my landscape” over a romantic vision of Scottish landscape, beloved of the Tourist Board. With the latter, ‘Real Bothy’ shares links the intimacy of architecture and investigation of surroundings. However, Grieve’s work, through its collective nature, recalls the landscape of the locale as more of a fight between language, experience, people and place. This kind of an approach is illustrated by Norman Maclean in his autobiography ‘The Leper’s Bell’ (2010)  on the weekly village hall dances of South Uist [5]:

For the duration of the dance- anything between four and five hours- there would be a kind of tag boxing match taking place outside the hall…..Accordingly, if you got tired watching couples performing Quadrilles and Lancers, you could go outside and watch a couple of lads knocking lumps out of each other’.

Grieve’s work always records this flavour of the cut and thrust of social history. Like a latter day bard, he explores through his work a surreal landscape which acknowledges the arcane alongside the poetic. The Real Bothy bears a hand-painted  ‘flammable sign’, which  accepts the fine line in its own construction that a contemporary art object to one person is something to be set alight by another. Yet, whilst the male identity is present within the work, this is no Irvine Welsh approach to Scottish bravura. The presence of women feature equally in Grieve’s work, from Norma Ferguson’s blanket, to The Nancy Hat, as knitted by Nancy Smith, proprietress of the Fersit Bunkhouse in Lochaber, whose Nepal-esque inspired hats graced many the head of a departing visitor. The books on Scotland of Kelty teacher Frances Barclay have also been loaned to the exhibition, by her daughter Ros; a fitting display given that the local library is also part of the same building as Kirkcaldy Gallery and Museum.

Grieve’s observations of others, never oversteps romanticising his role as the artist recording those around him. In one of his drawings ‘Rock Rock Rockit’ (2014)  from a separate series, a collage shows an earnest bespectacled young academic in bashed jacket and jeans, proffering a microphone to an old man in a flat cap. The handwriting above the academic says, ” I’m really interested in recording your stories of this once thriving community”. The writing above the old man simply says, “Fuck off”.

Jenny Brownrigg October 2014

 Real Bothy’, Alan Grieve, Claire Lamond, Andrew Lennie, Kirkcaldy Art Gallery and Museum, 11 Oct 2014 -18 Jan 2015. The exhibition has been supported by Creative Scotland and Fife Cultural Trust.


[1] Title derived from the full title of Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’: ‘An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’ (1776)

[2] The Camden Town Group only held three exhibitions and aimed to reflect the realities of urban life. One of their works in the Kirkcaldy collection, by Sickert (1860-1942), is entitled ‘What Shall We Do For the Rent?‘ (1909). Sickert, who chose to have his studios in the working class areas of London, had been focussing on pursuing a different narrative to the paintings of nudes, through the suggestion that the women were prostitutes. The gender shifts in ‘What Shall We Do for the Rent?’; a study of a male nude on the bed, with a clothed man sitting on the edge, leaning over him. A pair of discarded shoes can be made out, lying under the bed.

[3] Grieve was one of nine artists involved in the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design’s Nine Trades of Dundeeproject (2009-10).  Artists from Dundee and across the UK were invited to take up residency in the second non-art trade they practiced in order to support their art practice. Grieve’s residency was in Nori’s Salon in Dundee. Working with the other hairdressers and clients, the magazine ‘Masters at Work‘, was produced, and distributed across salons Dundee-wide. Grieve has also worked with National Theatre of Scotland on the production ’99…100′, (2011) where the stories Grieve gathered on a tour of a temporary hair cutting booth across the country, led to a script and production. Grieve’s own hairdressers salon Workspace Dunfermline, doubles up as a gallery and event space.

[4] ae phor aitch (2010-) has changed his identity and focus of work every ten years. Firstly Pete Horobin (1980-89), he was also Marshall Anderson (1990-1999) and Peter Haining (2000-2009). See  Moving Images From the Attic Archive’, for the excellent 2010 Cooper Gallery solo exhibition of this artist’s work, curated by Laura Simpson. Peter Haining and Alan Grieve were also part of ‘Fifeman‘ (2009) exhibition along with Jason Nelson and Kevin Reid at the Cupar Arts Festival. Horobin’s ‘Year of the Tent’ was archived by the artist, and this project’s archives are now held at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh.

[5] P49, ‘The Leper’s Bell‘, (2010), Norman Maclean, published by Birlinn Ltd.