The seven artworks by Alasdair Gray that I selected for BBC Arts online
Reid Gallery, Reid Building, The Glasgow School of Art, 164 Renfrew Street, Glasgow G3 6RF
22 Nov 2014-25 Jan 2015
Aubrey Beardsley, Oliver Braid, Eric Gill, Alasdair Gray, Peter Howson, Dorothy Iannone, David Kindersley and Lida Lopes Cardozo, Stuart Murray, My Bookcase, Denis Tegetmeier, Hanna Tuulikki
This exhibition provides alternative readings of Alasdair Gray’s visual practice, through the prism of others’. Spheres of Influence II includes both historical and contemporary pieces from the realms of visual art, design and illustration. Gray’s work forms the central point around which the other works orbit. The broad themes drawn from Gray’s oeuvre include graphic style; symbolism; text and image; lettering and the alphabet; portraiture and identity; labour; religion; war; love and sexuality. The exhibition includes four new commissions by Oliver Braid, Stuart Murray, My Bookcase and Hanna Tuulikki. The new commissions and event programme are funded by Outset Scotland in association with YPO.
Alasdair Gray‘s (b. 1934) visual work is the central inspiration for ‘Spheres of Influence II’, which is part of The Alasdair Gray Season. This season is devised by Sorcha Dallas, to celebrate Gray at eighty years old. Gray studied in Mural Design at The Glasgow School of Art 1952-57. His fifteen works selected for ‘Spheres of Influence II‘ include working drawings for book covers, poster designs and screenprints made between 1954 and 2010. Gray’s retrospective ‘From the Personal to the Universal’ is at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, running until 22 Feb 2015. ‘Spheres of Influence I’ is at Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow (GoMA) until 25 May 2015, and draws on works from Glasgow Museums’ collection, to look at Gray’s practice, influences and work.
Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) believed that ‘The grotesque is the only alternative to the insipid commonplace‘. An artist of the Art Nouveau era, his black ink drawings, inspired by Japanese Shunga woodblock prints, emphasised the erotic and decadent. This exhibition shows two illustrations made for Edgar Allan Poe stories including ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1895). Alasdair Gray remembers,
‘When fifteen or sixteen I discovered Aubrey Beardsley and loved the way he made innocent fun of mild perversity. He drew naked bodies beautifully, but also enjoyed inventing fantastic costumes for them to dress and undress in‘. 1
A further series of Beardsley’s illustrations can be seen at GoMA.
Eric Gill (1882-1940) has been cited by Alasdair Gray as a visual influence. Gray’s work ‘Corruption‘ (2008) borrows a Gill image of an entwined couple, to rest in the belly of a skeletal woman (this image of the couple also appears in Greenhead Church mural in 1963 and in the oil painting ‘Eden and After’ (1966)). Gill was an artist, letter cutter, sculptor, designer, writer and wood engraver, ‘with a passionate urge to achieve an integration of life and art and work and worship, his own sense of mission -often thwarted- ‘to make a cell of good living in the chaos of our world’.” 2 Influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris, he founded a Roman Catholic craft guild, The Guild of St Joseph & St Dominic, and built workshops, homes and a chapel on Ditchling Common in East Sussex. His three main households were at Ditchling (1907 – 1924), Capel-y-ffin, Wales (1924-8) and Piggots (1928-40).
Commissioned by Monotype, Gill created the type of Gill Sans and Perpetua. ‘Spheres of Influence ll‘ shows a series of Gill’s illustrations and bookworks. In the former, a number of his striking religious illustrations are shown, including ‘Our Lady of Lourdes‘ (1920), ‘Epiphany‘ (1917) and ‘The Madonna and Child: Madonna Knitting‘ (1916). Illustrations of his lettering for ‘Autumn Midnight‘ (1923) show figures animating each letter. Through St Dominic’s Press, his printing venture with Hilary Pepler, a series of ‘Welfare Handbooks‘ were printed covering all their favourite topics of the time, including Welfare Handbook No.10 on ‘Birth Control’, and the two Welfare Handbooks on display, No. 4 ‘Riches‘ (1919) and No.7 ‘Dress: Being an essay in masculine vanity and an exposure of the Un-Christian apparel favoured by females’ (1921).
Eric Gill was a controversial figure in his life and choices. Fiona MacCarthy’s 1987 biography ‘Eric Gill’ charts the contradictions between his life and practice.
Peter Howson (b. 1958) studied Painting at GSA 1975-7, then 1979-81. In between these periods, he signed up for the army spending nine months in the Fuseliers in Midlothian. In an interview with the actor Steven Berkoff he says of this time,
‘I was about 18, 19, I think. I was in the Infantry and then because they thought I would go onto different things they put me in the Scottish Divisional Squad. All sorts of mad things in that, but I couldn’t handle it. I was too young, so that’s why I left... I spent about a year doing other jobs before I went back to Art School. When I returned I still continued being unhappy until one day a new tutor came called Sandy Moffat... He was going through all my drawings and the drawings were mostly crap; until the last few at the bottom, the ones that I had hidden away. They were the Army drawings. And they were all these things about regimental baths, all the stuff that happens in the Army. He went crazy for these drawings – so that was the start of me getting, I suppose, more confident.’ 3
‘Spheres of Influence II’ shows these early drawings, alongside two portraits from ‘Saracen Heads‘ series that Howson made of people he encountered around his studio of that time in the Gallowgate, Glasgow. Howson’s army images echo the gaunt lines of Gray’s ‘Preliminary Sketch for the Horrors of War (for Scotland USSR Friendship Society)‘ (1954), an artwork Gray made whilst still at GSA. This piece is the design for a mural which Gray describes as denoting his ‘dread of how nuclear war would distort humanity.’ 4
Peter Howson’s portraits ‘Jimmy‘ and ‘Rupert‘ from Saracen Heads (1987) link with Stuart Murray’s six drawings from his blog ‘The Folk Ye Bump Intae‘, http://thefolkyebumpintae.wordpress.com/ where the artist remembers the people he encounters in East End of Glasgow pubs and streets, and draws them from memory, along with their conversations.
Dorothy Iannone (b.1933) is an American self- taught artist, now living in Berlin, who is a year older than Alasdair Gray. As Gray’s works have more often contextualised with his own peer group, or with a younger generation of artists, ‘Spheres of Influence II’ offers the opportunity to see his work alongside an international artist who is also drawn to using a graphic style of confident line and flat colour, to record the autobiographical in text and image. Whilst Gray’s work speaks from a masculine perspective, Iannone offers the female viewpoint, of a woman in search of ecstatic love. Iannone’s work, such as ‘The Next Great Moment is Ours‘, (1976), is in the style of a hand drawn comic strip and records “a journey of ever-increasing sexual, political and spiritual awareness and a life perpetually in search of union – with the beloved, the viewer, listeners and the world.” 5
David Kindersley (1915-1995) and Lida Lopes Cardozo, formed the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge in 1976. Designers of the main gates at the British Library in London, the Workshop also undertook the letter cutting of the gold signage of The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow on the front facade of the building. Kindersley had been an apprentice of Eric Gill’s at Piggots in the 1934, drawn to the workshop as a model of integrated art and life, following reading Gill’s book of essays ‘Art-Nonsense and other essays‘ (1929) which derided the mystery and elitism of the artworld. The small slate work by Kindersley and Cardozo in ‘Spheres of Influence II’, ‘The Promises of Lovers‘, cut in 1988, bears the inscription ‘The promises of lovers are as light as the leaves which the winds carry away’.
Denis Tegetmeier (1895-1987) was an illustrator, engraver, carver, letterer, designer and painter. He, (like Kindersley), was an apprentice of Eric Gill, marrying Gill’s daughter Petra in 1930. Tegetmeier was also a political cartoonist, gathering cuttings of all the news of the day, then going onto use them as the source for his illustrations for Catholic Herald and GK Weekly. The six etchings on show are illustrations from a collaborative bookwork with Eric Gill called ‘Unholy Trinity’ (1938). This book opening sentence is, ‘In the beginning was power; that is to say, the police and the military‘. Tegetmeier fought in WW1, spending three years fighting in France in the Royal Field Artillery. Following this experience, he believed his path to be religious and stayed for a period with monks. When they tried to persuade him to become a priest, which would not have allowed him a solitary existence to draw, he went on to attend the Central School of Arts and Crafts. His tutors put him forward to assist Eric Gill in the lettering for the War Memorial Gill had been commissioned to make in Oxford.
Oliver Braid (b.1984) studied MFA at GSA from 2008-10. One group of three drawings are a series from his event ‘Communal Dolphin Snouting’ at Transmission Gallery, Glasgow (2013). The second group are commissioned for ‘Spheres of Influence ll‘. Braid always works on A3 sketchbook paper for his intricate pen drawings, which in their level of detail are reminiscent of Gray’s ‘Faust in His Study‘(1958) or illustrations for ‘Lanark‘ (1982). Braid conceals symbols and messages within his drawings, endeavouring, ‘to get away from our pre-occupation as the audience with the meaning of an artwork being the full stop and us working it backwards to understand it.’ He is keen that, ‘the artwork moves forward, relying on the idea of belief or leap of faith.’ 6
Stuart Murray (b.1978) has made a new book, ‘Gateway to Work’, which brings together sixty new drawings made from his experience in the early 2000s attending ‘Gateway to Work ‘ training through the ‘New Deal’, a workfare programme instigated in the late 1990s by Blair’s Labour Government to reduce unemployment. In Gray’s City Recorder series, showing at Kelvingrove, Gray notes that ‘The man wearing a blue jacket with a folder under his arm, ‘ in ‘Graham Square Cotton Mill and Entrance to the Meat Market’ (1977) ‘was a modern inspector employed by the Jobs Creation Scheme, who had come to find if I was usefully employed’. 7
Stuart Murray studied Printmaking at GSA from 1997-2001. ‘Gateway to Work’ is shown alongside Eric Gill’s book ‘Servile Labour and Contemplation’, published posthumously by The Aylesford Press (1987). Gill believed in ‘the idea of the sacredness of workmanship: the perception that ‘happy intense absorption’ in any work, brought as near to perfection as possible, is a state of being with God’. 8
‘My Bookcase’ (b. 1986) From a dialogue between artist and writer Alasdair Gray and Cristina Garriga, founder of My Bookcase, a book resource has been created in occasion of Alasdair Gray Season: Spheres of Influence II. The book collection on display has been specially picked by the artist from his personal bookshelves. It acts as a reading resource for the visitor, as well as an alternate reading of the artist through his personal library. www.mybookcase.org is a non-profit organization dedicated to the dissemination, understanding and appreciation of books. My Bookcase won a Deutsche Bank Award for Creative Enterprise in 2014. Cristina Garriga graduated from GSA’s MLitt in 2014.
Hanna Tuulikki (b.1982) is an artist and composer. She studied 2003-2006 GSA Sculpture and Environmental Art. For this exhibition Tuulikki has brought together illustrations for two ‘Alphabets’, where the letters are formed by naked figures. These two pictorial alphabets were made for the artwork of albums by Tuulikki’s band Two Wings. ‘Alphabet 1’ was devised as the artwork for the album ‘Love’s Spring’ (Tin Angel Records, 2012), and inspired by medieval figurative alphabets. ’Alphabet 2’ was devised as the artwork for the album ‘A Wake’ (Tin Angel Records, 2014). Again, devised from naked figures, on this occasion carrying tools, celebrating the ordinary everyday objects with which we make and remake the world. The objects carry practical and symbolic meanings. For each Alphabet, a possible ‘meaning’ is expressed in a phrase realised from the letterforms: ‘A Rose in the Dawn’ and ‘A Wake to the Dream’.
Linking to Alasdair Gray’s ‘The Fall of Kelvin Walker’(1990) and Eric Gill’s ‘Ascension‘ (1918), the exhibition also shows Tuulikki’s two original pen and ink illustrations ‘Fall‘ (2011) and ‘Ascension‘ (2011). Tuulikki says of the works:
“These drawings reflect on the familiar themes of fall and ascension, setting aside the traditional Christian axis, which places the earth in the centre (Hell-Earth-Heaven), for one that places the sun in the centre (Earth-Sun-Sky). In Ascension genderless naked bodies transcend their human form. Emerging from the dark earth they clamber on top of one another and learn to co-operate, creating a human ladder, in order to reach to their common goal – the sun, source of light and life. The same genderless naked bodies, this time pictured with wings, dive out of from the constellations of the night sky and reach towards the sun, in Fall.”
The commissions and event programme are funded by Outset Scotland in association with YPO. Works on loan are from Sorcha Dallas, Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Glasgow Museums, The Living Art Museum (Iceland), Flowers Gallery, the collection of Sandy Moffat and the artists.
The exhibition is curated by Jenny Brownrigg.
1 P.15, ‘A Life In Pictures’, Alasdair Gray, Canongate (2010)
2 P22, ‘Eric Gill’, Fiona MacCarthy (1989), Faber and Faber Limited
3 ‘Profile: Peter Howson: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times,’ in conversation with Steven Berkoff http://discreet-uk.com/state-of-art/ISSUE%20THREE/howson.html
4 P.60, ‘A Life In Pictures’, Alasdair Gray, Canongate (2010)
5 Camden Arts Centre interpretation, ‘Innocence and Aware’, Dorothy Iannone, solo show 2013
6 Conversation with artist on studio visit
7 p.179, ‘A Life In Pictures’, Alasdair Gray, Canongate (2010)
8 P257, ‘Eric Gill’, Fiona MacCarthy (1989), Faber and Faber Limited