Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal

Liam Welsh


If you have an interest in Glaswegian culture, the figure of Alasdair Gray is somewhat inescapable. Think you’ve somehow managed to avoid him? Think again. The mural as you enter Hillhead subway station? Gray. The ceiling of Oran Mor? Him again. Or perhaps you’ve heard of his seminal tome “Lanark”? It’s fair to say he gets about.

During his formative years Gray attended art classes in Kelvingrove Art Gallery so (coming full circle) the gallery is staging a six month retrospective in celebration of his 80th birthday. The exhibition covers the entirety of Gray’s artistic life, stretching as far back as his art school days to works from the past decade. Suitably, the exhibition opens with the former. At times these are highly suggestive of William Blake’s religious fantasies and reminiscent of the Durer-like etching style he later used for his book illustrations.

The section titled “City Recorder” refers to the role Gray was given in 1977. Here are some very good ink drawings of people from a whole range of occupations; policemen, church ministers, typists, politicians, hoteliers, broadcasters and more. In “Murals” we see mangled horses redolent of Guernica, babes swaddled as beefy men brawl, sons crucified as mothers weep. At all times in these sections human experience is foregrounded, no matter how dire the circumstance. This is Gray reminding us that it is people that keep society ticking, not the machinery of cities and towns.

At the bottom of the hall, Gray’s most famous painting “Cowcaddens” is laid out in all its splendour. It shows the artist’s interest in perspective as we see up and down three separate streets, a view only possible in reality if we had three eyes of varying height stretched twenty metres apart.

Another section collates a collaborative series with poet Liz Lochhead, initially to be adapted for film. They tell the story of a couple going from happiness to split using brown paper to create mild domesticity. Surreally, I turn to see Lochhead surveying the work, who kindly agrees to speak with me. She paints Gray as a generous friend, but also an artist given to obsession. The reason the work never made it to film, she tells me, is because Gray’s drawings became so complicated that the project never took off; interesting (if not surprising) for a man who spent twenty five years on his first novel.

Whether you are familiar with Gray’s work or not, the scale of the exhibit means that there will be delights for newcomers and appreciators alike. Little touches such as the “Way Out” sign and other allusions to “Lanark” will be rewarding for those who follow Gray’s career. Everybody, however, will be impressed by the versatility of the artist and the scale of the work he undertakes.

Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal is on at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery until February 22nd. Tickets are £5 for adults.


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