Man, Glasgow is LOVING Alasdair Gray right now. We’re making films, running exhibitions and generally giving cultural shout outs to our favourite Glasgow OG. It does help that he looks like a particularly friendly grandfather. To celebrate his 80th birthday there are a series of events occurring, known collectively as ‘Alasdair Gray Season’. Taking centre stage in this are two exhibitions; Spheres of Influence I and II, this is a review of I at the Gallery of Modern Art (you can find II at the GSA).
To give him a quick intro, Alasdair Gray is probably Glasgow’s most famous contemporary writer/artist. If you’ve been paying attention to the cultural history of Glasgow or, like me, live with a particularly gabby English Lit student, you’ll definitely have heard of Gray. Books including Poor Things and Lanark mean that he’s become a touchstone for post-modernist literature in the UK and especially so in Scotland (he was UoG’s Writer in Residence from 1977-1979). He also did the mural on the Hillhead subway, which is where you go ‘Ohh, that guy’. (I’m also 90% sure the GUM fon is based on something he did)
Spheres of Influence deals with Gray’s visual arts work, rather than his literary repertoire. A prolific artist, the exhibition does not deal with the full scope of his work, but focuses on what is the highlight for me; his illustrations. Alasdair Gray produced all of the glorious illustrations in his books; the covers to the four chapters of Lanark are some of the best reasons to read it and as such this focus is more than warranted. You can catch up with his illustrations through the recently released ‘Alasdair Gray: A Life in Pictures’, which I would recommend reading as it’s absolutely gorgeous.
What makes SoI I interesting is that not only Gray is exhibited. In fact, the exhibition largely consists of artists who have influenced Gray’s work and those influenced by it. On the walls you can see Albrecht Durer, William Blake, Paul Gauguin and Aubrey Beardsley among a host of others and the juxtaposition of these artists’ varied styles is striking.
This is the real value of the exhibition; as someone who considers themselves au fait with Gray’s illustrations, the fascinating arc from inspiration to end result has some unexpected twists. I never would have linked Gauguin’s primitivist, colourful style with Gray’s sharply defined form, but a series of woodcuts from Tahiti showed the bridging abstract quality of both artists.
The clearest influence on Gray is that of Albrecht Dürer. The German polymath’s engravings of powerful religious scenes bear the closest resemblance to Gray’s work and are themselves beautiful to observe. The artistry of those shown influencing Gray is universal and those unfamiliar with the exhibition’s focus or premise will still see an excellent array of engravings and printed works.
All told, this exhibition has been one of the best executed I’ve seen in Glasgow. Providing a narrative from influence to end result adds richness to these illustrations that could be ignored due to familiarity or confusion (there’s a lot going on). Gray is a polymath who has had a huge impact on Glaswegian art, but the exhibition maintained focus and this is its greatest achievement. If you can pry yourself from our desk before May 25th there’s no better exhibition in town.