Artwork by Norman Gilbert. Credit: Jeevan Farthing

A Review of Norman Gilbert’s exhibition at Tramway

Glaswegian artist Norman Gilbert debuts his first solo exhibition at the gallery of his southside neighbourhood

It’s hard to articulate why, but viewing Norman Gilbert’s work can feel slightly voyeuristic. The subjects in his work, stripped of detail but rendered with obvious care and deliberation, stare awkwardly out at you, asking, “How are you allowed to see me like this?”. His strange use of perspective, where the paintings seem to bend over you, looming in pastel ink, lends itself to this intimate confrontation. 

But then his colours are bright to the point of haziness, a sort of bold mirage, smoothing over the lucidity of each subject as their confronting is reduced to a sea of palettes and textures. For a man so adoring of textiles – patterned fabric adorns a table placed as if in a corridor between his work on the walls – it’s almost as if he is interrogating how patterns can homogenise us, detract from our bodies. However, the overall impression of this exhibition at Tramway is one of quiet joy and of an askance beauty.

Gilbert’s work, both his fully realised paintings and a fascinating collection of anatomy studies and architectural drawings, seems to politely meld itself with the rough setting that Tramway provides. You get the sense that he would have appreciated his art covering the walls as impossible windows, into a series of vignettes passing through a drab industrial space. 

In the centre of the room, a white plaster board dissects the space into two, with one side decorated starkly by a drawn-on black frame encasing Gilbert’s black and white work. It recontextualizes this colourlessness as existing at a boundary, with pastel palettes one side and rich, bright palettes on the other. The black and white paintings themselves, done in pen, lend further credence to Gilbert’s unique comprehension of form. His ability to deconstruct, via a seeming messiness, prescriptions about how a subject in a painting should look, is most stark here. Devoid of either strong perspective and shading or even colour to differentiate one layer from another, you are left to confront the precise and yet haphazard details that Gilbert picks out. Notably, there is a stony-faced young girl who seems to appear frequently from painting to painting, as if Gilbert was a particular fan of how he could render her features.

Put simply, this exhibition does a lot to give a clever account of Gilbert’s work, both in its specificity and its range. It never forces a story of how one portrait might emerge, instead leaving fragments, pencilled impressions of a world outside, within the space, before the colour and the shape draw your eyes to the walls. His paintings, stuck as they are in a particular moment, invite discussion about both literal, textural boundaries and familial, interpersonal boundaries. The space itself only highlights these themes, in my view excellently.

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