Neil Mulholland, 'Gray Matters' (Map, 24, 01/10/2010)

Neil Mulholland examines the life’s work of Alasdair Gray, a Glasgow artist who has chronicled, in words and pictures, the city and the lives of his friends through the lens of a unique imagination.

Alasdair Gray’s prolific output as a writer, artist and illustrator discloses a knowing parochial sophistry and a fascinating display of the idiosyncratic and internecine politics that developed during the time of its production. The work that has emerged over the period that the recent exhibition in Edinburgh, Gray Stuff covers, 1957-today, is over-determined in ways that cut against the grain of much contemporary practice, resolutely iconophillic, and frequently sporting improbably pitched literary affinities. To do this work justice means giving credence to the peculiar nuances of the contexts in which it was produced, something that Gray has (mostly) achieved in his autobiography ‘A Life In Pictures’, and that the Talbot Rice gallery has complimented with ‘Gray Stuff’.

As tempting as it is, there is a danger in fetishing Gray’s individual paintings and works on paper; to focus on one thing is to make the minor major and thus neglect the nature of his ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. Talbot Rice dutifully contextualizes his drawings and designs in relation to the printed posters and book jackets they were destined to become. Much of the excitement of the show comes from a ‘behind the scenes’ look into Gray’s working processes, witnessing the pencil mark-ups, tippexed erasures and topical asides (the jacket design of ‘Lanark’, for example, is appended with ‘during the Thatcher frost’). The triumph of Gray Stuff is in the provisional character of the exhibits – we see all his mischievousness play, read his self-critical asides and pry into his personal life through the mix of drawings, financial ledgers and diary entries made in the marginalia. There’s much of his fabled humility and self-deprecation. Gray takes his portrait – made by James Bliss as a child in 1981 – and recycles it to illustrate himself on the poster for readings by ‘4 Modern Novelists’, nominating himself as the joker in the pack of the illustrious company of Salman Rushdie, Adam Mars-Jones and Ian McEwan. The same drawing also crops up in the inside jacket of ‘Unlikely Stories, Mostly’.

There is great pleasure and surprise in seeing magnificently ornate illustrations in 1:1 scale, gargantuan and in all their glorious detail, in the exhibition. In his dense notebooks and diaries, the oceans of handwriting part to reveal doodled creatures. Resembling the ‘Declaration of Arbroath’, huge parchments of his iconic handwriting are punctuated with beautiful emblems and syncretic ideographs. We hit the tip of an intellectual iceberg in his numerous poster designs for theatre companies, exhibitions, talks, trade unions and books. The exhibition is like a Russian doll, the more you open it up, the more layers it reveals. ‘Gray Stuff’ has already had an enormous number of repeat visitors, all eagerly away at the stories within the stories. Putting his personal effects on display like this is a very generous gesture typical of Gray, one that should inspire others to follow his lead.

Working with a freelance typesetter, Gray’s new book has been written and designed by the author himself. This autobiographical tome makes inspiring use of his drawings and paintings to tell his story, as well as family snapshots, collections of ephemera and the works of his friends (indeed, there are whole chapters devoted to fellow travelers). There’s a keen sense here of Gray’s tendency to visualize, to picture things and thus make them seem real; and yet, the mythological rivers that run underground are never far from the surface, often breaking through to flood the picture plane. The book gives considerable insight into his formative development as an artist, from birth to the time of publication. There’s a recurring motif of how the microcosm of his personal experience sprawls out into a vast and complex social system, one imagined more than realized. In Gray’s hands, pictures propose stories and stories propose pictures.

The script is absorbing and conversational – you can hear Gray’s voice hamming up the vignettes and anecdotes, shifting register and character mid-sentence for comic effect and rolling all the ‘r’s. He tells us of his childhood in Riddrie, where books and pictures helped him discover how ‘fantastically different our had been at different times in the past, and that our galaxy contained an unknown number of other worlds where perhaps anything I could imagine might happen.’ As always he is control of his own mythology here, dropping lots of Freudian banana skins that acts as portals between his past and his present. A great example is when he recounts an attempt as a small child to make a soup from milk, soap and cabbage and his disappointment that these ingredients ‘stayed obstinately themselves and were not combining into something new. I was obviously trying to work magic.’

Gray is the consummate alchemist; he makes poor things rich. ‘A Life in Pictures’ displays his childhood books and early drawing exercises, lots of illustrations and linear graphics that have had a clear impact on his own drawings to this day. Fragments of earlier societies mix with fantasy realms (Blake, Rupert the Bear, Verne, the Beano, HG Wells, American comic books, Beardsley), and more prosaic technical drawings of mechanical steampunkery. Off the printed page, and in the gallery, we see how these fragments are literally included into his designs, where, for once, a nude model is rendered as a technical drawing of a machine part taken from a manual. Fixed with his own signature style these ‘objet trouves’ become ‘difplag’ – diffused plagiarisms wherein something is suggested but not identified – torn and stuck in as collage to create a mood rather than a motif. Gray’s magic is in his slight of hand; his works are to his prosaic sources what Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ is to Holinshed’s ‘Chronicles’. ‘Gray’s Stuff’s focus on the sources and preparatory studies is therefore the most fitting curatorial homage to the author of ‘The Book of Prefaces’, a book that is, in a sense, a gifting of his own childhood love of learning: ‘Do not let smart children handle this book. It will help them pass examinations without reading anything else.’

The young Gray absorbed the contents in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery while attending Saturday art classes there. The labyrinthine corridors and architectural mimesis of the Kelvingrove plan seem like ideal analogues of his cultivation of forgetfulness. These experiences combined with his trips to Riddrie Municipal Public Library, he recalls, enabled him to find solace in a ‘Glasgow too big for me to mentally grasp’. ‘A Life in Pictures’ loose structure allows the reader to connect Gray’s political murals, his engagement with trade unionism and unique brand of Scottish republicanism with his formative experiences of such educational opportunities, which he, as a Secondary School pupil, imagines heralded the Triumph of Socialism. The images in ‘A Life in Pictures’ imply the comforts and frustrations of domestic and provincial environments, ordinary places that have allowed Gray to ignore canons and trends, to dream and to follow his own nose. It shows us where he has plotted his own fabulous histories and points of reference (occasionally leading him to get his facts wrong), his intense loyalty to his friends, and gives insight into how he does things on his own terms.

Gray’s new book and retrospective exhibition combine well to give a narratological insight into what is distinctive and imperative about what he does. Picture-making compares with the writing of fiction since Gray’s visions must be ‘imagined’ before they are realized – his art is always in the process of becoming. If the nation is an imaginary community then creating an image of Scotland as it ‘could be’ rather than simply as it ‘appears to be’ becomes paramount. ‘Gray Stuff’ and ‘A Life in Pictures’ both promise elusive access to Gray the author rather than Gray the ‘implied author’. But the recurring trope is of the artist as a shadow of the ‘real’ artist; a fiction that narrated the works in question into being and that reminds us we are witnessing magic. Gray’s extensive use of visual overdetermination, his baroque pictorial devices are akin to his dalliance with extravagant purple prose, acts of affirmation and dissent, self-deprecating gestures that nevertheless harbor sincere utopian aspirations, Gray’s syncretic, non-partisan approach is what sets him above the drive for authenticity that dominated, in different ways, both abstract and realist art in Scotland between the 1950s to the later 1970s and is the quality that continues to set him above many artists a third of his age.

There is a sense of this artist, peculiarly, both in and out of his time. 1957 is the year that Elvis invaded the imagination of the UK’s youth, when Britain exploded its first hydrogen bomb in the Pacific and when he graduated from Glasgow School of Art’s department of mural painting. It was rock ‘n’ roll that provided a catalyst for certain English art schools to spawn all manner of student rebellions against the remain vestiges of Edwardian slumber. Rock ‘n’ roll helped lubricate the Independent Group, pop art and the social behaviorist experiments of early 1960s art schooling. Gray meanwhile was painting anti-war murals for the Scottish-Soviet Friendship Society and rallying the Young Glasgow Group of artists around CND, pitching himself against the bitter glitter of missile age precocity. His vernacular challenges and disperses the major language of this era: ‘consumerism’ and it sanguine mastery of artistic subjectivity.

The picture that Gray paints of Glasgow Art School life in the 1950s – his experiences of ineffectual Royal Scottish Academicians, unable or unwilling to connect with home-grown modern art and ideas – is not a rosy one. Gray’s approach cannot be attributed to the art school experiment that is mythologized as ‘art into pop’. In the pre-Coldstream 1950s, Glasgow School of Art was, in fact, pretty typical of the ingrown toenail that art education was, and to some extent remains, in post-war Britain. Against this immobilized and uninspiring background, Gray did what many artists continue to do today in Scotland: he made his own context, worked with his close group of artist and writer friends and established a uniquely rich cosmology. He has played a long game. Artists who enjoy living in Scotland today have much to thank his and his associates in the Young Glasgow Group and Glasgow Writers’ Group for having stuck it out and shown what’s possible.

In his unconventional and inclusive approach, Gray has been connected to Scots diglossia and to a particular emphasis on generalism found in Scottish education, one that is encapsulated in his status as a ‘makar’. He is a true polymath, adopting whichever means is most appropriate. This has partly been due to the lack of any market for the kind of work he produced early in his career in Scotland; as Gray recounts at length in ‘A Life in Pictures’, many other imaginative means of survival had to be found. He has spent much of his life taking up mural commissions and teaching posts in Glasgow to sustain his practice. This has led him to produce a practice with a distinctive Glaswegian accent, one that may not have otherwise transpired had he not, unlike so many other artists of his generation in the 1960s, resisted the temptation to join the diaspora in ‘London … a place where I might become rich and Free’.

Neil Mulholland is associate head of school of art at Edinburgh College of Art

‘Gray Stuff’, Talbot Rice, Edinburgh, 23 October – 11 December ‘A life in Pictures’, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2010