Alexander Kennedy, 'Gray’s Anatomy' (The List, 04/10/2007)

Alexander Kennedy views some of Alasdair Gray’s best known works and best kept secrets in a retrospective exhibition of the work of the author and artist.

To cherry pick from one’s own oeuvre sounds delightfully painful, a self indulgent task requiring sticky fingers and a good eye. It should be someone else’s enviable job, especially when the artist in question is Alasdair Gray, one of Scotland’s most accomplished 20th century authors and draughtsmen. Gray was asked to do just that for a retrospective exhibition at the recently relocated Café Cossachok in Glasgow’s Merchant City.

The show brings together a collection of works on paper and paintings that span over 50 years of creativity. An obsession with art, literature, booze, women and watering holes reigns in the work shown, which is somehow to be expected, but larger themes also emerge, framing the works (sometimes literally) like mythic gatekeepers and carytids, namely theology, morality and death.

These concerns have always played foundational roles in Gray’s literature, where men and women tumble through time, pursued with Universal truths and man-made fictions. These works are symbolic representations of that hunt, with characters from his books and from life covering the badly lit walls of this subterranean gallery. There is something apt about viewing these illuminations in such an environment (the space feels like a quirky gutted office). The slightly oppressive atmosphere draws out the darker elements in the drawings and paintings. Biblical themes become almost heretical and heraldic in Gray’s hands, particularly in his designs for ‘The Fall of Kelvin Walker’ (1992), ‘And the Lord Prepared a Gourd’ and ‘We the Saved, Thou the Damned’ (both 1951). In work such as this the artist’s graphic style draws on woodblocks and hand-painted manuscripts, alchemical grimoires and prayer books. An almost Blakean sense of the irrationality of everyday reality and the indubitable presence of the beyond fall and out of each other in his painted drawings, with Man the battleground for this dualistic war.

But among these theological expositions are what appear to be more private, intimate moments rendered in ballpoint, pencil and watercolour. Member’s of the artists family and portraits of his closest friends are here, peering from the walls as characters in the narrative of this temporary fresco. The playful and wonderfully artificial line that the best artist finds on the surface of a face is here, on the face of a young boy in ‘Portrait of Andrew’. A single precise ink line rises as the petulant crest of a wave over the brow and then falls down the nose, cupid’s bow and chin of a beautiful, young boy. Elsewhere, ‘Juliet in Red Trousers’ brings a different kind of intimacy – a bobbed and half-naked Judith or Salmone stares down at the viewer from a richly decorated living room chait, now a throne.

It is impossible to even attempt to discuss the amount and complexity of the works on show, 50 or so pieces acting as highlights in this dimly lit space, an illuminated life. The enormous light of a still vital talent shines in the darkness, rising up over the breast of a hill in the understated yet brilliant ‘Dawn Firth’ (1960), and in the blood red full stop of a sun in the sky in ‘Signalling a Minister’ (2006).