Tim Cornwell, 'Our Alasdair’s HOT at FRIEZE' (The Scotsman, 06/10/2008)
A portly, balding cantankerous old Glaswegian is setting the world’s hippest art fair alight. How so? Because he’s Alasdair Gray, and he’s nearly a genius, writes TIM CORNWELL
The FRIEZE Art Fair is Britain’s youngest, hippest and wealthiest celebration of contemporary art. Last year, the glitterati collectors converging on London’s Regent’s Park ran from Kate Moss to Hugh Grant. Princess Michael of Kent was spotted shopping for art at the stand of Edinburgh’s gallery Doggerfisher.
Just six years after it was founded by Mathew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, the fair pulls in “the trendiest galleries and most celebrated contemporary artists from around the world”, in the weighty words of the Wall Street Journal.
It’s perhaps a little surprising then, that in a growing Scottish contingent of four galleries, which pride themselves on showcasing the cutting-edge, attention is centered on a 73-year-old novelist. Lanark author Alasdair Gray, an award-winning writer who calls himself a “self-employed verbal and pictorial artist”, is on an elite list of speakers at Frieze this year. It puts him in the company of such luminaries as Yoko Ono or the performance artist, stripper and one-time porn-star Cosey Fanni Tutti.
Gray’s work is also on show at the Frieze stand of the Glasgow contemporary gallery Sorcha Dallas, which has set out to take his life’s work as an artist to a new level. The biography on its website again quotes the artist on himself. “Alasdair Gray is a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian who (despite two recent years as Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University) has mainly lived by writing and designing books, most of the fiction.
At least two works from Gray are going on show, though they will not initially be on sale, although the main business of Frieze is the art market. Inge in Bed, from 1961, shows Gray’s first wife Inge, who died in 2000, 30 years after they separated. The other work, Two Views of Katy Mitchell, dates to 1980, shows the daughter of a friend I ballet shoes and leotard.
It is the first time that Gray’s work has been exhibited in an international art fair. The ai is to take it to a new audience, and show the range of his influence on people like Lucy Mackenzie, the young Scottish artist whose work has shown at Tate Britain and the Venice Biennale.
“What I’m trying to do with Alasdair is reposition or recontextualise what he does,” says Sorcha Dallas. “As a writer, he is seen as an underground or avant-garde figure, but in terms of his visual practice people aren’t aware of it. His visual practice is as important as his writing.
He’s had such a big influence on a younger generation of artists. There is definitely a local, national and international audience out there aware of his work but not his extensive visual practice of the last 50 years.”
Gray studied design and mural painting at the Glasgow School of Art in the 1950s. He has done several mural commissions for city churches, most recently the ceiling and mirror portraits at Glasgow’s Oran Mor. He’s produced many portraits of family and friends and was commissioned by Glasgow’s People’s Palace in the 1970s to chronicle characters around the East End, almost as a social historian.
But while he has show and sold work across Scotland, as well as illustrating and designing his own books, in exhibitions dating back to 1959, he has not been represented or promoted by a single gallery until now.
In April Sorcha Dallas exhibited work, commissioned by the BBC back in 1972 as illustrations for a film about a woman’s doomed love affair, that was never shown at the time. According to the gallery, Gray has never had an exhibition outside Scotland.
The Frieze Art Fair was launched just six years ago by Sharp and Slotover, publishers of Frieze magazine. More than 150 galleries, including London heavyweights such as White Cube and the Gagosian from New York, pay for stands to snag the attention of curators and collector. The atmosphere, with nearly 50,000 visitors, has the bustle of a festival rather than a fair.
Last year there was little sign that economic uncertainty had hit sales. On the heels of Damien Hirst’s £111 million auction – evidence that if anything investors are running to the buoyant art market, rather than away from it – the buying is likely to be brisk. Doggerfisher, a Frieze regular, is bringing work by Scottish-based contemporary artists Claire Barclay, Neil Clements and Lucy Skaer. Glasgow’s Modern Institute is also returning to the event. A first-timer is Glasgow’s Mary Mary gallery, founded by Glasgow School of Art graduate Hannah Robinson, who turned gallerist when she showcased work by fellow students in her front room in 2006, while still in college.
Mary Mary has done international art fairs – Zoo in London, Liste in Basel, NADA, the New Art Dealers Alliance, in Miami. “They are the fairs you do when you are beginning your gallery, for younger galleries and artists’ projects,” says Robinson. “Frieze was the next step for the gallery and the next step for the artists to be represented at a fair like that. It’s a much larger selection of people that get to see the work, it’s much more far-reaching.”
Artist Carla Black is making a sculpture installation on site at Frieze, while fellow Scot Lorna MacIntyre is showing black-and-white photogramms such as Surprise is the Greatest New Spring. However, Robinson’s line-up also includes a German artist in his fifties, Ernst Caramelle, with whom she has already done a solo show in Glasgow. He makes work over months or years by moving shapes around on a page and letting the sun bleach the paper. He has shown at the fair before. “Frieze is really broad” says Robinson. “There’s work by people who have just graduated, to Picasso.”
Rodge Glass, who recently published a well-received biography of Gray, says Frieze staff came to the London launch of his 2007 novel, Old Men In Love. “He’s always taken it (art) as seriously as the writing. In his teenage years and early twenties he was known mostly as an artist, though that was fast over-taken in a huge way as soon as Lanark was published. Ever since then it has been known as that married to his literature. It was always the combination of the two he was after. He wasn’t organized; it was only ever tiny exhibitions here and there.”
Gray, according to Glass, is concerned with the “democratization of art”, putting a portrait of Shakespeare on a book cover next to the portrait of the wife of someone who helped him put it together.
In 1986 Gray sold 30 years’ worth of his personal diaries to the National Libraries f Scotland to finance one of his own exhibitions, because galleries didn’t see him as a financially viable proposition. “In the past 18 months, the main thing is that Sorcha Dallas, as a new agent, is trying to get him an international reputation.” says Glass. The co-editor of Frieze magazine, Jennifer Higgie, is apparently a big fan of Gray, and a feature is in the works. Dallas, meanwhile, is working towards a major retrospective exhibition to mark Gray’s 75th birthday in 2010, with Canongate due to release a visual biography, A Life In Pictures.
Gray’s style, which mixes line drawings with materials that can encompass watercolour, pastel, acrylic, chalk and Biro in a single work, has dated better than that of his contemporaries. His influences include William Blake, who also mixed text and illustration, with echoes of illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, or Rudyard Kipling’s illustrated Just So Stories.
Gray owns around 50 of his own works and is still very much producing work, including portrait commissions, but Dallas says very few originals will be available for sale. Instead there are limited-edition prints and at Frieze a new catalogue of the 1972 work on sale. “It’s a long-term project,” she says. “Any original works we want to place in the best private or public collection. You may think of Alasdair in local or Scottish terms, but for those people who are interested in visual art or writing he’s a bit of a cult figure. “Most people haven’t been able to see original work; there’s little opportunity for them to do that.”
GRAY ON HIS ART
What art particularly inspired you as a young man? The first pictures I enjoyed were coloured plates n my father’s Harmsworth Encyclopedia of 1834, the Dandy and Beano, Rupert Bear annuals, illustrations to Alice in Wonderland, Kipling’s Just so Stories and Disney films. The most inspiring artists in my teens were Blake, Bosch, Beardsley and Munch.
What interest do you have in contemporary art in general? Very little. I am a late Post-Impressionist, so unable to learn much from any artist later than Edward Burra.
The publication of Lanark may have eclipsed your career as an artist. Do you think that is changing, with Frieze and the planned retrospective exhibition? It is too early to say.
Can people really be both artists and writers or do they have to specialize? Michelangelo, Blake, Thackeray, Kipling, Wyndham, Lewis and Van Gogh (see his letters to Theo) persuade me it is possible to do both.