Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal

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Alasdair Gray is under-appreciated outside Scotland, although his novels, especially Lanark and Poor Things, have been deservedly and broadly praised. Even in Scotland no one loves Alasdair Gray like Glaswegians. After visiting this retrospective of his art it is easy to imagine that no one loves Glasgow like Alasdair Gray.

The Kelvingrove exhibition is part of a city-wide celebration of Gray’s 80th birthday. It begins with early works, several of which he created during art lessons as a child at the same museum.
These show the attention to detail, bold lines and colours, and wild imagination that define his later work and his writing as well. Here his biggest inspiration is William Blake, but his detailed hellscapes are also reminiscent of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch.

His art is rooted in Glasgow — its cityscapes, the surrounding landscapes and mountains, its houses and tenement flats, its citizens. Some of these were painted as part of Gray’s tenure as city recorder in the 1970s. He was paid by the city council to paint and draw both ordinary and remarkable people. The work is inspiring and uniting. One painting is of a teenage girl surrounded by the contents of her pockets, which are glued to the canvas. He painted Catholic and Protestant priests and interviewed them about their roles and the religious division in the city.

He spent some time in a police station, documenting the environment and the work done there. In these cases the art is documentary, recording the life of Glasgow’s ordinary people. It shows that sometimes the best art is that which addresses ordinary life directly. Gray’s murals are another example of art as civic good. His art at its best is grand and expansive, taking up the walls and ceiling of an events room in the Oran Mor pub, or in ceramic tiles along the wall opposite the turnstiles in Hillhead subway station.

The exhibition has a room dedicated to his murals — unfortunately it is the smallest room and the murals are fuzzy digital reproductions. It is better to enjoy the exhibition’s collections of framed and hung drawings and paintings, and instead visit Gray’s murals in their original settings, many of which are near the Kelvingrove, in the West End of Glasgow.

Gray paints figures with a delicate sort of grotesquery, and explores perspective and panorama in his landscapes. His later art, at times more conventional, shows a mastery of his method always rooted in his distinctive style.

Alasdair Gray’s novels and art are brilliant. His books are easily found. His art, however, is seldom displayed, and this retrospective provides a wonderful opportunity to see his work in context.