Brave New World in the Dear Green Place
Author(s): Mark Fisher
Copyright holder(s): Mark Fisher
It sounds unlikely, but it’s not a million miles from the situation in the visual arts. On the one hand, the city of Glasgow is celebrated as one of the world’s key creative centres. On the other hand, when the Glasgow public flocks to see art - and flock it does - it is rarely to see the names that have made the city famous.
While the prestigious art prizes acclaim the likes of Douglas Gordon, Toby Paterson, Kenny Hunter, Clare Barclay, Christine Borland, Roderick Buchanan and Alison Watt - Glasgow graduates all - the people of the city are rather more likely to show up at the Glasgow Art Fair, where they can buy into the work of a rather less fashionable roster of artists.
Something in excess of 16,000 art lovers will pass through the canvas galleries of George Square this month, browsing and buying work from 60-odd galleries including Newcastle’s Biscuit Factory, London’s Flying Colours and Glasgow’s Cyril Gerber Fine Art. No harm in that, but it’s curious that some of Glasgow’s best-known names have produced the least seen work in their own city.
I recently met a commercial gallery owner in the Highlands who didn’t recognise the name of Douglas Gordon. She was clued up on all sorts of Scottish painters and was doing a roaring trade, but the work of a Turner Prize-winning Glasgow artist who had been exhibited in Paris, New York and Venice had passed her by. It’s like someone working in a Scottish bookshop being ignorant of James Kelman or Janice Galloway.
The arrival of the Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Visual Art is an attempt to reconcile this odd state of affairs. It is not that Glasgow gallery-goers are conservative or narrow-minded, argues Francis McKee, the curator of the new festival. You have only to look at the success of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) - the second most visited contemporary art gallery outside London - to prove that’s not the case. Rather, he says, it’s that Glaswegians have had too little opportunity to see the home-grown work that art lovers take for granted in Los Angeles, Hanover and Amsterdam.
"The problem was always that people couldn’t actually see the work," he says. "When you see work by Douglas Gordon or Roderick Buchanan it’s not difficult to understand. They’re Glaswegians making work and they’re very down to earth. People get it when they see it. The problem was when you couldn’t see it and you read all this pretentious writing about it."
Far from being elitist, these artists talk in a language that is easy to understand. It’s just that their voices haven’t always been heard at home. "When James Boyle [chair of the Cultural Commission] says we shouldn’t have art for art’s sake, he clearly hasn’t been looking at art for the last 10 years," says McKee. "Douglas Gordon is making work based on James Hogg, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Robert Louis Stevenson; Roderick Buchanan is making work about football; and Christine Borland is making work about the Hunterian collection in Glasgow. How much closer can you get to Scottish culture?"
For a long time, it was easier to market Glasgow’s award-winning art abroad than at home. That is changing as GoMA and the National Galleries in Edinburgh are making more concerted efforts to purchase and display work by the most recent generation. "GoMA was showing the artists from the ’80s for a long time, so people were familiar with Steven Campbell, Adrian Wiszniewski, et cetera, but not with Christine Borland and Douglas Gordon. Now GoMA’s the kind of place that can introduce people to those artists and make it comfortable for them to understand and not be intimidated."
This is the shifting context into which the Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Visual Art has emerged. Running in parallel to the Glasgow Art Fair, the new festival embraces galleries large and small, from the tiny Modern Institute to the cavernous Tramway, showing new commissions, recent work and retrospectives by artists from near and far.
"Part of what we wanted was to celebrate international artists in Glasgow," says McKee. "The programme has some international artists from Glasgow and some from abroad. It’s a mixture of bringing artists in and highlighting artists who are already here."
SO WHAT’S EXCITING him about his inaugural programme? "Pretty much everything," he says without hesitation. "If it doesn’t excite you, don’t programme it. That’s how I work."
When pressed, he highlights Minerva Cuevas, who is creating a mural for the show drawn from Mexico’s Jumex Collection at the Tramway, and the new work being created by Glasgow artists Smith/Stewart at 64 Osborne Street. He also name-checks Douglas Gordon and Jake and Dinos Chapman, who are contributing to the show at Glasgow Print Studios, and mentions the Campbell’s Soup survey of Scottish work from the 1980s at Glasgow School of Art.
The last is as good a place to start as any. Twenty years ago, Steven Campbell spearheaded the international renaissance of Glasgow art, being part of a generation that reacted against the abstract and expressionist tradition that had held sway in Scotland for many years. Campbell’s Soup not only showcases Campbell’s work, but puts it in the context of what came before it - Alasdair Gray, John Byrne and Alexander Moffat - what emerged at the same time - Adrian Wiszniewski, Mark Kostabi and Alexander Guy - and what followed - Keith Farquhar, Michael Fullerton and Lucy McKenzie.
Duly grounded in the recent Scottish tradition, you should grab an international perspective by swinging up to the Tramway to sample McKee’s own selection from the vast Jumex Collection. Put together since 1997 by Eugenio Lopez, director of the Jumex juice business, the 1,200-strong collection is a remarkable survey of the international scene. "I spent a week just looking at all the works," says McKee, still heady with the excitement of it all. "It was a real education. The task was to see an exhibition within it that would make sense, rather than just a series of works from the collection. There is a theme about landscape and power: how landscape can influence the history of a country and how history, politics and power can determine the landscape."
From there, the city is yours, whether you choose to check out the provocative slogans of the US’s Barbara Kruger at GoMA, the political confrontation of RISK at the CCA, or the emerging names at galleries such as Sorcha Dallas and the Transmission. McKee, who is already planning next year’s festival, is confident that the city can only build on its reputation as a global force. "We’ve got over the bump of it being a one-off, flash in the pan in the mid-90s," he says. "It’s proved itself again and again. That’s important and it has happened right across Scotland now."
Glasgow International Festival of Contemporary Visual Art, throughout Glasgow, April 21-May 2; Glasgow Art Fair, George Square, April 28-May 2
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Brave New World in the Dear Green Place. 2020. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved September 2020, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=983.
"Brave New World in the Dear Green Place." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2020. Web. September 2020. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=983.
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