Sculptor, painter, ceramicist, performance artist, filmmaker, Bruce McLean’s career flits about in a variety of genres. He’s regarded as having led the development of British conceptual art in the 1960s. Not that he would necessarily have it that way. He regards himself solely as a sculptor. His work subtly and playfully makes fun of the pomposity and established forms of the art world.
Take Fallen Warrior, above, for example. It’s a parody of Henry Moore’s Falling Warrior, a sculpture he first saw when he was 12. He couldn’t understand why the body had fallen on a plinth and not on the ground. “I liked the Henry Moore piece”, he tells me. “So when I was bored with nothing to do in the late ‘60s, I thought I’d take a plinth around London and fall on it. Because a fallen warrior wouldn’t fall on a plinth, he’d fall on a battlefield or whatever.” A later series, Pose Work for Plinths, developed the idea further.
This kind of subversive wit permeates the new show at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, Bruce McLean – Five Decades of Sculpture, Part One 1967-1994 . It heralds a special season of exhibitions, publications, film and performance celebrating the career of the Scottish artist, now 74. Born in Glasgow, he went to the School of Art there before coming down to London to study sculpture under Sir Anthony Caro and Philip King at Central St Martin’s.
He’d wanted to be a sculptor since the age of six. “I was influenced by the singer Johnny Ray who was an action singer who used to cry when he sang. His singing wasn’t much cop but his action was great. Then you had Jackson Pollock the action painter, you’d got Johnny Ray the action singer, so I thought I could be an action sculptor.”
In 1969, he even parodied himself. The photograph above came about after he thought about giving up being an artist and organised a retrospective at the Tate since that’s what ex-artists have. So he wrote 1,000 pieces for his retrospective catalogue so that when visitors bought one and took it away, the show would gradually disappear and he with it. It was exhibited for a day at the Tate in 1972!
Around this time, McLean and friends established what he called a pose band, seen above with McLean top left. Entitled Nice Style, they played no music but dressed in a garb that pre-empted that of the New Romantic pop bands while adopting traditional group sculptural poses a la Rodin, Schlemmer and Segal. Again, we see the parody of the postures of the art establishment. “The idea behind this is that we made the photograph before we made the work. Anything we did afterwards was kind of behind the photograph.”
Performance also enabled McLean to indulge his love of dancing. He wanted to join the Ballet Rambert at the age of 21 but was told he was too old to become a classical dancer. He has made a film with one of his Nice Style collaborators, Gary Chitty, soon to be premiered at the newly relaunched Coronet Theatre in London, entitled The Decorative Potential of Blazing Factories.
The above picture was painted on a Spanish beach but the sun was so bright on the canvas that he couldn’t see properly so he painted the canvas black. The picture references pollution. It began a trend. “There’s this idea that canvases should be white. They’re never black or brown or green, they’re always white. Why?” His witty but subversive questioning of art’s so-called norms have not been dulled over the years. He’s great fun to listen to.
“In sculpture you get these classical figures of men scantily clad or naked attached to a tree trunk to hold them up. They’re never attached to a cannon or a wheelbarrow or a bit of a building, it’s always a tree trunk. There are all these things that you think why do they have to be like that.”
Gucci Shoe Heads, another painted on black, takes a swipe at our consumer culture. It shows “the kind of people who work in galleries” and has them wearing their fashion statements on their heads in the manner of African villagers. The ladder is a symbol of social climbing, of getting your foot on the first rung. In another work called Cheese Players, originating from a misspelling of chess players, McLean uses a wedge of cheese as a divisive symbol of the cultural war being waged at the time between galleries.. Why cheese? “It was about people going to brie on the knee parties. It was never cheddar on the shoulder.”
Bruce McLean’s “consistently inconsistent” approach and his resistance to acceding to the boundaries of so-called high and low art have given him the freedom to express himself in a variety of different ways. In 1985, he won the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize for Oriental Garden Kyoto. His works can be found in the collections of the Tate, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the National Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh among many others.
This part one of the Bruce McLean retrospective is showing at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke Street St. James’s, London SW1Y 6AG until 27 May. Part two which takes us from 1995 to the present day, and which will include new works, will run from 30 May – 1 July.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.