Bruce McLean: The Shapes of Sculpture
McLean's sophisticated, subtle wit finally gets another airing

by John Russell Taylor
The Times, 27 October 2012

Bruce McLean? Whatever happened to him? You might well ask. In the Seventies and Eighties he was one of the most familiar figures on the London art scene. And certainly one of the liveliest and most entertaining. When Gilbert and George were doing their Living Statues, he was performing in a much more dynamic and mobile way, mimicking the poses of Henry Moore sculptures with his own body and generally rubbishing the art establishment. 

In 1972 he was offered a retrospective at the Tate, and specified that it should be just for a single day. His band of happy collaborators, known as Nice Style, was around throughout the Seventies, staging tableaux such as The Masterwork: Award Winning Fishknife (1979), both infuriating and amusing.

McLean won the John Moores Painting Prize in 1985, after which he had very little public exposure: no London show for 20 years. Instead he was teaching: he was head of graduate painting at the Slade until he retired, and according to his pupils was particularly helpful in encouraging their creativity as printmakers. Now, at last, he returns, this time (at least superficially) as a painter. Surely an artwork is either a painting or it is not? In general, yes. But not with an artist as subtle as McLean.

It is worth remembering that McLean, who was born in 1944, began his artistic career as a sculptor, and considers all his works, whatever their superficial aspect, as sculpture. If this sounds a trifle Surrealist, that is probably all right, as the influence is definitely there.

So, on one level the new McLean work on show at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery is undoubtedly painting. But it is often, clearly, painting of sculpture, real or imaginary. That is not so complicated or exceptional. But some of the paintings carry the creative chain one link further: these are paintings of photographs of sculpture. Then we are assured that there are paintings of paintings of photographs of sculptures, and occasionally paintings of such paintings arranged in sculptural groups in the studio. Though these intricacies may not be immediately apparent, one is at least aware of a visual quality suggestive of a hall of mirrors, spreading a provocative doubt about exactly what one is really seeing.

McLean's style as a painter is very much what it was, hard-edged forms naturally presented in strong, clear colours. Everything has become slightly clearer, slightly crisper, possibly as a result of McLean's concentration during the intervening years on hard-edged abstraction in print form. A number of these recent works have the additionally intriguing quality of seeming to be about things that one can almost (but not quite) recognise, despite the obscure clues of titles such as Two Henrys, two Barrys, a Constantin and a chair, or Two card paintings and a holy ghost. (Not Bunting).

As may be guessed from such sallies, McLean is still something of a joker. Not many younger artists are capable of giving spectators such sterling entertainment as well as a real aesthetic lift.

Bruce McLean: The Shapes of Sculpture is at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery until November 3, jacobsongallery.com