Bernard Jacobson Gallery is delighted to announce the second exhibition in a special season of exhibitions, publications, film and performance, celebrating half a century of the creative output of Bruce Mclean; one of the most important figures in British contemporary art. With a working relationship with the gallery dating back to the 1970s, McLean he has also exhibited widely across the globe, including major one-man exhibitions at public institutions including the Tate Gallery, London, The Modern Art Gallery, Vienna, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, MOMA, Oxford, Arnolfini, Bristol and GOMA, Brisbane.
The second part of this retrospective includes work from 1995 to the present day and in true mischievous McLean fashion given the title of the exhibition, focusses on his critically acclaimed work as a painter, performance artist and film-maker. The key for McLean is his self-designation as an ‘action sculptor’; he says, ‘I don’t think of what I do as art. I think of it as sculpture. Even if it’s a painting, it’s a painting I made as a sculptor’
In the early years, McLean was often described as a conceptual artist and it’s perhaps surprising that he has gone on to have such a successful career as a film maker, ceramicist and painter. In 1981 he was included alongside artists such as Anslem Kiefer and Gerhard Richter in Norman Rosenthal’s seminal painting exhibition at the R.A - A New Spirit in Painting. In 1985 he won the John Moores Painting prize with Oriental Garden, Kyoto, a painting which McLean has described as his favourite artwork because, ‘I did it in one hit. I like to hit it in one [when making work]. It’s recorded that moment and there’s nothing else you could put in or take away that would add to or subtract from it. It’s magic, alchemy. It’s like dancing—you do it in one hit and that’s it.’
Deceptively simple and sometimes distilled to the point of almost abstraction, the sculptural is always fundamental to McLean’s art but it’s not the only consistent ‘ingredient’; parody and the humorous referencing of art and social context are also key. Take the series of paintings which return to a subject frequently drawn and painted from McLean’s childhood - the humble potato. A Carefully Peeled Golden Wonder Against a Dark Background (2014) draws an immediate comparison to the painterly tradition of artists such as Euan Uglow but it does so with wry humour; this time the subject is a common potato more usually used to fill cheap packets of crisps – but elevated to a gleaming golden prize.
The Shade and Sunset Paintings created in the 2010s appear to reference the hot colours and bold cut-out shapes of Matisse - but with the ‘sacrosanct’ artistic act of laying colour to canvas deconstructed and subverted. These are back to front paintings, based on prints which were based on drawings and before that – sculptural explorations of light and shadow. McLean says that these are ‘paintings towards a new kind of sculpture’ and this is an evolution taken one step further in his monumental striped, 3 dimensional paintings such as Sunset (Blue) 2018. This is a painting which fords the spaces between hot sun and deep shade whilst also casting its own silhouette upon the wall.
Film offered another opportunity for McLean to ‘push what sculpture is at the same time as having fun’, whilst creating the potential for the ‘viewer’ to become part of the work. McLean’s recalls the film ‘I want My Crown’ featuring the artist dancing to the titular song,’ It was shown at an arts festival in Spain and I was projected life-size. People walked in front of the projection, so they were in the work. The more people that ‘did this, the better it got; their shadows [combined] with me dancing’.
Dance and theatre are also fundamental to McLean – although to him, there is no distinction between ‘art’ and these forms. He says “art” is another problem, isn’t it? Fred Astaire is probably one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century—he’s as good as Matisse.’ This refusal to be pigeon-holed and the shapeshifting it has allowed him has served McLean well over more than 5 decades. It has spanned architectural projects and collaboration with the likes of Will Alsop and David Chipperfield, to ceramics - including the series collectively titled Garden ware, created in partnership with the V&A in 2017.
This special McLean season also includes completely new work, although brought to completion more than 30 years on from its original conception. Specially commissioned by the Coronet Theatre, The Decorative Potential of Blazing Factories is described by collaborators, Bruce Mclean and Gary Chitty, as a ‘cardboard motion picture – about ambition and the desire for infamy of an artist who wants to create the greatest landscape painting of all time’ The film will premiere at The Coronet Theatre from 18th – 21st June and will be complemented by an exhibition at the venue of drawings, prints and models associated with the project.
McLean explains: “You have to challenge things all the time to keep yourself alive, to keep the spirit going, to keep amusing yourself.” Certainly, these are also markers which apply equally to the long-term audience of McLean’s mercurial and engaging output as an artist; we might never quite know what to expect but it’s sure to charm and raise a fond smile, or outright belly-laugh, along the way.
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