CLARE HENRY finds much to admire in the new exhibition at Glasgow's

McLellan Galleries

LUCKY Glasgow. The Burrell put the city on the map and made Culture

Capital of Europe 1990 possible. This week another super-star gallery,

the McLellan, confirmed Glasgow as an on-going international cultural

capital long after 1990 is over.

Yet Glasgow and the McLellan almost didn't make it. The McLellan got

off to a disastrous start. January's inagural show, foisted on us from

the Arts Council in the south, was universally condemned by critics and

public alike. The Queen put a brave face on it, but Glasgow Art

Galleries director Julian Spalding, resentful of a British Art Show

which he felt was ''a kick in the teeth for Glasgow,'' determined to

organise a rival event: a showcase of recent work by Britain's 50 top

artists, including David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, and Sir

Eduardo Paolozzi. He has succeeded beyond his wildest hopes.

''The McLellan? It's a dream ticket. It's better than good. It's

fantastic. There are only two British galleries worth talking about now:

London's Royal Academy and Glasgow's McLellan. It's not just the size,

it's the quality of space. Handsome. #3.4m? Money well spent!''

Yes, but what about the show? What about Glasgow's Great British Art

Exhibition? ''Magnificent. Bloody good. I liked it enormously. Bowled

over. Knocked out. Over the moon.''

These accolades are from experts, curators, art dealers, collectors,

and international artists like Michael Sandle, John Bellany, Richard

Hamilton, and Anthony Green who, along with Hockney, Bacon, Kitaj,

Auerbach, the Boyle Family, and many more, are making Glasgow's Great

British Art Exhibition such a roaring success.

With the experience of the Burrell behind us, no one needs to explain

to Glaswegians what a huge impact a charismatic gallery can have on a

city. Foreign politicians have always been well aware of their

magnetism. Think of the Pompidou Centre in Paris or Sydney's Opera

House. The U-turn engineered by Spalding on the McLellan was vital if

Glasgow is to maintain its credibility.

For the bizarre, some would say shameful, fact is that Glasgow,

renowned for its artists and art school, has never seen any top-class

contemporary art, British or foreign. For over 30 years British artists

Hockney and Bacon have led the field worldwide. Even the Russians have

had a major Bacon exhibition in Moscow. But not Glasgow. ''I can't find

any evidence that a painting by Hockney, Bacon, let alone Auerbach, or

Hodgkin has ever been to Glasgow. The new McLellan provided an

opportunity to fill this yawning gap and interest a whole new public. It

seemed to me imperative that they should get that chance,'' said


Councillor Pat Lally agrees. In his catalogue foreword he admits that

Glasgow has been deprived.

So from famine to feast. Every one of the McLellan's palatial

refurbished top-lit galleries (purpose built in 1854 when classic

proportions of grandeur were properly understood) looks stunning. And

the diversity of work is immense.

Spalding has catholic taste and believes that art is and should be

wide ranging in style, but even he is surprised at the power of the

show. ''It's invigorating to see famous names working at strength, and

across such a broad spectrum: figurative, abstract, political,

expressionist, realist, mythical, conceptual, contemplative. No other

country in the world can field as many artists of this calibre. It's an

exceptional period for Britain. A good picture or sculpture should make

you visually alert; attract and hold the eye. That's a mark of quality

and I think almost everything here's got it. The Scots hold their own,


Spalding may be English but he knows how important local loyalties

are. There are 15 Scots among the 50 artists and six: Bruce McLean, Ken

Currie, Ron O'Donnell, The Boyle Family, Peter Howson, and Jock

McFadyen, dominate the big gallery. Spalding's clever installation and

hanging has seen to that. Indeed it was his admiration for the young

Glasgow figurative painters and their exclusion from the inaugural show

by selectors who specifically said they weren't ''good'' enough, and

moreover were artists of the past and not the future, that angered him

enough to try to cancel that show.

Spalding reminisces, ''This created a stoushie. Much pressure was

brought to bear on me not to do this. Finally the balance was tipped

against me because of the offence it would give to the show's


Spalding's riposte was to put together, in record-breaking time, ''a

spontaneous display of what the best artists in Britain had been doing

over the last five years.'' The idea, says Spalding, is terribly simple

yet has never been done before. ''I went direct to the artists, told

them I had a big gallery and would like two significant works showing

what they are currently interested in. They were all very excited and

welcomed the fact that the exhibition was outside London. Everyone took

up the offer.''

And most artists have paid Glasgow the compliment of sending their

newest work. Even Hockney. His oil, A Bigger Wave, as Spalding observes,

could have provided the title for the whole show. Painted at his

Californian beach hut last summer (the four panels do work well,

aesthetically, but in fact are due to the small size of the hut!), it

continues the theme of his famous 1967 picture, A Bigger Splash.

This showed a fountain of spray bursting up from where someone had

dived into a clear blue pool. In Hockney's art water acquires a symbolic

status, enabling him to explore surface and depth, light and movement.

The new luscious tidal wave has all the apparent simplicity of a great

painting and continues the tradition of such different

nineteenth-century masters as the Japanese Hokusai and the Frenchman

Courbet. Spalding only asked for two works. Hockney has supplied four,

in tune with the generous spirit of the show.

There are two other oils, one from his 1988 Los Angeles Interiors, the

other a portrait of Edinburgh friend, Jonathan Brown. Hockney has a

habit of painting his friends, (John Cox, ex-Scottish Opera, is

another), and has a whole wall of small portraits in Los Angeles. He

never does commissions, only paints people he knows well, is very good

at catching a likeness, and keeps the portraits for himself, giving the

sitter a colour laser print.

Hockney's passion for new technology can also be seen in Trio, a

96-page bold black and white drawing which, in appropriate response to

the show's impromptu nature, came through the fax machine. It caused a

log jam at one point, then spewed out trails of images retained in its

memory and altogether tied up the McLellan's fax for three hours. Now

pinned on the gallery wall like a patchwork quilt, it reveals, on

inspection, the tiny page numbers (from 3 to 99) and a quaint 'D. H. in

the Hills, Mar. 90' running down the right hand edge.

Spalding made a minor concession for Bacon as all his new work is

currently in a big American show. However, Figure in Movement, 1985, is

characteristically majestic: a tortured looking creature in cricket pads

set centre stage against a black void on strong orange. Kitaj is another

important artist who had a particular influence on the new Glasgow

painters. He does show new pictures: a vivid Hotel Rembrandt and Up All

Night, Fulham Road.

Lucian Freud's Two Men, 1988 (bought recently by the Scottish National

Gallery for #300,000, the entire annual amount available to Glasgow Art

Galleries from the newly established City Art Fund) is in the

centuries-old tradition of life painting; juxtaposing nude and clothed

figures using the same flesh tones as did Rubens but imbuing the subject

with an entirely contemporary feel.

The range of figurative paintings going on in Britain today can be

gauged by moving from Green's decorative star-shaped oil of his mother's

suburban interior, and Howson's heroic Death of Innocence (exhibited in

London but never in Scotland) to Paula Rego's Departure, Currie's Life

Grows Harder, McFadyen's ugly couple clutching Tesco shopping outside a

London East End Hawksmoor church, Bellany's Scottish Sabbath 1990, and

Steven Campbell's Bridgers.

Against these strong pictures, Michael Andrews's photo-realist 1983

acrylic, Sir David Wills Fishing The Spey at Poleek, is a foolishly weak

representation which I am sure he'll regret. His November, 1990, show at

London's Whitechapel takes precedence, Spalding was told. Others, like

Mark Lancaster, Ken Kiff, Peter Blake, Margaret Mellis, and Patrick

Caulfield, had obviously not grasped the scale and ambition of this

show, for their offerings are too small and insignificant.

Anthony Carro, however, certainly did. His huge, curved golden brass

sculpture, Elephant Palace, is quite the most exciting thing he has

produced in years. Sculpture is often neglected on these occasions but

Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition includes several showstoppers

like the Boyle Family's 19-ft Glasgow commission, Roadwork Study: Urban

Renewal, 1990, their largest-ever piece. This shows an accurate

reproduction of a section of Hope Street now lost forever under tar and

ashpalt. The sculpture will remain in the city.

Bruce McLean, like Mark Boyle, is a Glaswegian who, though

internationally acclaimed, has had little recognition from from his

native city. McLean is one of our fastest stylist movers, always out to

surprise. Starting with performance art in the 1960s, diving into

painting, sculpture, and set design in the seventies and eighties, he

now favours architectural steel constructions painted in bright colours.

At the McLellan his 15-ft long emerald and leaf green panels and table

support two televisions (one turned sideways) playing blue, yellow, and

red videos of McLean alternately nodding and shaking his head to the

sound of Sinatra's My Way. It is to be hoped that his major Arnolfini

show will come to Glasgow later this year.

Totally different in feel are Michael Sandle's aggressive bronze, Fuck

the Media; John Davie's giant fibreglass Head; Barry Flanagan's bronze

Cheval a Deux Disques, part unicorn part Pegasus; Raymond Mason's

massive painted polyester resin tableau of students in his local Latin

Quarter, and Richard Long's four-metre Red Slate Circle which was

installed by assistants working from a plan, rather like doing a giant

jigsaw puzzle.

Richard Wentworth's steel boxes is an odd Pier while Ian Hamilton

Finlay's blue neon caligraphy and guillotined Heads makes an impressive


Photography is probably the art form of the 1990s. O'Donnell's Rusty

Nude was made in an old Leith forge just days before the opening. ''I

just had to have it. It's so apt,'' said Spalding gleefully. ''It's Mrs

T, the Iron Lady, beginning to rust and fall apart.'' Boyd Webb's

flamingos, technically superb, and Susan Hiller's Secrets of Sunset

Beach pale into insignificance beside Jo Spence's colour photographs

which break the taboos of breast cancer and Gilbert and George who

tackle the AIDS virus in abstracted technicolor.

More abstraction, this time joyful, in Bert Irvin's Arbour 1989 and

John Hoyland's new singing abstracts which have a cosmic dimension,

their passionate colours exploding like celebration firecrackers. A good

note on which to end for Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition is a

celebration. A celebration for art; a celebration for Glasgow. The dawn

of great things to come after the 1990 party is over. Yes, of course

there are disappointments and omissions: Deacon, Kapoor, Cragg . . .

nothing's perfect. But this is the best Glasgow show yet, so make sure

you see it. It's a chance in a lifetime.

Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition is at the McLellan Galleries

till May 9. Open 10am-5pm; late night till 10pm Thursdays. Sunday,