Basel

Bruce Mclean

This was the first large one-man exhibit of the work of the English artist Bruce McLean. Nena Dimitrijevic, who collaborated with the artist in editing the book that accompanied the exhibition, refers to McLean’s beginnings at the St. Martin’s School, and the once avant-garde theories on sculpture of English artists and teachers (especially those of Anthony Caro) actually do provide clues to the contradiction and ironic amusement in McLean’s attitude toward august claims for art. To those familiar with his earlier work, this exhibition of Mclean’s recent “paintings” was initially surprising. In the context of the present triumph of a subjectively formed, expressive painting gesture, there was a danger of misunderstanding. Could it be that this painter/performance artist, who formerly staged irritating elements of reality, had fallen prey to the emotional trend? Anyone unable to tell by looking could get the necessary assistance from Dimitrijevic’s text on McLean’s entire output. These colorful paintings, expressive in their graphic gesture, logically continue McLean’s intellectually parodistic staging of social and human perversions in multimedia performances and in provocative photo installations. The question of man’s out-of-kilter relationship to his environment repeatedly provides McLean with subject matter.

His use of diverse media derives less from a ’70s-style artistic freedom than from the artist’s increasing avoidance of norms and formalisms as such. Regardless of how much one can admire and enjoy McLean’s paintings, one should be sure not to ignore the depth of his artistic/philosophical concern. Only in the context of his simultaneous and diverse use of media does his attitude toward the human being and toward art achieve its full effect. The simultaneity and diversity are related, and in that nexus is crystallized the intellectual irony and poetic charm of his commitment to the unconventional creative individual.

McLean’s use of painting, an allegedly anarchist/emotional gesture, provokes a smile. On the surface the paintings are large scenes, rhythmic movements of abbreviated and simply drawn characters. Familiar and mythical, large and small, dramatic and coincidental are shown in familiar unity. The painterly gesture becomes perceptibly more impulsive, yet its emotional, provocative, anarchist expression is based on a cheerful, ironic intellectuality.

The works are clearly based on drawings. Only after McLean has painted his characters and objects does he deal with the backgrounds, which he paints with crude gestures on the still-empty surfaces. Circling trajectories and traces of bright color cutting through the painting suggest movement and beams of light. A large-scale, five-part work uses the luminosity of yellow, red, green, and similarly intense colors on black surfaces. There is no recognizable center. The play of movement, merriment, drama, and triviality is deftly and simply divided among the five sections of the painting, Studies for the Performance, Possibly a Nude by a Cool Bunker, 1980. McLean’s understanding of how to relate art history to everyday reality in erotically challenging visual imagery is shown in Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1981. Completely nude characters form a ring as if for the pleasures of folk dancing. They are joined to each other by a hose-like image that enters their mouths and emerges from their sexual organs, proceeding from one figure to the next—a sensual game, based on intellectual irony. The tossed-in word fragments—sometimes puzzling or aggressive, sometimes deftly commenting—belong in this work just as they do in McLean’s performances. In order that the provocation last, in some paintings from 1981 McLean dispenses with color entirely and simply leaves a gray, for the banality of everyday life, as in And she said, and . . . It hurts.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated by Martha Humphreys.