Bruce McLean

Within a few weeks Bruce McLean showed works on paper at one venue, paintings and sculptures at a second, and a new solo performance at a third. Evidently he is one of the most popular artists in Britain. But is he one of the best? That no one ever really says so should come as no surprise. McLean escapes interpretation as well as reprisals; he makes a quip and a run for it at the same time, slipping from one medium to another at high speed, careering through a career in a feisty, mock-macho manner that is somehow crucial to the whole enterprise. The works are neither good nor bad, we conclude; they are Bruce McLeans.

Maybe this is what he has always wanted. In a justly famous review in 1970 he coined the term “crimble-crumble” to describe the mysterious ingredient he looked for in art: “an attitude, ease, panache that some people have and some people haven’t,” which had to do with cultivating “craft tricks, then perpetuating the tricks, never letting them become completely boring.” And, he added, “Those who possess this talent have the best chance of becoming the international con men who make up the ‘Art Scene.’”

The performance, Yet another bad turn up, subtitled “A work based on continuing bad taste and lack of attention to detail,” shows what McLean does best. Watch him dance and you see a natural. He is a master of the nonsense detail, the beefy hipless swagger, all shoulders and neck. Best is a stylized walking step, looking forward and back. Physically McLean is a born comedian, and his delivery rather than the sharpness of his satire is what gets laughs. This solo consists of gestures accompanying an edited soundtrack on which McLean tells a story, certain phrases of which are repeated as if a needle has stuck in a groove. Interspersed with this are snatches of music. McLean struts about and plays with his props. Inevitably the piece is about the “Art World,” and as he insults them the audience titter approvingly, pretending to be shocked. McLean is their court jester and they realize how much he needs them. It is not a case of a man absorbed by his material; McLean’s best work has depended on a reaction to prevailing trends. Yet the performances are bound to become flimsier as long as they are based on a stubborn misunderstanding. McLean is not an outsider any more—but that’s not it; the flimsiness lies in the fact that he seems still to believe that there is an art world, that Modern art is a sham perpetrated by some clique on a hapless multitude to make them part with their money. You can hear this anywhere. As an artist it is up to McLean to defeat, not repeat it. And however funny his quips, as long as they are in jokes they will be rapturously received and totally ignored.

Will the real Bruce McLean please stand up? Is he the artist who regularly unmade himself and began from scratch, the permanent outsider with a grudge against the powers that be? Or the made man, accepted by the system, churning out confections he knows he can produce easily? The works on paper support the latter view; tricky and slick, they revel in their appearance of being made at top speed for an avid market. Unexpectedly, the paintings and sculpture are different. They are pieces of genuine daring and bravura, showing McLean’s willingness to simplify, to accept the decorative in his style, and to work hard for effects. The paintings are gigantic expanses of gray interrupted only by snatches of calligraphy and odd wheellike motifs. Mistakes are “erased,” and the erasures themselves assume their place among the other components. Comedy is present but sublimated, and although so little set against such vast spaces should seem hopelessly indulgent, amounts are so carefully judged that the pictures work not only as magnificent graffiti but within Abstract Expressionist painterly conventions too. Spontaneous, quirky, and hieratic, the work is engaged in a way unusual for McLean. Has he begun facing issues instead of ducking them?

Forced to describe Anthony Caro’s sculpture in 1970 he found a synonym for “crimble-crumble” that applies equally well to his own new stone pieces. The word was “beauty.”

Stuart Morgan