Thursday, 19 February 2015


                   Until March 7th, 2015

Tall Dutch Tulips screenprint 790x920mm
Battling through sleet and  wind to the Gallery, would the trip would be worth it? Inside, wet clothes shed, still truculent, I realised I was looking at some fabulous paintings. Yes, I thought, yes.

I have no idea whether Tall Dutch Tulips carries any message. It is exquisite and vibrant enough in itself: colours that sing, a medley of geometric and natural shapes and a sense of space as well as profusion. But it would be in character if there was something more. Since student days Bruce McLean has had fun exposing the pretensions of the art world with witty and subversive parodies. In 1972, for instance, as a sparkling 28 year old, he was offered an exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery. He opted instead for a one-day  'retrospective': King for a Day. It consisted  of catalogue entries for a thousand mock-conceptual works, among them The Society for Making Art Deadly Serious  and  Henry Moore revisited for the 10th Time, and There's No Business Like The Art Business, the latter designed to be sung.

So why did he choose tulips, I wonder? Tall tulips. Dutch tulips. Triumphant and self-contained, they are the stuff that legends are made of. When they arrived in Europe they provoked tulip mania. Huge prices were paid and bulbs became a form of currency. Gardens were regularly plundered. But the bubble burst in 17C Holland when fortunes were lost as prices suddenly collapsed. (I wrote about this in Blog 211 Tulip Mania by Gordon Cheung).

There is an added layer. Tulips often featured in the golden age of Dutch still life paintings in the vanitas tradition. Vanitas means not 'vanity' but is  a  reminder of how  transitory and insignificant are our human concerns and achievements. Tulips too droop and bow their heads.

Sol Caragol28 Monotype 1220x1525mm

Agave Americana Screenprint 610x610mm
Last autumn I visited McLean's real retrospective show, unlike the one at the Tate. Colchester's magnificent gallery firstsite, with its perfect light and sweeping views over green and grassy space, was the host. I admit I was so bowled over by his sculpture, photography, ceramics, films and installations that I didn't spend much time on his paintings. One I remember in particular. A vase on a shelf in an alcove turned out to be a masterly painting in black, white and grey. I almost felt I had to touch it to discover that it was not what it seemed. 

 McLean's paintings reminded me of Albert Irvin, another British artist (McLean is Scottish) whose print Merrion is on one of our walls at home. Sure enough in the  lower gallery two of his works are for sale.
Images of the current show        
A slide show of 25 of Bruce Mclean 's paintings
The artist talking
The art critic Louisa Buck on Bruce McLean, especially the Colchester exhibition 

No comments:

Post a Comment