Gray was born in Glasgow in 1934 and studied Design and Mural Painting at Glasgow School of Art from 1952-57. Since then he has exhibited widely across Scotland, particularly in his home city of Glasgow, where he has also undertaken several mural commissions for many of the city’s churches. He is also a prolific writer, with 18 published books to his name, and a winner of the Whitbread and Guardian book prizes. Most recently, he completed his biography ‘A Life in Pictures’ which was published in 2010 by Canongate to coincide with solo shows at The Talbot Rice Gallery and The Scottish National Galleries of Modern Art. Other solo exhibitions include ‘Now and Then’ (Sorcha Dallas, Glasgow) and ‘Printed Works’ (Glasgow Print Studio). Group shows include: ‘Alasdair Gray / Alasdair Taylor’ (Glasgow School of Art); ‘To Bring Forth and Give’ (Glasgow Print Studio), ‘Rank: Picturing the Social Order’ (Leeds Art Gallery / Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, Sunderland / Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool) and Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (ICA, London). Gray was invited to talk on his visual art practice for Frieze Projects in 2008. His work has been included in ‘The British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet’ touring from the Hayward, London to CCA, Glasgow and Plymouth Art Centre in 2011.
Forthcoming projects include ‘Alasdair Gray: Life and Lanark’ at The Mitchell Library, Glasgow and a new commission to create a mural for Hillhead subway station in Glasgow (commissioned by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport).
Any attempt to write a short biographical note on Alasdair Gray should be approached with some trepidation. A prolific polymath, Gray has a tendency to lampoon ‘the ineffectuality of brief authorial biography’, being ‘too fond of precise details to be capable of a broad quick sketch.’
In the first edition of ‘Unlikely Stories, Mostly’, for example, the standard ‘about the author’ text is a paragraph containing numerous blank spaces. In ‘The Ends of Our Tethers’ Gray offered a further alternative to the commonplace dust jacket spiel, describing himself succinctly thus:
Alasdair Gray is a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian who (despite two recent years as Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University) has mainly lived by writing and designing 18 books, most of them fiction.
What, then, might one add to Gray’s wryly self-deprecating assessment? In order to add a tailpiece to his own biographical notes (or fill in the blanks) we might revise the description of Gray as ‘fat, spectacled and balding’ and add that his appearance - distinctive, eccentric, idiosyncratic, charismatic - could be said to parallel his work. He might be a figure from the Glasgow Psalter - an illuminated manuscript come to life, strolling through Glasgow’s West End. Similarly, Gray’s book designs and illustrations bear a resemblance to those bound, medieval leaves, embellished with vibrant, coloured illustrations in their frontispiece, margins and chapter divisions. A master of line in both writing and art, Elspeth King has noted that each publication by Gray is as much a work of art as it is a work of literature. And as Will Self has written, Gray’s illustration is ‘all firm, flowing pen-and-ink lines, precise adumbration, colour - if at all – in smooth, monochrome blocks.’
Throughout his career, Gray’s work in art and literature have been interwoven paths, overlapping in form and content. He has worked as a teacher, painter, illustrator, playwright, scene painter, essayist, poet, novelist and muralist (the latest being the monumental decoration of Glasgow’s Oran Mor), among other roles. In his books, word and image are juxtaposed and combined to form epic narratives that have been compared to the work of fellow artist-writers, such as William Blake. From the ‘typographical mucking about’ of 1982, ‘Janine’ (in which the nervous breakdown of the protagonist is conveyed through visual poetry as much as prose) to the vibrant heraldic title pages of ‘The Book of Prefaces’, all Gray’s works confound easy pigeonholing. A ‘maker of imagined objects’, a Riddrie Romantic, Alasdair Gray’s unique vision in art and writing convincingly blends the mundane and exotic to fantastic effect.
*See LINKS for Podcast of Alasdair Gray in conversation with Tom McCarthy at Frieze Art Fair October 2008