Alexander Kennedy, 'Shades of Gray' (The List, 24/04/2008)

Alexander Kennedy looks at work by Alasdair Gray which was painted over 30 years ago but is now on show for the first time.

Sometimes it’s more fun to ignore the explanatory gallery text and have a good look at the work. This seems an obvious enough way of dealing with art objects, but usually makes for lazy viewing and reviewing on the part of the critic. But it is impossible to ignore the story behind Alasdair Gray’s exhibition Now and Then at Sorcha Dallas.

These large works on paper and board are the result of an unfinished collaboration that took place over 30 years ago between Gray and Glasgow poet Liz Lochhead. The poems were written and the images finished, but the film that was to unite them fell through. The film was to tell the story of a doomed love affair, with the images acting as flashbacks or memories. As resurrected memories (love letters, love images from past), the love story continues. The romance is overwhelming.

The exhibition brings together nine paintings, all using watercolour, pencil, acrylic, oil paint on brown paper and board, and were painted in 1972. It also unites influences that range from William Blake to early Craigie Aitchison, CR Mackintosh and David Hockney. But the style is Gray’s: it’s there in the simplified intricacies of the materials and pattern he paints, the emphasis on flatness, and the sexy voluptuous folds. All of this is played out in these figurative paintings, illuminated drawings that expand and contract in a dramatic, over emphasised mid ground. Gray’s dynamic perspective acts as a telescope into an imaginary past, bringing his whole career back to us. One painting was found on a midden out the back of a tenement (‘The New Room’), another was left to buckle and waste in a barn (‘The Rainbow’), yet they all still look fresh.

It’s a treat to see all of these images together, and hopefully they will be sold as such now that they have been reunited. There are masterpieces within this collection, but the whole story needs to be told. ‘Snakes and Ladders’ is an obvious show stopper, as is ‘The Rainbow’, both large works that play with imagined, layered space, yet give themselves up totally to the viewer standing in front of them. In ‘Making Pictures’, time and space also bend and Van Gogh-inspired sky-scapes and pop art sofas are brought together in the same room. ‘Still life with Buddha’ is a quieter piece, but the crowded composition and buckled perspective manages to penetrate and hang awkwardly inside your head.

Gray is undoubtedly one of the most important artists alive in Scotland today. He has been for the last half decade. It’s easy to see him as a liminal figure, as some kind of outsider. He just isn’t. That’s why it was so shocking (yet wonderful) to see the only Scottish retrospective of his work in the dark basement of Café Cossachock last year. It is still slightly shocking to see his work in Sorcha Dallas’ gallery. It shouldn’t be, of course: quality work should be brought together irrespective of mere fashion of even personal taste.