Review of Glaswegians by Brian Beadie on Kiltr.com
“Glaswegians” by Stuart Murray
Stuart Murray is one of the most original, idiosyncratic and underrated artists in Scotland. He has garnered a cult following with his series of artist’s books documenting his life as a postman, doing crap jobs, doing even worse dole courses, and leisure time in pubs. All of his work is marked by an unsentimental, unjudgmental eye, as he documents his surroundings (the Gallowgate, where he works and lives).
The first collection of his work in a mass market paperback, “Glaswegians”. collects drawings from his books “In Pubs” and “People I’ve Met While Working”, which work as standalone drawings rather than the narrative sequence of other books such as “Bucharest”. I was very glad when Stuart recently told me that the book, which was published in the Autumn, has just come out in a second pressing. His work richly deserves a wider audience.
In many ways he’s a writer as much as an artist, with an ear as sharp as his eye, who credits James Kelman as more of an inspiration for his work than any contemporary artist – certainly, there are parallels between their sometimes poetic, sometimes darkly comic rendition of working class speech and minute observation of quotidian reality.
Another older writer/artist with whom he has an affinity, and who he has exhibited with, Alasdair Gray, has commented ‘Had you been keener on very fine draughtsmanship or fonder of writing your own social commentaries instead of reporting the words of others, you would not be such a successful, Almighty Gods, spy.’
Indeed, if you were to ask me which younger Glaswegian writer could pick up the baton from that fabled generation of Leonard, Kelman and Gray, Stuart Murray is the only name I could supply.
But how does he fit into the art world? Absolutely not at all in the context of the Scottish art world, although there may be a parallel in the work of Seamus Harahan, a remarkable Belfast-based filmmaker and video artist who also documents his surroundings with a rare humour and honesty. Given that Seamus has just won the Jarman Award, perhaps official recognition will come for Stuart too. Though I doubt that he really wants or needs it – though he has confessed that he could do with the money.
Being a postman gives Stuart access to his subjects on an equal footing – he’s well known and loved in his area, as is evinced by the number of monologues in which his characters directly address him in the drawings. Indeed, Stuart, who cuts a very distinctive presence, often figures as a character in absentia, never drawing himself.
It’s also typical of Stuart’s humility that he’d never mentioned the existence of this short documentary about him to me – though shot a few years ago, I think it gives a good flavour of the man and his work.
Glaswegians by Stuart Murray – Published by Hog’s Back Press
Alan Bett in The Skinny Dec 2015:
It is impossible to extract the work of certain writers from the cities they call home. Irvine Welsh’s Edinburgh, the uptown New York of Tom Wolfe or the downtown Harlem of Chester Himes – they explain just what it means to belong to a place, to be one of its people. With his outstanding new paperback retrospective, Glaswegians (Hogsbackpress), artist Stuart Murray is more economical – he gets right to the core of (a certain section of) the city’s culture and character through simple, monochrome caricatures, coupled with the odd sparse line of broguish dialogue. He has been drawing the Glaswegians he meets for many years, the everyday characters roaming its streets and more often docking themselves in its pubs. This is razor-sharp social commentary; hard, truthful yet, most importantly, empathetic.
Stuart Murray interview by Brian Beadie for Kiltr website March 2015:
Over the last decade Glasgow-based artist Stuart Murray has been publishing a remarkable series of books documenting the people and places he encounters, to produce a darkly comic portrait of sides of the city, as well as of an artists’ residency in Bucharest. His portraits are determinedly sketchy, faux naïf and low tech, accompanied by actual dialogue he records from his subjects. As Alasdair Gray observed to Stuart, “Had you been keener on very fine draughtsmanship or fonder of writing your own social commentaries instead of reporting the words of others, you would not be such a successful, Almighty Gods, spy.” His latest book, Gateway to Work, is a record of his time on a jobseeker’s course after leaving Art School in the years of the Blair Government. It’s a bleakly funny, and ultimately moving account of his experiences there. I spoke to Stuart bout his new book, and his work in general.
You’ve evolved a very distinctive style of drawing, that looks crude at first notice, but is in fact precisely detailed and captures your subjects. How did that evolve?
Well, I’m not sure about evolving, but the drawings have definitely got better as the years have went on. It’s more focused, more selectively detailed now than it used to be. The
older publications were perfect for their time, when I made them, but I do look and see a progression, a development. I look at them and they remind me of the times they were made, kind of like diaries. I’ve always thought of them like that. I think this one Gateway To Work is the best yet. I always think the latest one’s the best one, can always see how something somewhere has moved on. Well I can anyway. I suppose that means you’re doing something right, I mean if you were looking at work you done ten years ago and thinking it’s a lot better than what you’re producing now, well then there’s a fuckin’ problem. You’re saying about it looking crude at first glance. It does aye, and that’s how I like it to look, but a lot of reworking of the drawings goes on before what people finally see. More with some drawings than others. I’ve always used a lot of tipex as a drawing tool as well as to remove things I don’t want. The words also quite often take a bit of knocking
into shape. Although it’s all stuff people have said, it’s my memory of it. Then once it’s drawn on paper I scan it into the computer and shuffle things about so it sits right on the page. Or on the screen if it’s a drawing for the blog.
Your work is based on documentary observation. How do you find your subjects?
They find me. I never go looking for material, I don’t need to, things always happen that are worth recording, that sets something off. I don’t sit in the house thinking I need to do a drawing, I’ll go down to the pub and hope somebody mental will talk to me. Stuff just happens anyway. I just go about doing what I would be doing where I would be doing it and I make artwork out of that. I don’t need to seek it out. Although you do get artists who do that sort of thing, but it’s not my cup of tea. Like you also mentioned about how do I go about making the drawings, do I make them at the time in the places and situations. I don’t, they’re always done later on in the house or studio. Maybe days, months or years if something old comes back to me, from when the actual incident depicted occured. Whipping out a notebook or a sketchbook in the pub or wherever, anywhere, is going to instantly separate you, distance you from the environment you’re in. What I want to do is
make work from the viewpoint of my environment, my class, about my own culture. How can you do that if you’re whipping out a notebook like some fucking voyeur poverty tourist.
Your new book, Gateway To Work, is based on your own experiences at a Government training scheme. How did the book come about?
When I graduated from art school in 2001 I just started signing on with the idea of trying to get bits of illustration work and stuff like that while carrying on making work. I’d worked as a postman during some of the Summer and Xmas holidays while I was at art school, but I wasn’t in a rush to go back to that right away. I don’t know what it’s like now but then after 6 months of signing on you went onto New Deal, which was the same as signing on but more hassle, and you had these stupid courses “to help you make a cv and write letters n that”. About this time my auntie told me she’d got me a seven week casual contract in a filing room through her work. I really didn’t fancy this, but I thought I’d stick it out for seven weeks and then when I go back to sign on I’ll be back to square one, off of New Deal with another six months of relative safety. However when I finished the seven weeks I found out that you had to be away from New Deal for 13 weeks before you ‘go back
to square one’. So I just landed back on New Deal where I’d left off. The filing job experience eventually became my 2005 publication 7 Week Filing Job. Anyway, back at Parkhead dole my New Deal Advisor George booked me up to go to a one day introduction thing, then a few weeks later this Gateway To Work one, that was two weeks long. It was garbage, but at the same time entertaining at times in a grim way. It was pretty patronising too, everything you’d imagine these things to be. A guy from Burger King was in one day telling us how great it is to work there and then at the end of his sales pitch he didn’t have any jobs going. A couple of twats from the British Army were in one day from the recruitment centre in Queen Street to tell us how great it is to be a British soldier. No fuckin’ thank you. It was during this two week course that I was on the phone constantly pestering my old boss to get me back into the post office, which he managed to do a few weeks later. Going back to the post office was preferable to the crap that lay ahead on New Deal. During the two weeks when I’d been back home I’d been keeping a lot of notes about the course, the
people on it, the people running it, all the stuff that went on. A couple of years later, I’d done a short series of about 14 drawings based on some of this, they only ever seen the light of day at two group shows I think. I’d started working on a Gateway To Work book in 2007, when some other projects came up in quick succession and the Gateway To Work material was put away indefinitely. I had contacted a few places while I was working on it with a view to getting it published but they mostly either never get back or pled poverty due to publishing budget cuts. One artists book mob in London who I sent a pack of previous publications and the outline of what Gateway To Work was all about got back to me suggesting I try publishers who specialise in humour. This struck me as supreme idiocy on their part. Anyway, fast forward to September 2014 and Jenny Brownrigg from Glasgow School of Art, who I’d worked with before, got in touch about taking part in one of the Alasdair Gray Season group shows which I agreed to. Then she told me that they’d got kind of last minute funding to commission new work as well. I only had six weeks it turned out. So I dug out all the old Gateway To Work notes and drawings. Ten out of the 14 drawings were total shit, and the other 4 needed reworking, so I was basically starting from scratch from the written words. It was really good just having to get the head down and get this done in that short time. And it kept growing, it ended up like sixty pages long or something. It was really good to finally get that material out in the open after all those years. I am glad it took so long though, because making the work at such a distance from the actual event makes it different again from the other work, which was always more immediate. Plus if I had made a Gateway To Work book in 2003 or whatever it wouldn’t have been as good.
How difficult do you think it is to make the leap from art school to ‘real life’? Is it any easier now?
Some people didn’t seem to have a clue about ‘real life’ before during or after art school. Although some folk think art school’s full of toffs, I don’t know what it’s like now, but when I was there it was alright in that respect, I mean there were probably a good few about but the Printmaking department seemed to be OK. It seemed to be mostly decent people. As for makin’ the transition from art school into real life, I don’t know. I knew I’d need to sign on and probably end up back in the post office at some point to get money and get the dole off my back. And the thought of that at the time, well I just thought as long as I keep making artwork. Which I have done. I was lucky through art school I still stayed with my mum so I didn’t have like flat rents to worry about. Some of my friends did though, havin to fit a job in to pay rent. One friend used to have to burst her arse in a kebab shop till four in the morning sometimes and then come to art school at nine. Then there’s people whose parents were rich fuckers and they didn’t have to worry about anything like that or what would happen after art school. I enjoyed it there, I’m glad I went when I did, printmaking isn’t even its own speciality now. It was a great department.
You now work as a postman. How conducive is that to your work?
Ach it’s alright in that respect, although nothing like it used to be. You start much later in the morning now and obviously finish later, so there isn’t as much of the day free now. That’s what attracted me to doing it in the first place, the time you finished at you had most of the day still to yourself. That and the fact you’re outside, nobody looking over your shoulder. It’s still not the worst. Just more difficult to organise time. But if you really feel the need to make work, like you have to do it, then you will manage I think. I’d go nuts if I didn’t.
The new book has a narrative and works almost like a graphic novel rather than a series of standalone drawings. Do you anticipate your work moving in this direction in the future?
Not sure. I like the way this one’s a narrative with a lot of different people, different voices in it. In that way it was similar to 7 Week Filing Job, although that was mainly one voice with a few others popping up in different lettering. This one’s just all the same handwriting. There was a lot more writing in this book than there had been before as well, pages where it’s practically just text. As for work in the future the next thing I’m thinking about is moving in this direction, more writing, more narrative.
Gateway to Work was launched at an exhibition you showed at with Alasdair Gray, in honour of his 80th year. Do you feel any kinship with Gray? I’m thinking particularly of the idea of the book
as a whole object.
When I first discovered Alasdair Gray I was at school and the main thing that struck me, the best thing I took out of it was that it was someone making artwork out of places and the type of people I knew. Reading Lanark and the character lives in the next street to my pal along the road, looking at the drawings and you can see Alexandra Park, the Wills Factory. Then through reading Alasdair Gray’s stuff I discovered James Kelman and that was really a godsend, really important at that time in inspiring me to get on and make work out of my surroundings and my own culture. It showed me as well the importance of how in a story everything can happen and nothing can happen at the same time. The mundane minutiae can reveal a lot. A few sentences of speech can be a short
story, a piece of work. In terms of the book as a whole object Alasdair Gray’s books did really fascinate me in their appearance, the way he was in control of designing every aspect. Another reason for getting into making publications, aside from the fact I like books, was that I like the kind of mass production aspect of them. Other people are involved in printing it, binding it, and they can be printed and reprinted again and again. Obviously this gets your work out and about in the world in peoples’ bags, pockets, bookshelves. In the last few years I’ve also had The Folk Ye Bump Intae blog which obviously can get the drawings out and about in the world at the touch of a button, but I still think the books are an important way of doing it. The blog started because I was building up drawings that didn’t fit into any theme just a collection of random encounters in different places and situations, and then that became the theme. It’s been a good thing for getting the work out there. The idea of just doing work for your own amusement or pleasure and putting it away in a drawer doesn’t really do it for me, I want it to be out there to be seen. As far as I’m concerned folk can like it or lump it. Although deep down I do think that if they don’t like it there must be something fuckin wrong with them.
As for Stuart’s last statement, I couldn’t agree more.
Gateway To Work is available from Glasgow School of Art, or from the artist direct
The following essay by Mitch Miller was written for and originally published on the old stuartmurray.co.uk website in 2008:
7 failed attempts to write an essay on Stuart Murray
Confessed by Mitch Miller
Ever since I wrote a brief introductory text for Stuart Murray, who had provided a brace of drawings for the ‘DEVIANT’ issue of The Drouth, I had wanted to write a fuller essay on his work. The chance seemed to come with his show down at the Cell Project Space gallery in Bethnal Green. I was heading down to London that July for a wedding, and could call in on the exhibition. I had Saatchi magazine lined up to publish a short review – all was, apparently in place.
It was a good wedding, good enough that I had such a head on me that only a wander in the sunshine the day after could really cure. And so, quite the flaneur, I walked around Bethnal Green, stumbling on a free exhibition of Picasso prints and an excellent, if unhygienic coffee-stand. When I got to Cell I was confronted by piles of Murray’s books stacked at a series of tables. The method was obvious, so I sat down at the first one and started to read. I found that reading Stuart Murray slightly hung over was not only thematically appropriate, it added an element of empathy to my reading of the dour, boozed up souls that grace his pages. It sucked me in, and the cumulative effect of all that work, effort and observation, and the funny, tragic perspective fully hit me; for the first time the scope of what Murray had done, book by book became clear. I was moved, nearly tearful. These cartoons weren’t funny at all.
After almost an hour I came out of the gallery with a clear head and the intention to write the definitive essay on Stuart Murray.
I blame many things for what did not then happen. On the train back up, where I intended to make hay I fell asleep and woke up at Central Station, still exhausted and with terrible pins and needles. The next morning I woke up to a stack of ‘to-dos’ that never seemed to get any shorter. I started the piece and stopped as something else captured my attention. I started to raise money to make a film, little realizing just how long it took fill in certain application forms. I still had a magazine to run, and students to teach. Time stretched, I found myself negotiating deadlines for a single review, something I had never done before. I felt terribly unprofessional. Then the funders of my film demanded more supporting material, and I duly went off to the photocopier.
Somehow I dashed off a space-filler review to Saatchi. It never appeared, and I was on a certain level, relieved, as it said none of the things I wanted it to. I went to Prague in November, hoping to find time to write, perhaps as I strolled pensively along the banks of the Vltava (and presumably, body swerving stag nights and dawdling American tourists. So hard to maintain, these intellectual poseur escape fantasies… In the event I spent most of my spare time fielding phonecalls about the film, and checking Drouth copy, and in reality spent even more time in museums and Beer Halls. Stag nights proved impossible to dodge – not Kafka’s city any more. I did lay my hands on a book of Kafka’s illustrations, and blew the last of my Czech Kroner on it. The book gave me some ideas for the piece that I never really got to use, though they made their way into a Drouth essay I wrote about drawing, ‘The Democracy of Line(s)’. But still no Murray opus was forthcoming.
Somewhere along the way, due to hasty apologies and reassurances to my elusive subject, I vowed to write an essay especially for this website. This made me feel better for a while, and I was sure I would now be able to reserve just that bit of time I needed, and with the fresh start make good on my promises. What actually happened was that the funder came back with money to make the film. Almost immediately, my life became an endless struggle to fit enough into one day. The year began to disappear.
It wasn’t just time however. I also draw, obsessively, compulsively and regularly, strange, twisted, abhuman sketches fished straight from my subconscious, and usually in a suit and tie. Since I was four not a day has went by I think, when I have not drawn something. Murray’s medium was something I felt a deep affinity with. It made it difficult to contain all my thoughts and impressions. The funnel writers use to squeeze ideas through and into their words was dangerously blocked. Every attempt to write was frustrated by an embarrassing lack of juice.
So they accumulated. I would open a new word document, batter out some sentences or the eccentricities of some idle thought, save it as the first line (i.e. ‘Stuart Murray is obviously’) and then leave it. It would sit forgotten while I tried something else. Some starts would be more promising than others, but that is usually where time intervened and I would lose momentum. I forgot where I put most of them, and thought I’d lost a few to a hard-drive failure (and maybe there are a couple I did, and have entirely forgotten about). I started to put more work into my excuses than the essay. A deep, dark, black and blue Karmic stain spread across the cockles of my heart. September crept up.
I was writing a chapter for a book, on the subject of James Boswell and Robert Burns, and I recalled a small something I had written about Lord George Murray, the famous Jacobite General that might prove ripe for recycling. I went to my spotlight feature and searched for ‘Murray’. I didn’t find anything about Lord George, but did find the seven word files represented below, seven failed attempts to be definitive. The germ of a thought started to sprout, but I quickly moved on to chasing up Boswell quotes.
Only a couple of days later I ran into Stuart over free drinks at StreetLevel, and the idea I had been kicking around suddenly formed itself: Confess, and go forward to serve the Lord George Murray with a clean conscience. Stuart liked the idea and so here, at last, after a year’s prevarication, is my non-essay about Stuart Murray. It’s not quite what I planned in the beginning, but as is often the case, it will just have to do.
(This has to win the award for shortest false start, from around July 2007, written on the train up from London. I was tired, and decided to sleep instead of writing.)
Stuart Murray, is obviously Scotland’s most interesting documentary film maker. Except he doesn’t make films and for all I know, doesn’t own a camera.
(I feel a bit sad for this one, as it was in danger of getting interesting. From summer 2007, trying to find something that tied in with London.)
In his London Journals James Boswell regularly inserted his ‘DIALOGUES AT CHILDS’. These were snippets of conversation he overheard at his favourite watering hole and chophouse, recorded carefully in his notes as he read the free newspapers. Subjects tended to be trivial, yet noteworthy – for example, two men discuss places they have eaten beefsteak, and with whom, or a grocer asks a physician how many people he has killed today. It was ‘low talk’, but to Boswell it represented his experience of London tavern life. Frederick Pottle called them conversations ‘caught in an eternal sunbeam’, and it is true they have a unique sense of light and life.
If Boswell caught his encounters in sunbeams, what preservatives is Stuart Murray using? The people who inhabit his books of drawings seem more at home in dark corners and niches. Murray’s depiction of them is sympathetic yet merciless, stripping them of any pretence and presenting them as damaged, inglorious ink poppets.
(This, the longest fragment, is from late summer 2007, and ends with me berating myself for over-egging the theoretical pudding. In the event I cut and changed this substantially for the London magazine that wanted it, a scootery review that I was never happy with. I can’t actually find the original review, and have a feeling I battered it our on someone else’s computer. I’m not mourning its loss too much… This is as close as I got to finishing the piece I wanted to write, until it was left to lie on some virtual shelf, gathering virtual dust…)
No end, no beginning
‘Couthiness’ is a particularly Scottish word for a particularly Scottish affliction. Roughly translated as ‘agreeable’ or ‘genial’, it has taken on increasingly Tory over and undertones; accepting, trivialising, complacent. Couthy folk are as twee as the White Heather Club or the books of Molly Weir. The crowning achievement of Scottish couthiness was the work of Dudley D Watkins, the (English) artist behind our national comic strips, Oor Wullie and The Broons. Leaving aside the oddness , verging on national psychosis in having a national comic strip in the first place, drawings of the Scottish working class instantly conjure up Watkins’ superbly detailed evocations of a Dundee single end – and a corresponding suspicion among those who congratulate themselves as too sophisticated to fall for the gentle humour of Paw Broon or the delinquent Wullie. The sophisticates know they are lying to themselves and everyone else, which only deepens their hatred, their natural mistrust of any depiction of Scottish everymen.
So when Stuart Murray memorises signature aspects of the individuals he meets – the crease in a jowl, the crinkle in a collar or hemline, what sort of pint they have in front of them – and draws these features in black ink lines, we are instantly on our guard. He also retains an ear for conversation, invective and oral cadence, and scrawls the most captionable snippets next to or around the central drawing, at times threatening to crowd it out altogether. Still on our guard – one of the distinguishing features of the Watkins strip was their frequently creative use of phonetic dialect. Both drawing and handwriting are scratchy and rudimentary, they are technically deficient in many aspects. They look as if they were done in minutes – and as the artist himself would admit, do not take long to produce. But he clearly thinks about them for quite some time.
Murray seems to refute his own painstaking preparation by churning out a drawing in a matter of minutes. Heads are too large for bodies; arms curl out of the torso at the wrong angle, or are different sizes, breasts are represented by mere kinks in the pen-line (Duncan MacLaren has pointed out their resemblance to Mike Judge’s work on Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill). So can he draw, or does he choose not to?
This doesn’t seem to matter. Murray has over the years built a strong and loyal following in Glasgow as well as growing recognition from the Scottish art world. He recently received special commissions to visit Bucharest, to produce a series of images for literary quarterly The Drouth and perhaps most exotic of all, a special series of drawings in Edinburgh’s National Portrait gallery for MAP magazine. His self-produced books of drawings are almost perversely low-fi but highly prized by those able to get a copy. For aficionados, the value lies in the imperfections of his execution of the idea and the grit, patience, isolation, banter and time expended in seeking out and establishing its sources – not to mention the undisturbed flow from the artist’s practice into his personal life, and vice versa. His subjects are after all, work colleagues – Work, a handsome folio in a sturdy brown envelope brings us face to face with a series of angry postmen (read this and the postal strike will make perfect sense) – or as in On the Street, beggars trying the same trick again and again, too wasted to know when they’ve hit a mark twice, recording almost as a hellish, Dante-like cycle of misery and desperately held pretensions, halfway between cynicism and pathos. Then there is the comedy of People I’ve Met While Working, a succession of doorways and letterboxes, each person framed in their own portal and for the most part, exceedingly angry.
Murray’s work is also energised by the invective, rants and verbal rambles he scoops out of everyday life and language, and records in his sloping handwriting. His bar crawlers and beer-bowsers seem to be extensions of their own words; doodles in the margins of some never-ending round of existential homework. He depicts men and women, but seems mostly simpatico with the men he meets, with whom he develops alarming levels of frankness (he seeds his Deviant series with an anecdote about ‘lager enemas’ sure to provoke many a double take). Murray’s inky worldview has a peculiar authenticity; he is no cool professional that turns his subject into a sleek, slick coffee-table set-piece, but a part of the subject. And perhaps this is why his drawings are so defiantly unfinished – there is no convenient endpoint for those of us who are already there.
Anyone familiar with Scottish literature of the past 40 years – especially the west coast strain of it – will recognise its abiding ‘walking wounded’ theme, of battered and crusty souls nursing private hurts amid endemic social decay. But Murray’s output updates the sensibility of James Kelman’s Not Not While The Giro and How Late It Was, How Late to the living present. Projects such as On The Street, and People I’ve Met While Working document the gradual rebranding of areas such as Candleriggs into The Merchant City, while 7 Week Filing Job is poised partway between Kafka and Kelman in retelling an account of an office temping job as a descent into a particularly numbing, mediocre hell. Whereas many of these protagonists existed on a pole – beautiful but stranded souls, or decayed and embittered remnants – so many of Murray’s subjects are merely mediocre, even bland. They are located within Glasgow with the acute sense of geographic specificity you would expect from a postie, located in Murray’s native east end/his postal route or the artists’ warrens that replaced the Merchant City’s markets and offices. Were we to reduce our considerations to a broad comparison against another local boy, then he is the anti-Douglas Gordon, localised, parochial, impudently low tech and entirely self-sufficient. Gordon studies the form and face of Zinadine Zidane, Murray the bull-necked bruiser from top flat right.
But Murray’s technique has proved remarkably portable, making such glib dichotomies misleading. His work for MAP revisited a number of portraits by Ramsay, Raeburn and Martin of the leading figures of Edinburgh’s enlightenment. In redrawing David Hume, Lord Braxfield and the fiddler Neil Gow he presents a unique visual transcript of very familiar works (his spindly-sausage-finger version of Neil Gow recalls Robert Louis Stevenson’s remark that Raeburn was ‘unhappy in hands’) but appropriately enough for the republic of letters, this is primarily a linguistic adventure. The trademark Murray scrawl under Hume’s portrait recalls his thoughts on purging his English of Scotticisms, while his Kames celebrates the great Scottish jurists pride in his robust Scots, greeting men as ‘ye brutes’ and women as ‘ye bitches’. These are people making themselves up, recreating themselves and even abstracting who they are, something Murray seems to get on the most intuitive of levels. Beyond that there is the thrill of seeing the portraitist, the artist who isolates and atomises have his subject wrested away from him and into Murray’s version of representational truth.
But the ‘big’ transplant remains that great metropolitan shift southwards, and whether the consummate Glasgow prole in London can be any more than a stage Scotsman – a city currently home to the most powerful, most dour stage-Scotsman on the planet? Would London audiences see his cast of drunks, deadbeats, bolshie postmen and men in receipt of ‘lager enemas’ as anything more than just another species of the legendary Glesga stage drunk, of boozy clowns and hard men with hearts of gold? The first attempt to stage an exhibition in London is an encouraging sign that, whatever visitors think of these drawings, curators in the city understand something of what he is trying to achieve. The Stuart Murray exhibition in Bethnal Green’s Cell Project Space effected a neat shift between Glasgow and London respective east ends, both areas indelibly associated (romantically or otherwise) with clannish working class allegiances, general neglect and persistent gangsterism. Murray and the curators have put together a clever, illuminating and sympathetic showcase. Tucked into an attic space, editions of Murray’s books from the last half-decade are splayed onto four or five different tables. Visitors can sit down and table hop from book to book, and if they feel so moved, take one up to the counter and buy a copy. This approach serves Murray’s virtues well, allowing the visitor to settle into exploring his output in the way intended. Gradually, one passes from superficial judgements over technique and the apparent ‘stage Glaswegian’ element to a deeper understanding of what he is trying to achieve.
The cumulative effect of these piles and piles of book is deeply moving, as you come to realise how penetrative and astute these drawings are – and how accurate. They pick up facial ticks, smirks, boils and the sheen of NHS glasses with almost unbearable clarity – as if we are seeing all of them simultaneously. Not least, there is a shocking sense of intimacy that can only come from drawings, from the notion that Murray has allowed us to see directly how images appear in his head.
By playing on these ambiguities between personal and private, ‘on’ and ‘offtime’ he is in some respects confirmed as the last of the modernists, a true documentarian. Documentary scholar Ray Carney could have been speaking of Murray when he wrote ‘Art is not somewhere else; it is in life, and absolutely continuous with it.’ He was actually referring to the great Albert and Robert Maysles, the two Jewish boys from Massachusetts who revolutionised documentary film in the sixties and seventies, but it applies equally to Murray’s achievement. There is further resonance in the words of the great modernist critic Daniel Joseph Signal, when he defined it as ‘The celebration of the animal component of human nature, the quest for spontaneity and authenticity, the desire to raze all dualisms and distinctions … the quest for “wholeness”, the effort to expand consciousness and discover new modes of experience.’ GETTING TOO THEORETICAL MITCHELL…
(The magazine never used the piece and I had lost the ‘for press’ version, and was feeling generally very sheepish and ducking and rolling every street corner, lest the irked artist find me. Around this time I decided to just write an essay on Stuart anyway, and perhaps give it to him. The next fragment is not so much a beginning, as a part of the middle somewhere, that came to me after I brought back a book of Kafka’s drawings from Prague in November 2007. This was probably to slot in to the piece above)
And oddly enough, Kafka is again recalled, a literary artist whose doodled-over diaries bleed into his literary output. His drawings are spiky abstractions of the people he knew, twisted into shape by his own anxieties – or his own K initial, mutated into demented stick-man ‘marionettes’. How anxious then, is Murray? On the surface, not at all. Murray comes across as remarkably integrated into the solipsistic world he depicts, his artistic ambitions compatible with his personal life. Then again, there is something disquieting in the way he depicts the people around him as mere sketches, something painful in the failure to realize them as something more fully fleshed, convincing, that is, reassuringly solid. His subjects are flakes, and he draws them just as ragged and crunchy as anything from a Kellogg’s box (Mr. Kellogg was of course, all for enemas, but his use of lager is highly doubtful…) Furthermore, there is no end or beginning with Murray’s practice. He does not simply swoop in, depict, then leave the settings of his books, he is entirely a part of them. And that, in itself, is a little unnerving
(Another fragment from January 2008, upon re-reading some of the exhibition literature)
Referencing Murray’s trademark 50s quiff, long jacket and winklepickers, Neil Mulholland described Murray as the last 20th century man to be found in the ever-so-hungry, aggressively thrusting 21st century
(Aroundabout this time, if my memory at all serves, I had vowed on pain of my own death, to write an essay especially for the Stuart Murray website. I couldn’t find the original effort at this point, so was back to square one. Time to start again… This is from Spring 2008, written on a train – and then the battery went…)
A famous artist who represents a Glasgow progressively being shoved out by its countless image makeovers, a resurgent, stubborn refugee from the 21st century who is nevertheless, adored even for existing, Murray represents a myriad of contradictions. Whether he continues to tread the postal route or opts for the metropolitan high road, these
(Later this year I saw an exhibition by E.J Major. It impressed me so much I was inspired to start the Murray piece again, perhaps adding in some EJ for a bit of comparison. I got further than I had all year…This from late summer 2008)
Where does the drawing begin and the writing end? Stuart Murray’s characteristic scrawl, spread either side of his faux-naïve – or sham-shite – drawings is as much a visual as a discursive experience. His portraits of Glaswegian operatives, scraps of conversation, observations, pained submissions to the inevitable, have become a fixture of ‘zine fairs, book art and other stops on the Glasgart circuit. Rarely has solipsism held such wide appeal.
A Stuart Murray book consists of black ink drawings on white paper, with a picture of the subject – say for example, some old codger remonstrating in a pub. Scrawled next to it, in Murray’s spider handwriting will be a snatch of said codger’s conversation. The drawing will look naïve but is in fact very detailed, capturing the glitches in said codger’s teeth or the stitching on his polo neck. It captures the feeling of the detail more than the actuality of it.
Mitch Miller in The Drouth issue 23, this text accompanied 5 commissioned drawings:
Away and do your homework!: 5 pages from Stuart Murray
Can Stuart Murray draw? Does he choose not to? Does it really matter?
For some years now the Glasgow artist has produced, with near-obsessive
asperity his homework-jotter-style booklets of pictorial meanderings
through bars, doorways and recently, the National Portrait Gallery of
Scotland. Should we be covering our ‘Stuart Murrays’ with old bits of
wallpaper and popping them into our satchels when we hit the town? What
do these homework exercises, so untidy yet so oddly meticulous, centred
on the page by the force of Murray’s obsession, teach us about the
world at large?
Much of the power of Murray’s work lies in the invective, rants and
verbal rambles scooped out of everyday life and language and recorded
in his sloping handwriting. Writing and drawing contest space on the
five pages we’ve set aside for him here; his bar crawlers and
beer-bowsers seem to be extensions of their own words; doodles in the
margins of some never-ending round of existential homework. Did he draw
out these yarns as he heard them (If so, did he double take at the
mention of ‘lager enemas’ – see below)? Murray gives us an inky, oddly
authentic worldview that makes his position upfront and obvious; he is
no cool professional that turns his subject into a sleek, slick
coffee-table set-piece, but a part of the subject. And perhaps this is
why his drawings are so defiantly unfinished – there is no convenient
endpoint for those of us who are already there.
Yes, Stuart Murray had definitely done his homework.
Speaking of which, one last question before you hand your sheets in for
marking. Is it stretching it to compare his brand of rude
draughtsmanship and homespun publishing to the Youtube generation
currently making waves on web, film and telly? Ya-tube!, might of
course be more appropriate.
From the Glasgow Herald:
Robin McAlpine in Scottish Left Review issue 46:
In Pubs, Stuart Murray, Street Level Photoworks, 2007, Limited Edition
In 2005 Stuart Murray produced a book of drawings called On the Street. It consisted of a series of faux-naive hand drawings of what some would consider the detritus of society – drunks, prostitutes, the homeless and so on. The drawings were accompanied by short fragments of what appear to be quotations from the characters themselves. The aim of the book was, through a cumulative focus on people we see daily in our cities but largely ignore, to raise our awareness of a ‘subculture’ in Scotland which is being ‘disappeared’. Ever since the rebranding of Glasgow in the early 1990s there has been little space for the less shiny elements of its cultural history. The culture may remain alive in parts of the public consciousness only through satire (at best Rab C Nesbit, at worst some ad-mans idea of a comic Scots drunk) and in some literature (some of James Kelman’s work).
It is therefore particularly appropriate that some writing by Kelman accompanies this book. It is also appropriate that there is a foreword by Alasdair Gray; there is a strong echo of Gray’s contrariness as to what constitutes an appropriate subject for art, not to mention an echo of his sparse, almost gothic and often humorous illustrations. This time we leave the streets and head into the pubs where Murray catalogues the characters who inhabit the few Glasgow bars which have not been redesigned as ‘style bars’. We have the same faux-naïve illustrations, the same life-in-an-expression reportage and the same fragments of dialogue. And it works just as well (especially the humour). Murray documents his subjects almost like a loving entomologist, and it stands as an interesting record of what sometimes appears to be a dieing culture. Above all, it is a beautifully packaged piece of art.
There is one thing which strikes me about the book, however. The characters we find are almost all middle aged men, almost all from a pre-1980s working class culture, almost all like something from a William McIlvanney novel. The effect feels almost historical, and certainly very male. It will be interesting to see what Murray does next – I would love to see him dissect the lives of the new generation of ‘detritus’, the young binge drinkers (male and female), the disoriented stag and hen parties, the dazed clubbers. Fragments of their lives would make an interesting comparison.
In Pubs review by duncan McLaren in Map magazine:
John McShane’s review of In Pubs for the Drouth magazine, reproduced here as it originally appeared:
Duncan McLaren’s text for Map Commission From MAP issue 9. This text introduced several Stuart Murray interpretations of (mostly Raeburn) portraits of prominent Enlightenment figures:
Stuart Murray makes drawings of the life around him in his home city of Glasgow. Usually he’s being spoken to by a bloke in a pub, or a fellow employee in an office, or maybe someone’s confronting him on the postal round that Murray still walks five days a week to make ends meet. The energy of the working class people; their openness, vulnerability and the drink dependency of the culture, all come crashing through in both the appearance of the subjects and their words which are recorded – one feels accurately – in the background of each drawing. In one picture from the series WORK (32 Post-Office Drawings), a Royal Mail employee sits having a break under a wall-mounted clock. His words – which can seem funny at first but are actually deeply depressing – read : “See these cunts that dae a joab that they actually like…Whit a fuckin psychological lift that must be…’
Looking at examples of this kind of work in the Embassy Gallery, Edinburgh, we at MAP wondered how Stuart would respond to the challenge of making drawings of Edinburgh burghers from Enlightenment days. The following pages show the fruits of that commission. Scots dialect was used in speech by all sections of society at the time, from judges downwards. Although the likes of David Hume and Walter Scott wrote wonderfully fluent English – sentences that have travelled to all corners of the globe and down to the present day – they spoke in a Scottish accent, littering their speech with Scots phrases. Indeed, at one stage Murray was considering having the words that appear in the background of each drawing to be sourced from Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Not only would all Raeburn’s subjects have been familiar with the vocabulary of Robert Burns, some would have been in the habit of reciting the poems. However, actual quotes from the individual sitters were available, and it was these words that Murray chose to go with, for authenticity’s sake. Except, that is, in the case of Burns’ publisher, where a single verse of the dozen that comprise the ebullient Epistle to William Creech has been used.
As for drink, well, a lot of alcohol was consumed in Enlightenment Edinburgh. Drinkable water was a scarce resource, it certainly was not available on tap. Beer was commonly consumed even at breakfast, with the average resident, male or female, getting through many pints each day. Spirits and wine were supped as well, especially amongst the intelligentsia and the social elite. Yes, these were convivial times. However, when in an e-mail describing his progress with the commission, Murray suggested that his version of Walter Scott ‘looked as if he took a good drink’, we began to worry what the others might look like. Lord Braxfield: a nutter when he’s pissed? David Hume: as if drawing a sober breath might theoretically be possible, though he for one had never actually tried it? William Creech: “Steamin’, still fuckin’ steamin’ ever since a got back tae Auld Reekie, Rab, man.”?
In the event, the drawings seem to us to be models of restraint. Four of the six are after paintings by Henry Raeburn. Were the four original Raeburn’s borrowed from the National Portrait Gallery and set up in the north-facing, second-floor room in York Place that was Raeburn’s New Town studio from 1798? If so, the extant14-foot-tall portrait-shaped window – designed with shutters so that the amount of light falling on the subject could be closely controlled – would no doubt have helped Murray with the modelling of his figures. This may partly explain how he has achieved a hyper-realistic 3-D effect in his drawings. MAP asks you: do these figures not appear to truly live and breathe the same air as ourselves?
Neil Mullholland’s catalogue text for Stuart Murray: Jerwood Artist’s Platform, Cell Project Space, London, 2007:
On the Street, Seven Week Filing Job, People I’ve Met When Working and a folio of drawings, In Pubs are all remarkable for sharp-eyed and witted vignettes focusing on the ruminations of the folk encountered in daily life. These pointed renderings depict homelessness and begging, menial jobs, drinking and pub culture. They aren’t overcooked narratives or embellished drawings; Stuart knows when enough is enough. His installations are feats of effortlessness. He just sticks photocopies of his drawings up on the wall, in a row. There are no airs or graces.
It’s important to recognise that Stuart is part of the spaces he inhabits; he is a member of the places and communities he records. People I’ve Met While Working profiles the customers he encounters while doing his round as a familiar postman in the East End of Glasgow every weekday. They form a tragicomic picture of a disintegrating community: families looking out for each other’s Giros arriving, a blind man who has no helpers, lonely elderly women looking for a bit of company. For Stuart, these encounters are as much social as they are a required part of his paid work, something regular that provides him with a means to pay the rent as well as with a few stories to tell. As a postman he gets to witness a range of people, incidents and stories that serve him well as subject matter. Where he employed elsewhere or financially successful enough to produce art full time he would not be able to integrate with the life that he faithfully records and would lack the experience that gives his work the edge often lacking in much of that produced his young peers. His anthropologically engaged practice is thus not predicated on building a career path entirely within the micro economy of Scottish Contemporary Art. Stuart has achieved something by himself that the Artists’ Placement Group attempted to achieve by design. His work relates to a wide audience without being strangled by the Lottery requirements to meet audience targets and improve access through education programmes.
The last time Stuart exhibited his work in Edinburgh, he spearheaded a Glaswegian invasion, neatly sandwiched between Alasdair Gray’s inspiring visions of Glasgow (whom he was showing alongside at The Embassy) and Lucy McKenzie’s drawings and paintings at the Talbot Rice Gallery depicting old Glasgow bars such as The Steps. McKenzie even forced Edinburghers to watch old episodes of Taggart (the ones when Taggart was still in it) and one of her favourite films, Deathwatch, a bleak futuristic dystopia also set in Glasgow. Despite the west coast focus of interest, there were notable divergences in approach. McKenzie has a great aesthete’s eye and tended to show the old haunts from the outside, illustrated in a cool planometric view as if she were sizing them up for demolition. While equally cool, Stuart’s approach to this subject matter is different in one very obvious way; he goes inside the pubs and talks to the regulars. Despite this, he retains enough of a distance to allow us to fill in the gaps. A great example of this is On the Street, a book recently commissioned by Glasgow’s Intermedia Gallery, which documents anonymous drunks and homeless people asking Stuart for money, cigarettes or attempting to sell him bent watches. They are trapped in a repetitive spiral of social neglect that leads to a repetitive existence inadvertently expressed in the narrative structure of the book itself. One character, claiming to have been mugged by a gang of kids, uses the same concocted story to ask for his ‘bus fare’ several days in a row, and is at once familiar to us thanks to Stuart’s methodical diaristic approach to storytelling and keen draftsmanship.
I interviewed Stuart in Edinburgh College of Art around this time as part of a double bill in which he featured alongside Gray. A throng of ex-patriot Glaswegians (including myself) descended on the art school for yet another weegie fest. Stuart was up first before the formidable Mr Gray, and gave a good interview, the bulk of which we spent looking at his books of drawings and discussing his motivation for making them – Stuart answering succinctly, me filling in by making allusions to Gray’s Glaswegian dystopia ‘Unthank’ and Limmy’s World of Glasgow podcast, allusions that he doesn’t really need to make himself. After Alasdair had shown a film made about him by the BBC, he and Stuart took questions from the audience (although Gray spent a great deal of time advocating that the Glasgow Herald newspaper take Stuart on as a regular illustrator). Fellow ex-patriot Glaswegian Iain Spring – author of a fantastic book called Phantom Village: The Myth of the New Glasgow (Polygon: 1990) – commented that Stuart seems to document a Glasgow that could have been around twenty or even fifty years ago, nothing much seems to have changed in the language and cultural references of the punters he represents, despite the fact that city around them likes to imagine, imagine being the operative word, that it is the most desirable penthouse in the global village.
This got me thinking that Stuart is a peculiar breed of stubborn Glaswegian visionary, an artist completely consumed in his own world, one which is simultaneously real (his work is observational) and surreal (trapped in a genre, the closed-shop pub banter and stairheid nostalgia of the urban kailyard). Like Gray and McKenzie, he does things entirely according to his own standards and terms. There is something uncanny about this quality. I suddenly remembered how I always seemed to bump into Stuart at the top of the stairs outside the Mackintosh Building of Glasgow School of Art when he was a Printmaking student. This was around 1998, but it could have been 1958. Stuart stood out a mile from the other – increasingly Anglo-middle-class – Glasgow art students. Just stepped out of Dr Who’s Tardis, he was one of the first Teds (John Byrne comes to mind) to get into art school around the time of the first Coldstream reforms, on his way through the swing doors to do battle with the bourgeois beats. He still looks the same today, winkle-pickered, Brylcreemed and sharp as a tack. He is a 20 Century man, come unto us to remind us, that Glasgow – Scotland with Style as the council like to call it – hasn’t escaped from the grotesques that held it back after the war: raving hard affliction, crap jobs, no jobs, hard men, sectarianism, alcoholism, parochialism, monoculturalism, inferiorism, schadenfreude (notably, all qualities conventionally associated with villages rather than large cities). At the same time he seems to be hyper sensitive to the sense that Glasgow is losing its modernity, that Scotland doesn’t have any official vision or means of dealing with these problems bar a series of failed rebranding exercises. This only leaves the opportunity to either moan about the city’s tribulations or to make them the subject of black humour (BBC Scotland’s magnificent Still Game comes to mind here), which, of course, perpetuates them as myths. Stuart doesn’t offer any solutions, he comes not to judge the world, nor to save the world, but he does make us think carefully about this uneasy flow between the past and present by acting as a medium, giving a lost city a very distinctive voice.
Edinburgh, April 2007
Review of solo London show by Caroline Higgs in The Critical Friend with her own illustration:
Review By Lucinda Holmes from A-N magazine’s online open forum:
Cell Project Space
16 Jun — 22 Jul 2007
Stuart Murray is a Spy
Crap jobs I have had include:
- Putting the walnuts in walnut whips [I only did this for a day but the girl next to me fainted on the conveyor belt (imagine this bit)]
- Peeling potatoes by the sack load [I did this sitting outside a pub and daydreamed about being in an early Van Gogh],
- Stuffing letters to opticians and ophthalmologist[i] in a grand Georgian room that was supposedly used to be Jack B. Yeat’s studio. When no one was looking I searched the room for paint drips but found none.
- Packing Brylcreem lids into boxes hurriedly trying keeping up with the machine, while a South African man shouted at me over the noise, describing how beautiful his country was with wonderful wild flowers.
Lucky for me, I wasn’t sent to the much-discussed ‘chicken factory’. What happens to you there is still very much a mystery, perhaps it is a place where you become a non-person and never manage to escape the underworld.
The best thing about the crap jobs was that I wasn’t really like my other workers; I was there undercover, an artist. I was a spy. Stuart Murray is also a spy.
When I walked into Cell I found a crisp white pure space, where clean attractive people looked at the results of Stuart Murray’s undercover information gathering, contained in books arranged on tables. He has recorded his interactions with the homeless, drunks and fellow temporary workers. These temporary people are the ones who society perpetually tramples and rejects, people we try to hide and move on: actively ignore.
This data is in the form of pen drawings of the individual and hand written record of what they said. Reading them transported me to a dismal gloomy Glasgow underworld. I could smell the fags, piss and alcohol. How many different ways can you ask for money? How many strategies are there for apologetically giving nothing? My favourite person in ‘On the Street’ was the woman who asked Murray not for money but if he lived in a house. If so, could she live with him?
This exhibition is crammed full of moments with people who are normally hidden. Lots of people should see this show, especially not just the art world.
[i] Opticians only provide lenses for correcting your eyesight; Ophthalmologists are the people who test your eyes and decide what lenses you need. (I didn’t know the difference until I did this crap job)
From London artist Steve Smith’s blog: http://nooza.blogspot.com/
Sunday, June 24, 2007
….whit a psychological lift….
Many artists do other jobs to provide the money for them to continue their art activities, some find jobs related to their art practice working for arts organisations and galleries and some just do two bit part time joe-jobs, they don’t pay well but they do not take too much emotional energy and allow one to coast through the day whilst earning a small but useful wage. This is the life of Stuart Murray, however unlike his artistic contemporaries Murray has turned this work/art balance on it’s head and uses his experiences in these jobs to create his artwork, he looks at those work colleagues and members of the public he has met working as a postman and filing clerk. Murray creates drawings that depict a cartoon Glasgow world of alcoholics, the homeless, disillusioned men and women in low paid work and people aware of a changing city that is leaving them behind, don’t be fooled by the word cartoon though, there is no caricature in these simply rendered line drawn portraits annotated with the anecdotes of the people he depicts. We see the homeless and drunk cadging a few quid or cigarettes, the guy in the pub drowning his sorrows because of ill health, the woman angered by the smell of accumulated piss on the stairs of her block of flats. All these stories and many others are contained in printed booklets, these read as diaries of travels around the city, with Murray as postman he documents the concerns of those whose post he delivers on his route, we see days spent talking with neighbours in his local pub and most touchingly the story of his developing friendship with an older male colleague in an anonymous filing room in a Glasgow office building. Murray litters his book with the colourful language of his hometown, like real life Murray’s stories swing between humour and melancholy, hope and fear, we see a city and it’s inhabitants in all their many guises.
Stuart Murray takes a simple style of drawing and production and creates art of real strength, here at the Cell project space it is an emotional ride to engage with Murray’s art but whether those stories we see are happy or sad they are certainly enjoyable. Other artists may use the source material to ridicule those whose lives he has depicted but something comes through loud and clear, this is reality and Murray belongs amongst these people, they are real, we cry with them not for them, we laugh with them not at them, their concerns affect us whether we realise or not.
Review of Alasdair Gray & Stuart Murray at Embassy Gallery, Edinburgh by Neil Mulholland in Frieze Issue 104 – January ’07:
While Alasdair Gray may be primarily renowned as a writer, it’s important to remember that he hasn’t stopped drawing and painting since he left Glasgow School of Art in 1957. It’s extraordinary to discover that this modest outing is his largest exhibition since 1986. Although he is a trained muralist, most of his art is known through the woodcuts and illustrations he produces concurrently with his writing. Reminiscent of totemic ideographs and illuminated Celtic manuscripts, designs for books such as Poor Things (1992) are his most public art works. This exhibition also gives access to private portraits of family and friends – Juliet in Red Trousers (1976) and Marion Oag in Alasdair’s Studio (1968) – all revealing his crisp and confident draughtsmanship and his predilection for the decorative. Gray sways between making graphic work that appears to be designed to be seen from a distance and creating ornate images best viewed through a magnifying glass. Such is the case with the cataclysmic ink drawing Faust in his Study (1958), which now, sadly, exists only in the form of a photocopy, an opaque image that competes in complexity with the cover illustration by Abraham Bosse for Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651).
A number of early art school works, including the noir-esque period pieces Night Street Self-Portrait (1953) and Clergyman with Ominous Street Scene (1952), show the flourishing of Gray’s idiosyncratic imagination. His epic novel Lanark (1981) is known for its lengthy passages of meta-fiction, the author liberally entering into discussions with the main character or offering the reader extended notes on his acts of plagiarism. A similarly playful Kunstwollen belies Gray’s grandest pictorial schemes. Night and Daybreak (2003) is a cosmological sketch on plaster for what will surely prove to be his magnum opus. Arguably the most ambitious public art work in Scotland, the mural scheme has been slowly developing in recent years in Òran Mór, an auditorium, theatre, night-club, bar and restaurant that occupies the former Kelvinside parish kirk in Glasgow. Extending the meta-fictive universe of Lanark, Òran Mór takes the role of the Elite Café while Gray plays his alter-ego character Duncan Thaw, who, in Lanark, vainly attempts to paint the story of Genesis in Cowlairs parish kirk. ‘Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels,’ bemoans Thaw. ‘That’s all we’ve given the world outside. That’s all we’ve given ourselves.’ Thaw’s quest to paint his city imaginatively is materializing in Òran Mór. The ceiling depicts the night sky and zodiac constellations as sentinel to Glasgow’s landmarks. Below this lies the dark kirk hall, filled with portraits of people associated with the building since 1862, including its current secular occupants. All of this is mixed with Gray’s signature stencilled gold thistles, roses, leeks, harps and Celtic designs. The scheme rallies against the kirk’s prescriptive Calvinist inheritance; it is speculative, outward-looking and inventive. It’s appropriate, however, that to date Gray hasn’t finished the mural.
Gray has optimistically advocated working ‘as if you were living in the early days of a better nation’. Stuart Murray’s observational drawings imply that most Scots haven’t even woken up yet. Since leaving Glasgow School of Art in 2001, Murray has had a number of unskilled jobs. One of these formed the basis of 7 Week Filing Job, a book illustrating the astringent musings, internalized repression, cynicism and fears of his middle-aged colleague, a former shipyard worker. People I’ve Met While Working profiles the customers Murray encounters while doing his round as a familiar postman in the East End of Glasgow every weekday. They form a picture of a disintegrating community: families looking out for each other’s Giros arriving, a blind man who has no helpers, lonely elderly women looking for a bit of company. The narrative returns to the chronic waste of talent and its impact on ambition and opportunity. Young arts graduates such as Murray and older skilled labourers find that they have something in common – namely, that they have no place in the information economy. Murray, who looks like he has stepped out of Gray’s painting Cowcaddens in the 1950s (1964), always remains invisible. While the book contains a great deal of humour, it’s of the blackest sort, pitched between Gray’s Glaswegian dystopia ‘Unthank’ and Limmy’s World of Glasgow podcast. The crucial difference is that Murray’s dialogue is without embellishment – his work almost makes itself. As Gray has commented: ‘Had you been keener on very fine draughtsmanship or fonder of writing your own social commentaries instead of reporting the words of others, you would not be such a successful, Almighty Gods, spy.’
‘In Pubs’, a new folio of drawings made in old bars in Glasgow, provides an incisive balance of nostalgia, pathos, drollness and resignation. The self-confidence that drunkenness creates makes them among Murray’s most instructive works. Each of the drawings features a different regular, offering some histrionic succour and wisdom. ‘Never mind, this fuckin’ cancer’ll be cleared up in a couple a weeks!’ submits a drinker as he determinedly slams his hand on the bar. A 64-year-old man, having cared for his mother for most of his life, tells how she died shortly after being taken into a home; another man asks Murray to help him phone his daughter as he can’t see the numbers. Glaswegian pub philosophers are also out in force. One man claims to have conclusive research that proves that Glasgow is about to be taken over by homosexuals. ‘Huv ye ever hid a wummin pish oan ye? Fuckin brulliant pishin aw err ye an yer lyin there huvin a wank,’ muses another man. ‘Aye . Hitler wiz right intae it.’ Murray’s work is a sharp reminder of why there are still so many marketing campaigns to window-dress the image of Glasgow by selling it as a premier shopping destination. He represents the population left behind by technological change and left out of the gentrification process – in other words, the majority of the city’s inhabitants.
Text by Jenny Brownrigg from AWOL, 2nd Biennial of Young Artists Bucharest catalogue, October 2006:
“Had you been keener on very fine draftsmanship or fonder of writing your own social commentaries instead of reporting the words of others you would not be such a successful, Almighty Gods, spy. I wish I was rich enough to pension you to do other reports on people in hospital waiting rooms – in poor pubs and posh pubs – in Merchant City restaurants AND THE KITCHENS BEHIND THEM – in the High Court lawyers’ common room – in police stations – newspaper offices – banks – estate agents – advertising agencies – the stock exchange floor – Glasgow has a stock exchange) and the council corridors.”
Scottish author Alasdair Gray’s on-line reply (30/3/06) after receiving Stuart Murray’s publications from the artist in the post. From Gray’s blog, ‘As the Muse Takes Me’.
Who is our society? An ongoing series of mostly self–published books of lo-tech illustrations by Stuart Murray is beginning to build up in sections, a picture of the disparate, fleeting communities that make up the world that this artist encounters. Dictated by dialogues arising from chance encounters or from those incurred during the more prolonged confinements of employment, Murray’s work makes visible the hidden undercurrents of the city and the workplace. ‘On the Street’ (2005) charts the opening conversational gambits of homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes looking for money or business from Murray as a passer-by. 2005’s ‘Seven Week Filing Job’ is populated with the unwanted confidences of other colleagues, bred by the enforced proximities of a shared workspace, during a dead-end temping job. 2004’s ‘work (Thirty-Two Post Office Drawings)’ is drawn from Murray’s ongoing employment as a part-time postman, a position he has continued since working with ‘Royal Mail’ for several summers as an art student. Each page of Murray’s publications denotes an individual, whose features, demeanour and turn of phrase (mostly in Glaswegian dialect) are recorded from memory.
What are the general conditions for young artists in Scotland and the UK? Although full-time in their commitment to their chosen vocation as an artist, unless self-employed, sustaining themselves through sale of work, commissions and paid residencies, or financed by other means, they, as individuals, are deemed ‘unemployed’, by the State. Murray’s series of drawings ‘Gateway to Work’ captures the irony of the Catch 22 situation of the artist in search of a job in a profession too specialist for the UK Job Centre.
Up until this Biennial, all of Stuart’s work has been about the city of Glasgow in Scotland, where he lives and works. AWOL gives him the opportunity to spend a short period in the run-up to the Biennial, his resulting work occurring from meeting with individual artists who live and work in Bucharest.
Review by Duncan McLaren from MAP issue 8:
ABSENT WITHOUT LEAVE
Second Young Artists Biennial, Bucharest
12 October to 16 November, 2006
I hadn’t been to an international biennial before. So when invited to travel to this one, I stopped working on my book about Evelyn Waugh and flew to Bucharest where there is a crude air conditioning box attached to the wall close to almost every window. I guess it’s hot in summer.
On the day before the opening, a round-table discussion had been arranged off-site by META Cultural Foundation, co-organisers of the biennial. About ten European curators and critics took part. The biennial’s theme of ‘art always seeming to be somewhere else’ left the panellists from ex-Communist Eastern Europe in particular with plenty to say. The discussion was in English, emphasising how close to the centre of things we are in Scotland. It also seemed over earnest and interminable from where I sat. Of course, this only underlines the relative comfort of a British-based position in the art world. If you’re working in Edinburgh, Glasgow or Dundee – never mind London – you are likely to feel a lot more secure and connected than if you’re working in intellectually isolated and arts funding-starved Croatia, Moldovia or Romania. That is fundamental.
The venue for the show itself was Bratianu Palace. This once splendid private house, which had been used as a hospital during Communist years, is an effective backdrop for contemporary art, the Romanian context remaining omnipresent. Tobias Sternberg took especially good advantage of this in his installation: a cramped interview space which was entered by a grand constructed curtain from one room in the house, but which appeared to be a single anonymous office in a modernist block from another room. Formal interviews with Romanian cultural experts could be booked in this space, thanks to Sternberg’s collaborators ‘add’, a Bucharest-based agency. This collaboration pointed towards the biennial organisers’ main medium-term aim – to help show how a healthy infrastructure for contemporary art in Romania can be developed.
This joint work was one of five projects curated by Dundee-based Jenny Brownrigg under the heading ‘AWOL in Romania’. Brownrigg was only one of five curators in all, yet her part of the show was for me much the easiest and most rewarding to engage with. This was partly because – by linking UK artists whose sensibility she knew something about, to Romanian artists who she felt were working in similar areas – she was building from a firm base. The showing together of strong pieces on the theme of how buildings affect the people who live in and amongst them by Marcus Coates, Will Duke and the Bucharest pairing of Mona Vatamanu and Florin Tudor, still resonates in my mind.
Transplanted from his home town of Glasgow for ten days or so, Stuart Murray, another Brownrigg selection, was introduced to Romanian artists long enough to make portraits of them. Would these socially engaged, career-nurturing individuals have had an inkling of where the Scottish working class Murray with his hair meticulously slicked back was coming from, literally or aesthetically? It didn’t look like it. The drawings – many of which bring to mind Hank Hill of the American cartoon King of the Hill – poke fun at the glibness of the intellectuals who give the impression of having granted Murray five minutes of their valuable time. Yet an audience of younger Romanians were laughing out loud at the work.
One of the joys of travelling to an event such as this is that some people of the host country will make an effort to give of their own time. A day or two after the opening, Florin Tudor took me by metro to the site of his and Mona Vatamanu’s piece Vacaresti. In the film, Tudor is shown stumbling around a frozen marsh, knocking pegs into the ground. What he’s doing is marking out the boundaries of an 18th century monastery that was raised to the ground during the reign of Ceausescu. Nearby there is the brutal concrete foundation of a sports stadium that was never finished, and a man-made wilderness stretches almost to the horizon. For an hour we stood there, in the cold, at the exact spot that the artists’ fixed camera was set-up in the film. And I learned in detail how such urban blight came into being and how frustrating it is for Tudor that nothing has been done to rebuild or commemorate the site since the overthrow of the Communist dictator. Being a self-absorbed westerner, eventually I got tired of listening to this historically-aware and highly motivated artist. But not before an overview dawned on me. The artists maturing in the ex-Communist block at the moment are bound to be very different from those in the west. Whether an Eastern European was born in 1960 or 1970 or 1980, his or her society was completely changed by the collapse of the Soviet empire in the late eighties. Only then did information begin to flow freely. The waste of human resources, the hypocrisy of those in power, the fear of the Big Brother state that undermined most people’s lives under Ceausescu: all was laid bare. Many artists from ex-Communist countries must feel they have no choice but to follow through on that experience of psychic upheaval, that revelation of negative legacy.
When I returned to the show after this site visit, I became aware of several videos showing disturbed young adults. One poor guy in These Days by Croatian artist David Maljkovic, keeps saying robotically: “I feel sick today.” Well, I felt I understood why. But, I’m not sure I agree with Branko Franceshi, the curator who chose this work and others just as disturbing, when he states in his catalogue essay: “I am inclined to consider artists the lucky ones who, thanks to the given creative impulse, have an actual chance to sidestep the oppression system and go AWOL”. Sensitivity to the plight of their tribe is often the principal trait of the artist.
Review of Rack ‘N’ Ruin at Lowsalt Gallery, Glasgow, by Fraser Cardow in The Skinny, 2006:
|A statement on the decay and span of Glaswegian dysfunctional relationships
Featuring mid career artists, this gallery continues its brief moment of prominence, holding its own in a Glasgow which is artistically alight. This 3rd exhibition sees the artists being given space and invited to consider a unified theme. What emerges is Rack ‘n’ Ruin, a statement on the decay and span of dysfunctional Glaswegian relationships. The simple and outwardly cold pieces strike a mournful note of accepted discontent and have a satisfyingly non-abstract depth. This discord is spoken of in the traditional German marriage-divining lead casts, which pour simply from the walls like encroaching decay, but with beautiful intent. Stuart Murray’s portrait series of pub regulars and their quotes is downright hilarious and touchingly real. It gets up-close and personal as they drift away their lives and relationships in semi squalor. The show is clear and straight to the point, summing itself up by claiming that ‘You don’t spend your whole life eating shit in case you find a raisin.’
Review of On The Street by Robin McAlpine from Scottish Left Review Apr/May ’06 issue:
“On the Street is a book of drawings which seeks to illustrate what the gentrification of areas of Glasgow like the Merchant City and Glasgow Cross is obscuring; the endemic poverty which has been an integral but ambiguous part of Glasgow’s identity. In fact, it is more than integral; in many ways it is the defining aspect of Glasgow identity, given that the city has always been identified with its ‘gallus’ humour – the humour of the gallows, laughing at and through your own affliction. This is an issue which we are struggling with across Scotland. One of the characteristics of Scottish culture (small ‘c’) is the reductive idiom, the challenging of pomposity, arrogance or excessive aspiration through wry humour. We are struggling with this because we maintain in Scotland some pride in our resistance to the glorification of social climbing which dominates modern British politics (there is a correlation between egalitarianism and the dislike of the ‘chancer’), but we are now being endlessly told we are wrong. Leading the charge on behalf of the chancers is Carol Craig and her ‘Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing’ – which will help you feel more confident so long as you have thousands of pounds with which to pay her fees. It is of course ridiculous to celebrate poverty – it is a vile and destructive phenomenon – but we do not yet seem to be ready to abandon totally the celebration of people’s remarkable responses to poverty. The difficulty is identifying the line.
On the Street was commissioned to mark the end of Intermedia Gallery’s time at King Street in Glasgow. Artist Stuart Murray has produced over 40 drawings which seek to capture a sense of random encounters with the dispossessed – beggars, junkies, prostitutes, the starving, alcoholics. Each is presented in faux-naïve line drawing (or series of drawings) accompanied by handwritten text capturing the dialogue (or more commonly the monologue) of such encounters. “Sper cheynge?”, “Am tryin tae get enough fur a can a lager”, “Ye goat a sper note if yur gawnty that bank there then?”.
Artists, writers or filmmakers trying to capture a portrait of the dispossessed always face a problem – by their very nature the people doing the capturing are usually necessarily separated from their subjects. With the best will in the world, compassion or genuine anger can nonetheless end up patronising. But perhaps an even greater risk is that the whole project amounts to little more than a fairly obvious comment on how awful poverty is. Murray’s approach in this book goes a long way to avoiding these pitfalls. The illustrations and words are stripped back and minimalist. The illustrations feel almost amateurish (they’re not) and the words are given straight. There is no contextualisation – the anthropologists referencing which gives the subjects an aura of sub-humanity (“Frank, unemployed, the Trongate”). The effect of each illustration taken individually can be a little underwhelming. The strength of the book is its cumulative effect, the way in which a progression of anonymous characters seem to become increasingly familiar as you increasingly recognise your own encounters. Slowly, as you turn the pages, you begin to realise that in fact the subject of the book is not only (perhaps not mainly) the dispossessed it portrays. In large part, you are the subject of the book. You and your ability to forget these encounters, to fail to see the people portrayed as you scurry by to your train. Your ability to dispossess the dispossessed of one of the few things they had left – their role in our identity.”