‘It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with him,” says Sarah Brown, curator at Leeds Art Gallery, of artist Bruce McLean whose work is the subject of their latest exhibition.
“He recently retired from teaching at the Slade School of Art but unlike most people who step down a gear when they retire, he has an incredible amount of energy. We have three new works in the exhibition – and they are large scale paintings.”
The show is entitled Another Condition of Sculpture, so called because McLean, who is now 70, has been investigating the condition of sculpture since the late 1960s after studying at Glasgow School of Art and St Martin’s in London, under Anthony Caro.
Although McLean’s work includes paintings, film, photography, performance and ceramics, he considers his whole body of work to be sculpture. Brown explains that together all of his works are exploring what the form is and what it can be.
“Bruce was part of that generation of artists who went to St Martin’s – like Gilbert and George – who were experimenting with art as performance,” she says. “At the point at which the plinth was being dispensed with in sculpture, Mclean brought it back and in doing that he brought back a kind of theatricality.”
Spanning half a century of McLean’s career, the exhibition includes a range of his multi-disciplinary work from never-before seen drawings to the premiere of a new chamber opera, The Changing Roo, and begins in the entrance hall with Henry Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-7) set alongside McLean’s own photographic version which he created on the banks of the River Thames in 1969.
Because there is so much work to choose from, over a period of fifty years, Brown had to concentrate on certain elements.
“We have focused on his recent work – paintings that he has done in the last three years – and his early work,” she says. “The earliest piece we have dates back to 1965. It is a show that looks back through the prism of new and recent work. The scale of pieces he is doing now – the new paintings are 2.5m x 4m – are the kind of thing that a much younger person might be doing.”
The energy and physicality required to create a work that size would challenge someone half McLean’s age – and he doesn’t have a team of assistants, he makes everything himself.
“That’s what’s really exciting,” says Brown. “That he is still energised and excited by making work like that.”
Humour is, and has always been, central to McLean’s work – he constantly deflates the pomposity of the art world – and is one of the many aspects of his creative output that particularly appeals to Brown.
“While he is seriously committed to art, he has got a lovely witty take on things,” she says. “There is a playfulness about his work – it isn’t about abstraction and his approach is very refreshing. When you hear him talk and see his work, you end up looking at the world differently.”
Brown says that in creating the show she was keen not to separate out the work across different media and wanted instead to display the pieces in relation to each other.
“I wanted them to all exist together,” she explains. “And see what happens when you view a photograph from 1969 alongside a film made in 2013. The show also looks forward to what the next point is for Bruce – it’s really a beginning.”
The chamber opera The Changing Room will be performed in the Tiled Hall, appropriately enough since it was once the gallery’s sculpture court, and is inspired by Gustave Courbet’s famous painting The Artist’s Studio (1854-55).
“There will be singers, an orchestra, and film projection,” says Brown. “Bruce will be part of the performance and will also be choreographing it. It will be quite unlike anything people have seen before.”
Bruce McLean: Another Condition of Sculpture, Leeds Art Gallery, to May 11. The performance of The Changing Room, will take place on May 8, 7pm and 9pm. £12 and £8 concessions. Places are limited, to book call 0113 395 7116.