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A moment with Bruce McLean

Posted 24.07.20

For this month’s Sunday Edition, we speak to renowned Scottish sculptor Bruce McLean about his non-career (his words not ours), him being too short to become an architect and his upcoming film project exploring craft and the effects of dressing well. Born in Glasgow in 1944, McLean studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1961 to 1963, and then Saint Martin's School of Art, London, from until 1966. In London, he stayed and has been living and working between his main studio, his garden studio, and his house ever since. From performance, dance, and painting – he vehemently describes his practice as sculpture, even his writing. We caught up with Bruce on a particularly grey day in the city, the conversation went as follows: 

Morning Bruce, how has lockdown been for you? Did you manage to get out to the studio much?

Yes, not much though because I am quite old, but I have a studio in my garden. It was nice not to do very much.

A little holiday?

Well no, not a holiday. When you do not do much, you can do more I find.

What kept you inspired and motivated during the lockdown?

I do not normally suffer for inspiration. I never get inspired – I just do things. What happens is, I might be the studio wondering what to do. Actually, I never wonder what to do. I am always doing something; picking something up, making something, making a drawing. I have actually made about 400 self-portraits during lockdown which was quite a stupid thing to do. It got very depressing because I looked glummer and glummer, older, and older and more and more decrepit. It was not really the best thing to keep my spirits up. I was looking in the mirror, making five or six a day. The glumness got more and more, and when you are making a self-portrait you cannot really keep a smile going. Well, I cannot. So that is what I did. I did some drawing. I thought about what would happen if I did the same thing over and over again. You get so bored doing that it changes. Well, it got worse and worse.

Did it lead to some interesting work though?

Well, some are quite good. Out of 400 there about 20 good ones. I am not talking about a likeness, just as a drawing. It was an interesting thing to do. I have not done that for a long time.

That is a decent ratio anyway?

It is not bad.

Throughout your career –

Before you go on, I must tell you, I have never had a career. That is the problem. Well, some people see that as a problem – I do not. If I had a career, I would be successful. I do not have a career, I just work. I do want I want when I want to do it.

Bruce McLean, Publicity photograph for 'High up on a Baroque Palazzo', 1974,

The work that you have made, then, has taken many forms and spans many different mediums. However, you’ve always returned to and describe your work as sculpture. Why is that?

When I was a child, about seven or eight, I was sent to do a Saturday morning class and do drawing and painting. The teacher there introduced me to sculpture. I was taught about Brancusi, Giacometti, Picasso…all that stuff from an early age. Then I went to Glasgow School of Art to study sculpture, which I did not like very much and ended up going to Saint Martins to study sculpture there. I have been studying it all my life and everything I do I think of as a stage and development of what sculpture could be.

Your work has always been quite disruptive, be that against your tutors at Saint Martins or the art world more generally. Where does that spirit come from?

Because I was always taught to question things, question what sculpture could be and question where it was going to be put, I have always had a questioning attitude. You should not be the same as anybody else if you want to be an artist. Be completely different, even just for the sake of it. If you do things deliberately in an unusual way it can help you. Everything should be questioned. Not in a nasty or aggressive way. Just ask, ‘why is that there?’. If this is like that, why?

We had quite a rigorous training at Saint Martins as a young sculptor, between the ages of 19 and 21. We really questioned, terrorised, bullied, tortured – not really – but it was rigorous. I enjoyed it and it is always made me think that way.

My father was an architect. He was an exceptionally good architect in his questioning and his approach to things. He did not accept the status quo. So yes, never accept what is there and question everything.

The Ties, the Looks, 1980. © Bruce Mclean

Do you think architecture has played a role in informing your approach to art-making?

I always wanted to be an architect. I told my father that and he said ‘absolutely, no way!’ When I asked him why not, he said I was too small. He was quite tall; my mother was quite small – and I am in the middle. ‘You are far too small’, he said, ‘be a sculptor…or a golfer…or a tap dancer.’ It was good advice. I would have gotten very depressed with all of the rules and regulations and planning permissions.

Although, I actually built a school with my son. He is tall. We built a school in Dalry in North Ayrshire and it opened in 2007. It was a fantastic project. We built it with the students of the school, the staff of the school and the parents. We all designed it together. A wonderful building. That is the one thing I will stand by – I am very happy with that. I mean, it has got loads of things wrong with it. But we got it done.

Other than that project, what other of your projects or artworks standout?

My prize-winning painting ‘Oriental Garden, Kyoto’, painted in 1985, I showed it at John Moore’s, and it won a prize. That is a good painting. The bar at the Arnolfini I designed with David Chipperfield, in 1987, that was a good project. I stand by that – that’s kind of architectural. The masterwork performance sculpture at riverside performed in 1979. And also, ‘High-up on a Baroque Palazzo’ 1974, which is a piece to do with style, and aspirations of social climbing and so on.

Oriental Garden, Kyoto, 1985. © Bruce Mclean / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Walker Art Gallery

At Turnbull, expressing one’s personal style and the craft and provenance of our product is so important. What does the word ‘craftsmanship’ mean to you?

My father, the architect, was known as ‘Striped Suit McLean’. He always wore a handmade suit, usually striped. He was obsessed with looking elegant and smart. I am not that way inclined. However, I have just had two suits made and when I put them on, I look like dynamite. They are fantastic. I shall have to come to Turnbull and get some shirts.

You absolutely should!

Yes, craftsmanship – I am all for it. One of my daughters teaches fashion at the Royal College of Art and she is obsessed with craft. One of my grandsons is going to become a shoemaker. Craft is very important. I am very bad at doing things, so I have the utmost respect for weavers, potters, printmakers, people that perfect these skills. Some of the best art, and I hate the word art, people use it too liberally, but some of the best things I have seen is really craft. I saw these Turkish dresses at the Royal Academy about 20 years ago, they were made about 500 years ago, I have not seen anything like it my life. So yes, a well-cut suit – and shirt – is a fantastic thing.

I am very obsessed with Oscar Wilde, and one of the things he said was ‘the only difference between art and nature, is a really well-cut buttonhole.’ I am not tall enough to be sartorially elegant but the suits this guy has made me, well. He is an ex-Saville Row tailor. If we ever get to meet, I will wear my new suit and we will go and buy a shirt.

You wrote your autobiography ‘A Lawnmower in The Loft’ in 2017, what did you learn about yourself from that experience?

What I decided to do, because both my parents are dead, I thought ‘I’ve got to write these stories down,’ so I compiled them into a book. It is not meant to be an autobiography; it is meant to just be 150 funny stories. They are all true. That was the only thing about the stories, they all had to be true. Robert at the gallery helped me publish it. It is very funny. Because it is not meant to an autobiography, it is more like a piece of art. It is probably the best thing I have done. It is a daft bunch of stories. I am about to do a second one of the art stories. I will probably be put in prison.

I am now making a film called ‘The Suit: A Corporate Cut’, working title, but I could change the title to ‘The Shirt’ if you like?

Fantastic, yes you should. Please do tell us more about the project?

I am about to start working on a film with Gary Chitty, a friend of mine from the pose band, a silent band to do with style in the 70s. We are making a film about how he managed to get himself a job by copying somebody. He saw somebody he liked in an office he like and he became him. Got the same suit, the same shirt, the same haircut. And then he went for an interview at the same office. The man said, ‘do I know you; did you get that pair of trousers from Browns? Do you get your haircut in Ivor’s on Jermyn Street? You’re hired.’ He got himself a really well-paid job, he posed himself into it. So, I am making a film about that. It is about style, clothing, shirts, suits, shoes, elocution, manners, and behaviour.

It sounds fantastic, and we very much look forward to seeing it. Thank you for your time today, Bruce!

During the recent lockdown Bruce, with help from his gallery Bernard Jacobson, curated a digital exhibition of recent works under the title Future Garden Works. And Bruce’s book ‘A Lawnmower in The Loft’, is available to buy from Waterstone’s here. We’d like to thank Robert Delaney and Bruce McLean for taking the time to talk to Turnbull about Bruce’s work.

Lead image credit: Bruce McLean in the studio with various sculptures photographed by Gillian Vaux. 

Daniel Challis

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