Body Language

GoMA only really serves as a tourist guide book to Glaswegian art, rather than a supportive patron

Feature by Jasper Hamill | 12 Dec 2006
The Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art is unsure whether to be a true contemporary space, or a museum for art made in Glasgow. Drawing from the GoMA collection generally seems to involve a process akin to that of a wedding DJ: pick some crowd pleasers, don't bother too much with anything particularly challenging and always cater towards a non-specialist audience. Just as 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'Bonny Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond' positively must be played at weddings, any show of modern art is impelled to feature Glasgow blockbusters Peter Howson or a bit of gritty social realism from Ken Currie. It's not that the work is bad, it's just that by falling back on the same old work and same old artists from the same old collection, GoMA only really serves as a tourist guide book to Glaswegian art, rather than a supportive patron.

The show is themed around figurative work, largely dealing with the body. Strangely, the visitor is greeted by a brazenly abstract, challenging work from Eduardo Paolozzi. Called 'Hamlet in A Japanese Manner', it is a thornbush of implied shapes, suggested forms and uncertain narratives, painted in a bright, psychedelic palette. Figurative only in its implication of urban forms - the curve of a Roman Colonnade, a staircase to nowhere, various pipes and a series of skyscrapers - it's as if the viewer has been given the ability to peer at the tiniest details of a city before zooming out to observe it from the sky. It's confusing, evocative, and neatly fits right in between the museum / art space dichotomy the GoMA seems to have found itself in. Not only that, it's an excellent introduction to Paolozzi's titanic, pioneering, body of work.

Similarly, Kenny Hunter's 'Churchill's Dogs' is a fantastic avatar for his career. Resembling a Kinder-Egg blown up to enormous size or, equally, the guardian statue of some dead pharaoh, it has the exact combination of ridiculousness and seriousness that gives his work its power. Both these sculptures, I imagine, would encourage the casual visitor, perhaps a pupil on a school trip or a tourist, to investigate the artists, surely the role the GoMA intends for itself.

But anyone that has visited the gallery before will recognize many of the paintings. Recent acquisitions from Chad McCail are taken from a solo exhibition in the upstairs space only a few months ago. They rely on a mixture of comfort and threat, drawn in the style of a government public warning or the safety cards. A schoolroom looks innocuous enough, but look closely and the children are staring at pictures of genitalia, a jet fighter is zooming past the window. Similarly, an idyllic looking urban allotment, full of cavorting lovers, turns out to be a nascent killing field, the lovers armed with knives and sinister crow-headed figures plucking the trees. They're great, but too fresh in the mind. The demotic policy of the GoMA, which assumes ignorance, trips itself up.

Similarly, Peter Howson's typically macho painting of a burly man, leaning against a lamppost as if having some drunken epiphany, is great. Stirring, bold, contemplative, confident: it's the flipside of the Glasgow hard-man image. But, guess what, we've seen it before. Likewise, my favourite painting of the show, of a poet writing by the light of a bare bulb in the ribs of a partly finished ship, is fantastic, but utterly expected. Becoming a stalwart, Ross Sinclair's inverted red church has been on display in various GoMA exhibitions for the past three years. Although, he tattooed himself with the phrase 'Real Life' as part of the work, so he deserves some permanency.

Body Language is a great show, perfect for the interested tourist or culturally inquisitive, but it fails to break any new ground. Presumably, the budget for acquisitions is tiny, but perpetual recycling of old work, under the dubious rubric of a show themed around figurative art, is unforgivable. It works for the Tate, which is more like an art superstore now and an undeniably important resource for the global art scene. But it has a massive variety of work to choose from. Blame the curators, blame the funders, it all amounts to the same thing. New ground is constantly claimed by Glasgow's artists. When GoMA is the second most visited gallery outside of London, is it too much to expect it to follow suit?
Body Language - A Selection of Works from the Collection at Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art until March 2007. Free.