This collection of anecdotal vignettes by celebrated Scottish action sculptor and painter, Bruce McLean, offers a compelling lop-sided account of his artistic life. It is full of a louche bon vivant’s interest in food and drink stretching from the food parcel that his parents posted from Glasgow in 1963 when he was studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s School of Art to the day he ate five steak and kidney pies during his tenure as head of painting at the Slade School of Fine Art.
Here we have the usual elements of autobiographical memoir arranged alphabetically to create a deeper impression and unorthodox tone. A bit like Daniel Farson’s memoir, Never A Normal Man, only funnier and more reliable. It was Bruce’s eccentric father that kept a lawnmower in his loft, which gives the book its title. McLean also employs some beguiling list poems of menus, the informal and formal names of his mother’s neighbours, orders at the Bull’s Head, Barnes, and other quirky lists.
The focus on sustenance and bodily functions offer opportunities throughout to debunk conceptions of the artistic life as impractical and outside of social relations. Thus, the reader learns that horse urine was once used to etch plates and that Bruce spent a day at Covent Garden Market waiting to collect horse urine in order to make some not very good etchings of a horse peeing in a bucket.
Much of the material has a wit that partially serves to camouflage the wider purposes of the stories. Humour always serves a social purpose and here the reader is immediately drawn in to savour the fun and joy of a man intoxicated by food, drink and storytelling. The back cover features one of his plinth pictures from Pose Work For Plinths (1971), originally created as an ironic joke in performance in 1970 around the use of plinths in sculpture with the artist bending his body to fit on and around three plinths.
Inevitably, reader’s will seek out celebrated artists that appear in the stories. I must admit to noting references to Kathy Acker, Joseph Beuys and John James, who wrote ‘Poem For Bruce McLean’, which appeared in Bruce McLean: Berlin/London (1983) rewriting McLean’s colourful linear paintings as a series of images. James’s poetry engages with the visual, phenomenology and visual art, in many ways and he has written on artists, Barry Flanagan and Richard Long, who also feature in stories. His latest collaboration with McLean is On Reading J.H. Prynne’s Sub Songs (QoD Press, 2016) where McLean provided original lino cuts to poems written in response to J.H. Prynne’s poems, in a book designed and hand printed by Bridget Heal using a Hopkins letterpress in a limited edition. McLean recounts the occasion when John James was invited to read a new work before for the opening of The Masterwork: The Award Winning Fish Knife at the Riverside Studios in 1979. After some pre-show drinking the performers were miked up ready to start. James goes for a nervous pee. The lights go down, audience silent in expectation, suddenly there is the sound of someone’s zip being undone, followed by an enormous fart, and what ‘sounded like a fire hose wazzing and skooshing on the porcelain’ and finally James appearing to tumultuous applause and cheering. Never, writes McLean, had a poet had such a welcome, and a great fart to this mediocre work.
McLean is eminently recognisable in these stories with their self-deprecating non-conformism and debunking of assumptions around what sculpture is and should be. There is a strong sense that he has ploughed his own furrow making his way by single-mindedness and continual probing. Moreover, he allows other figures to emerge in their full glory. Leonard Swartz, for example, who despite disliking McLean’s lecture at Maidstone School of Art nevertheless gave him a day’s teaching job. The stories are distinctly noteworthy and great fun rather like his self-interviews and refusal to be constrained by pre-set conceptions. This is a memoir that I shall re-visit with pleasure.
David Caddy 19th October 2017