FANTAST IN FOCUS: BARRY MCGLASHAN
Reminiscent of the work of Caspar David Friedrich and Frederic Edwin Church, Barry McGlashan’s art is distinguished by its sublimity and profundity. Although Barry was born in Scotland, a country of naturally poetic landforms and history, his paintings have a transcendental quality to them. Often tinted with oneiric colours, they evoke the wellsprings of the subconscious; the borderless vistas of dreams and fantasies. It therefore comes as no surprise that his creative influences, such as Umberto Eco and William Burroughs, were visionaries in their own right. We caught up with Barry to find out more about his style and inspirations.
The Custodian: Can you tell us about your adventures in America? Some of your paintings suggest that you spent quite a lot of time out west!
Barry McGlashan: Yes indeed, I spent quite a lot of time making work about my American travels as a younger artist. I suppose as a painter who thinks a lot about narrative and different forms of visual storytelling, America was a natural place to be. We’re so aware of the visuals of that landscape from films and tv and also, it’s a place that feels like stories are always unfolding there. I first travelled there properly in 2001 on the Alastair Salvesen Scholarship through the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. It was a three-month travel scholarship and I chose to go on a sort of mid-west tour of Minnesota and Michigan, then through to the Boston area and eventually up the east coast to Maine. I was quite interested in the small town aspect of the US so I wasn’t really looking at big cities so much. Things are less obvious in small towns and it feels like you’re making more of a discovery. Then I later travelled to the Southwest going back the other way from Chicago and down to Arizona and then California. There is a sort of ‘frontier’ aspect to it that I liked; bits of our culture seem so tied up in that idea of pushing west. It’s a bit of a mainstay in literature too, the concept of the road trip and what is waiting around the next bend. This took in those big, dreamlike landscapes like Monument Valley and Yosemite which tend to stay with you. It’s easy to understand why they had a spiritual meaning in earlier cultures. The majesty of those places! I think all this was really about an idea of adventure, of frontiers and discoveries – finding the outer edge of things which we artists should be trying to do I think.
C: Scotland is a kind of hiker’s paradise. Would you say that growing up in Aberdeen influenced the dramatic realism of your landscape art?
B: In an unexpected way, living in Aberdeen perhaps has had an indirect influence in my landscape paintings. It’s a small city surrounded by some terrific scenery but I think my interest in the sublime landscape is more of a thing about escape rather than a depiction of reality. Increasingly, I’m far more interested in using landscape as a way of projecting a concept rather than simply showing a real place. Often the landscapes I paint can be almost theatrical I think, like a vast stage set waiting to be populated. They are never real places.
It’s about trying to say something about the human condition through the visuals of our environment. I’ve got a huge admiration for artists like Caspar David Friedrich and Frederic Church who did something similar in their day. Friedrich was a genius for creating that great Romantic landscape tradition; full of beauty and atmosphere but the active part of the image is really the tiny figure dwarfed by it all. This has always been present for me. It’s probably the main constant in my work. I don’t have a religion, I don’t believe in God, so I have all those big questions about what we are and why we’re here.
C: We’ve read that you’re a fan of Herman Melville and William Burroughs. Which works of theirs are your favourites?
B: When I was young and still at school I spent a lot of time exploring bookshops and libraries (back when there were far more of these). I spent hours just pulling things off the shelf which I had no idea about – that’s how I found William Burroughs. The book was Cities of The Red Night which intrigued me for some reason – the title was very interesting – what could that mean? It felt a bit dangerous somehow, it had a great quote on the opening page: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” I read something not so long ago where Burroughs was saying he loved writing about places which he had never visited (like Tibet) and that lack of knowledge was actually a benefit, something to be actively excited about, to be explored as an artist and I’ve felt the same recently about making paintings. Sometimes it’s the idea of something which really has the power. The danger is that finding out the reality of something might kill that power, that force of expression. It’s partly why I stopped making paintings about travel – the places you can go to in your head have no limitation, the boundaries are only where you make them. Another book of his which I loved (and great for painters) was My Education: a Book of Dreams. It’s made up entirely of short, disassociated paragraphs; sometimes only a sentence. They are purely responses and visions from dreams, not unlike a show of paintings in a way.
I’ve also been very taken by Melville’s Moby Dick since I first read it about six or seven years ago, it keeps coming back to me – like a haunting! It’s an extraordinary, transformative book – truly one of a kind I think, and timeless. Not only does it tell this tale of the great whale hunt but it’s also talking about the meaning of life – quite an ambitious subtext! Almost every page has it’s diversions which spread out like the branches of a tree, making for quite a tough read I suppose but all the more rewarding for that. There is so much going on at once, little threads to be tugged at.
C: Your painting New Religion has a simple but profound message. The billboard reads, “Accept the Mystery”. Is this your approach to artistic expression and interpretation?
B: Yes, I think it’s as good an approach as any, for the viewer at least. Hopefully the artist has a little more idea of what’s going on but I suppose it’s important that they can be surprised too – sometimes the best paintings you make can take you unawares. As someone who spends their life telling stories through making paintings (and what an odd thing that is when you think of it), I’m acutely aware of not giving too much away – something is lost then I think. I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock talking about a scene in one of his early films (Sabotage) when he has a young boy sent on an errand by the villain of the film to unwittingly carry a bomb onto a crowded bus. Hitchcock builds the tension by showing us the boy getting on the bus, people coming and going, the package under his arm, then he shows us inside the package. The bomb ticking as the hand creeps around the clock. The tension builds and builds until the bomb explodes. Hitchcock said that was his mistake. The tension was the effective thing and he should of ended with that endless ticking. I think it’s interesting to hear other storytellers talking about their methods. It’s a learnt vocabulary really. Often when you’re looking at art, the important thing is to be surprised in some way or step off on the wrong foot. It’s a good thing to make people think. The worst reaction is no reaction at all. I’d rather people had a genuine reason to dislike the work than feel nothing.
If you can approach something with that feeling of not needing a definite answer (just accept the mysteries in the making) then it’s a pretty good rule for a satisfied life. Our modern culture has some difficulty with this though; we expect to be spoon-fed at great speed and volume by social media. It’s hard to get someone to stop long enough to look at a painting. A painting is like some precious thing trapped in amber, it’s so much more than the sum of it’s parts. It’s the experience of making it as well as the ‘finished’ object itself. I’ve got an enormous respect for the history of it.
C: What’s on for 2016? Any exhibitions or works in progress?
B: I’m currently hard at work for my next solo show, Mudlarks And Connoisseurs which takes place at John Martin Gallery in London (38 Albemarle Street) in November 2016. It’s a show which has a broad theme of collections and collectors – or maybe more importantly, the reasons for collection. It has at its heart a quote by another of my favourites–Umberto Eco–who said, “we like lists because we don’t want to die”. That quote said so much to me and, like Melville’s Moby Dick, you start to find all these threads running away from the central idea. It’s really about our search for permanence I think.
After that, I have a solo show in Edinburgh for September 2017 at The Scottish Gallery (16 Dundas Street) – this is my first major show in Scotland for a few years so I’m looking forward to that too.