Though ridiculed by critics, artist’s work is honest, with an authentic, working-class sensibility, writes Jackie Kemp
WHAT on earth is happening at Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow? It is mid-morning on a weekday but the car parks are overflowing. Cars are jinking about, competing for any vacated space.
The art gallery itself is hotching. There are actual traffic jams in front of certain pictures and there is a queue at the till in the exhibition shop. The postcard rack is half empty and the limited edition prints are flying off the shelves.
The public response to Jack Vettriano’s first major retrospective is a marked contrast to the funereal atmosphere of the big empty rooms at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival exhibition of the recent work of Peter Doig, a commercially successful painter whose massive and anodyne, though slapdash, landscapes would be a safe bet for decorating the foyer of any corporate headquarters in Zurich.
Another difference is that while Doig has had reverential, verging on obsequious reviews, Vettriano has been rubbished or ignored.
The Scotsman critic declared she would rather sit alone in a dark cupboard than look at the paintings. The Daily Telegraph critic took it upon himself to “lament” the decision of Kelvingrove to mount the exhibition of this Scottish artist at all, opining sententiously that “it sends out a very wrong signal indeed” and may lead the populace to conclude that Vettriano is “good” art.
Grayson Perry, who is currently delivering a series of rambling and tedious Reith Lectures for BBC Radio 4 on what constitutes good art, denounced both LS Lowry (“twee”) and Vettriano in the Radio Times last week. He called it: “Illustrational nostalgic porn book covers without seemingly any irony.”
Grayson declared himself perplexed as to whom Vettriano might be addressing – “certainly not the contemporary art world”.
For me, this comes as a relief as does the absence of irony. So many contemporary artists today seem to have irony in the soul.
Perry is himself an example of the very contemporary phenomenon of the critically acclaimed artist who sites his work on the crowded territory of deliberately constructed controversy.
Another example would be Damien Hirst, whose human skull encrusted with diamonds is called, with super-strength irony, For the Love of God because that’s what his mother said when she saw it.
On a trip to London last year, a friend declared that as a treat she had booked us tickets to the Grayson Perry exhibition at the British Museum.
I hated it. It was a series of artefacts from the permanent collection of the museum with a Grayson Perry response next to them, so there might be some ancient icon of the Incas dwarfed by a massive, brightly-coloured, poorly-executed Perry version.
Along with each was a long screed on the wall which seems to consist mainly of Grayson Perry talking about himself. Sickened by the egotism and hubris of it (no doubt I missed the irony), I left and then snuck back in the exit door to meet my friend.
Unwilling to appear ungrateful for my “treat”, I confined myself to murmuring those get-out-of-gallery-free stalwarts “remarkable” and “extraordinary”.
In the Vettriano exhibition, nothing is in invisible inverted commas. It is not a sneering attack on the bourgeois pretension of those who visit art galleries, nor is it a confection of arch references to the notion of art qua art or the artist qua artist, full of winks and nods to the cognoscenti.
Seeing a retrospective of a solo artist is a rare chance to view the complete oeuvre. This one exudes vigour and pizzazz. Light pours from it, often the kind of hard, glittering light you might find on a Fife beach at daybreak.
It is not at attempt to portray reality. It has a kind of beyond surreal, perhaps a hyper real quality.
Vettriano takes a mishmash of film stills, pop music and advertising tropes to create something unique.
The titles are not ironic either, things like A Date With Destiny and Dance Me To The End Of Love, the title of a Leonard Cohen song. Perhaps if they were called things like “Moving through petrol, reluctantly” that would please the critics.
But it strikes me that the work is honest. It is at once stylised and deeply sincere. It is the work of a man who dares to put his own private dreams, his fantasies and his desires before the public.
He is constantly ridiculed by art critics, who call his work all kinds of things, hackneyed, inept, pornographic and most poisonous and wounding of all, they call it misogynistic.
It is not pornographic. All of the figures in the exhibition are clothed, not even a nipple is on show. It might more properly be described as sexy, full as it is of men and women exchanging meaningful looks. Incidentally, I once heard Jack Vettriano say the word “sexy” in a radio interview. He sounded like Sean Connery impersonating a cement mixer.
I don’t think it’s misogynistic. What are they thinking? That woman relaxing in a chair looking out of the window of a Georgian house; the Queen of the Waltzers perched on the steps of the ride, fag in hand; the woman profiled in a black cloche hat, a luminous pearl stud in her ear.
One friend who rarely visits either Glasgow or art galleries went through to see the Jack Vettriano exhibition. She loved it and said it was for the reason that Vettriano gives in a film clip in the exhibition – that he paints a scene and then allows the viewer to make the movie of which it is part in their own head.
Some pictures are controversial: a row of men walking along a beach entitled The Billy Boys has a note which says it is inspired by a memory of the artist’s father and friends out looking for a fight with men from the nearby village, mingled with a response to the movie Reservoir Dogs.
At times, the paintings do have a kind of hard-edged macho swagger. Indeed, they don’t defer to the contemporary art world at all.
There is an authentic, working-class sensibility here which I have never before seen in an art gallery. Perhaps this is in part what so inflames the nasal passages of art critics.
The attributions also remind the viewer that these are not bought by experts on behalf of any state. They do not live in marbled halls; they are owned and loved by high net worth individuals – the tags bear couples’ names; “Collection of Jack Nicholson”, “Private Collection Switzerland”, “Private Collection Monaco”.
It seems a shame that, due to a combination of snobbery and cultural deference, Scotland’s national collections have not bought a single work by this Scottish artist on our behalf. I doubt we shall ever be able to afford one now.
Catch the exhibition if you can, it is on until the end of February. A word of advice: don’t stand there wondering if it is “good” art or not.
That question reminds me of the movie scene in which a coat check girl remarks to Mae West: “Goodness, what lovely diamonds.” Mae flips on her fur stole and replies over her shoulder: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.” Enjoy.