France-Lise McGurn’s neon sculptures to light up Glasgow’s Tramway

France-Lise McGurn PIC: John Devlin for The Scotsman, 11 December 2019
France-Lise McGurn PIC: John Devlin for The Scotsman, 11 December 2019
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To find her distinctive flowing style, Glasgow-based artist France-Lise McGurn had to learn to favour intuition over intellect. Now her new-found freedom has brought an international audience and a major show at Tramway. Interview by Susan Mansfield 

France-Lise McGurn talks fast. In a few minutes, we’ve barreled through her exhibitions opening in January in Glasgow and London, and have moved on to this year’s Glasgow International. When she talks about her work, she uses words like “movement,” “energy” and “speed.” She doesn’t just talk fast, she paints fast as well.Around us, in her Glasgow studio, figures painted in fluid, coloured lines stretch, recline and overlap. In a typical exhibition, they break out of the canvas altogether to dance across the walls, floor and ceiling. They have a sense of being continually in motion, as McGurn herself does, shifting on her old leather sofa to cross her legs, then fold them under her, then hug her paint spattered jumper around her.

Since moving back to Glasgow after completing a Masters at the Royal College of Art in London in 2012, McGurn has begun to attract attention. Early shows at David Dale and Collective led to opportunities in London and Birmingham, then an invitation to take part in a touring group show inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf curated by Tate St Ives. However, it was being chosen for a solo show at Tate Britain as part of Tate’s Art Now series which made the art world take serious notice. She is now represented by international gallery Simon Lee.

McGurn’s work is highly distinctive. No other contemporary artist paints figures in deft, flowing lines, always in groups, stylised but full of emotion. She says of her work: “I would really love that you walk into the space and it’s not really about any one particular face, but more that there’s a presence of so many, like if you walk into a crowd.”

While the act of painting is “completely intuitive,” she draws on a “bank” of images collected over many years from magazines, and drawn and redrawn until they become a kind of shorthand. “I was always interested in the artist’s first sketch of something, or an inventor’s, even a handwritten letter – something that is made at the moment of thought. I have a big collection of autographs I’ve bought on eBay – Winona Ryder’s is up there on the wall, I think. I love that directness [in the work], a total immediate communication with whoever is looking at it.”

Raised in Glasgow, McGurn studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, but credits her mother, the artist, sculptor and designer Rita McGurn, who died in 2015, as “a massive influence.”

“She was the most productive artist I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “She made work all the time. She was probably the reason I started painting on walls. Our house back home is covered in wall paintings. It wasn’t so much a case of ‘I think I’m going to paint on the walls’ but more ‘Why wouldn’t I?’”

After graduating from Dundee, she made for Berlin – “I think there’s a rite of passage where people go to Berlin and lose a few years” – getting a job as a studio assistant with the German abstract painter Anselm Reyle. She was there when the bubble burst after the 2008 crash and a studio employing 85 shrank to just 11. “It was an apprenticeship, in a way, I learned a lot about paint.”

It was also an insight into the art world at its most glamorous. “I remember one day there was a Vogue photoshoot, Keira Knightley, with what looked like a bin bag in her hair, and I’m in the background touching up a painting,” she laughs at the memory.

Wanting to get back to her own work, she applied for a Masters at the RCA. “I wanted to go to London, meet different people and see what was happening there. Dundee is not a big pushy art school, I wanted to meet the pushy kids.” And did you? “Yes, oh my god, they were all ‘Oh, that’s so Slade, that’s so Goldsmiths.’ They all had the same reference points, I didn’t know any of that.”

At the RCA, she says, she was making installations with folded-up paintings. It wasn’t going well. What changed things was a comment by artist and tutor Nigel Rolfe, who picked up a marker pen sketch of a girl eating a banana from the floor of her studio. “He said: ‘That’s your work. Stop doing these weird paintings that you’re folding up, this is your work.’ I said, ‘But that can’t be all it is,’ and he said ‘Yeah, it can.’”

She says she put pressure on herself to intellectualise her work: “Not allowing yourself just to be interested in drawing and painting, thinking there had to be more and you had to attach different kinds of meaning on to it. I was never the most academic of students, and it’s nice to realise that is not always a bad thing, that’s actually going to be a real strength.”

Another tutor, the late Rose Finn-Kelcey, was even more succinct. She looked round McGurn’s RCA studio and said: “You’re clearly a dancer.” “And I wanted to say, no, I’m not, I couldn’t go to a dance class. But I think that physicality, that affected the gesture for sure. And I probably was going out all the time dancing, that was a big part of that period, and I think that directly fed into the work.”

She has talked about her shifting crowds of figures in terms of the urban experience, the strange intimacy of hearing a stranger get into bed in the flat through the wall, the physical sensations of being in a club: heightened emotions, abandon, vulnerability, despair. Her Tate Britain show, Sleepless, explored the sense of being awake while others sleep, both as a party-goer and as the parent of a young baby (her daughter was just a few months old when she made the show).

Making work for Tramway – the first major show of her work in Glasgow – has made her think again about her relationship with her home city. “I was thinking about how I’ve experienced it, the nightlife of it, which feels a bit redundant now because I’ve got a one-year-old. It’s not to say that this is a show about my experience of Glasgow, because I think that’s in all my work, but it’s an important thing for me.”

For Tramway, she is making sculptural pieces with neon for the first time.

“It’s such a fixed thing, neon, but I’ve developed a way of making it have a bit more movement. And it’s going to be January, so it’s likely going to be miserable weather and dark, so the beads of rain outside will pick up all those neon lights.”

Although her style is recognisable, one could say to a winning degree, McGurn is still experimenting, finding new strings to her bow. For Glasgow International, she will make work for Kelvingrove Museum, for a balcony space which doesn’t have white walls she can paint on. She smiles and says the show is “in the experimental phase.”

It’s too early to talk about it, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s happening, just like working intuitively doesn’t mean there is an absence of thought. “It’s to do with thinking at the right times, and not thinking at the right times. If I think too much while I’m painting, it’ll be rubbish. The first time I did it, I projected and drew on the projection, and it was awful. I need to be able to do it [freely], it’s really physical, you know, it uses your whole body, and a big car sponge.

“But it’s a mix of conscious and subconscious, it’s about looking as well. There’s a lot of thought.” She breaks off. “It’s difficult to articulate, that’s probably why I have to paint it.” 

France-Lise McGurn: In Emotia is at Tramway, Glasgow, from 18 January until 22 March