Art of the matter

BY RIGHTS, the short walk down the top end of Robertson Street, tucked between Argyle Street and the Broomielaw, in Glasgow, should be accompanied by a Philip Marlowe voice-over. There’s the pawnbroker’s on one side of the road, with three gold balls still hovering evocatively over the door, while on the other, a bank of scaffolding turns the Radisson Hotel development to a fragmented grid of large and small squares, a microcosm of the city itself.

The red sandstone block I am heading for is equally labyrinthine: a network of stunted corridors and dark stairwells. Its five floors are linked by an old lift with a metal lattice door, clanked shut by an ageing attendant. It is the perfect home for the studio of artist Martin Boyce, who specialises in creating ‘noir’ landscapes of fear and urban paranoia.

One of his pieces is called Over Your Shoulder, and the words printed in white block letters against a pitch-black crisscross. Disappear Here is another. The Lanarkshire-born artist, who spent time studying at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, is gripped by the notion of gated commu-nities and wealthy homes with armed response warnings on their walls. His grid-like murals, a running theme inspired by the credit sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, are a metaphor for the strained condition of city life.

In Now I’ve Got Worr y, he covers shelving units with signs saying ‘Private property’ and ‘Go Away: There is Nothing 2 See’ (the wording on a notice nailed to a tree on the street of the OJ Simpson murders) – transforming them into symbols of a society under siege. He turns a chair into a defensive weapon by giving it an adjustable back which can fit under the handle of any door. Boyce is what is commonly known as a conceptual artist, one of culture minister Kim Howells’s purveyors of “bulls**t”, which explains why, although he is widely acclaimed in the US and on the Continent, many people in Scotland will not have heard of him.

One of a loose affiliation of talented young artists to emerge from the Glasgow School of Art in the early Nineties (Douglas Gordon, Roddy Buchanan, Christine Borland and Ross Sinclair are all friends and near-contemporaries), his work was largely ignored by a city obsessed with its figurative painters: Steven Campbell, Adrian Wisznieski, Peter Howson and Ken Currie.

While Damian Hirst and Gary Hume – Michael Craig-Martin’s proteges at Goldsmiths College – were hyped as the leaders of Britart, those nurtured by David Harding – the inspirational head of Glasgow School of Art’s fledgling environmental department – were forced to promote themselves abroad.

And they have. The so-called Scotia Nostra have staged an average of 15 exhibitions a year in Europe over the last decade. But it wasn’t until they began picking up national and international prizes, and Philip Dodd – the director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Art – talked about “a Glasgow buzz” that the arts community back home finally began to sit up and take notice.

Later this month, Boyce, currently exhibiting in Frankfurt’s Museum of Modern Art (MMK), is staging his biggest solo exhibition in Glasgow to date, at the Tramway. It will take the form of a park and be accompanied by a soundtrack composed by jazz musician Raymond MacDonald, who, like Boyce, is a former pupil of Holy Cross High in Hamilton. Then, in January, he’s collaboratingwith Generation X author Douglas Copeland for an exhibition in the Contemporary Art Gallery of Vancouver.

“Martin Boyce isn’t just beginning to emerge as a talent: his contribution has been recognised for a long time,” says ICA director Dodd. “It’s just that, in the Nineties, Glasgow preferred to celebrate artists like Campbell whose work was recognisably Scottish. Boyce has more in common with Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Eduardo Paolozzi, because they see themselves more in a European context. He is not Scottish in that very explicit way. “He [and Glasgow’s other conceptual artists] have had the confidence to bypass London’s self-regarding arts scene, exploring art trade routes with places like Scandinavia. Although he has been around for a long time, he’s now entering the public consciousness.”

And after years of boycotting the city’s ‘conceptual’ artists, moves are afoot to secure some of their works for Glasgow’s much-derided Gallery of Modern Art. Once seen as avant-garde, these thirtysomethings are now at the core of the modern art world. Which is why the timing of Howells’s ill-tempered note pinned to the comments board at the Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate, in which he branded the work of the shortlisted artists as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bulls**t”, jarred.

Sitting in his sparse studio, which has more in common with a metalwork class than a traditional artist’s garret, Boyce heaves a weary sigh at the re-emergence of the tedious “Is this art?” debate. “In one sense you might think that if people like Howells are against you then you must be doing something right,” says Boyce. “But these artists are not the equivalent of punk rockers and rebels. In terms of the art world, they are the establishment.”

Not that Boyce himself resembles an establishment figure. With his thick-rimmed glasses and understated jumper and jeans, he retains the college-band look of his teenage years.

The 35-year-old grew up on a Wimpey housing estate in Hamilton, at a time when Lanarkshire suburbia was producing a flurry of indie groups such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, the Soup Dragons and Primal Scream.

He was always image-conscious. Friends remember him as among the hippest of his generation, mingling with the floppy-haired denizens of the Rock Garden on a Friday and Saturday night, and buying copies of the self-regarding Eighties style magazine, The Face. Even then he had a passion for the creative arts, but his tastes were governed more by his peer group than any innate sensibilities. “I was at that age where you would go to see Citizen Kane or Rebel Without A Cause and then rave about it because you thought it was the thing to do, while all the time thinking to yourself, ‘What was that all about?’” he says.

His opportunities to learn about contemporary art were limited by a school curriculum that stopped dead at the Impressionists. So he ventured out to Hamilton library, where he discovered two books: one on pop art and the other a series of artists’ impressions of Cumbernauld – tiny pen and ink drawings of men in raincoats with briefcases. They were modernist books in a small-town way.

Another preoccupation was copying the covers of Joy Division albums, which carved themselves a place in the history of rock design. Indeed, it was Joy Division that inspired Boyce’s one and only foray into performance art. “When I was in fourth year, we used to spend all of our lunch breaks flicking through record sleeves, and I kept coming back to the same one, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures,” he says. “I loved it. But in those days you got an album for your Christmas and for your birthday, and that was it. So I stole it, took it home and hung it on my wall.”

Boyce’s journey to the Glasgow School of Art was an extension of his search for ‘cool’. He had little idea what he wanted to do, but was soon attracted to the energy of high-profile characters a few years his senior, such as Iain Kettles and Roddy Buchanan, who were involved in the department of environmental art. What he liked most about them was their diversity. “I remember Roddy did these pieces in the fashion show, big aprons with big prints of a target and a swastika and a star on them,” Boyce says. “He and his friends were involved in every aspect of the school, and that seemed to make sense. People from the department of environmental art said if you want to paint or sculpt or make videos then that’s fine, do it.”

The bright young things clustered around Hill Street had little time for Currie, Howson et al, seeing them as perpetuators of Glasgow’s ‘no mean city’ myth. “I was aware of them, of course, but they had no relevance to me and there was no dialogue between us,” says Boyce. “They portrayed Glasgow as an industrial working city. They painted hard men and dossers. I didn’t recognise that. I came from a Wimpey housing estate. My world was Swap Shop, white roughcast walls and car parks.”

Emerging from the insular world of art school in 1990, the year Glasgow held the title City of Culture, Boyce and his cohorts might have expected an audience receptive to their audacious use of new materials to convey fresh ideas. The reality was very different. For all its pretensions towards reinvention, Glasgow remained deeply suspicious of the avant-garde.

Throughout the 1990 celebrations and the decade that followed them, figurative painters held sway, while conceptual artists were confined to the Transmission Gallery and what was then the Third Eye Centre.

Then, when Julian Spalding personally oversaw the purchase of works for Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), he emphatically denounced the city’s burgeoning talent, proclaiming, “There will be no con art by con artists in the new gallery.”

Now, more than a decade on, the group of people who took that course are in demand across the world. Turner Prize-winner Gordon is the country’s most famous living artist and currently has a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London; Buchanan won the first Beck’s Futures award in 2000 with Gobstopper, a video of children trying to hold their breath as they go through the Clyde Tunnel, and now has a piece showing in the National Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh. Toby Paterson carried off the same award this year, with a 69ft mural depicting the brutal cityscape he saw as he skateboarded around Glasgow. Their work is seen by many as less sensational and more substantial than that produced by YBAs (Young British Artists) such as Tracey Emin.

Boyce, who was shortlisted for the Beck’s Futures Prize in 2000, is a case in point. His work lacks in-your-face shock value – no severed body parts, faeces, blood, bad language or graphic sexuality to attract headlines. Instead, his creation of internal and external landscapes is a meditation on the human condition in the 21st century.

Central to his earlier exhibitions was the strip-ping down of Fifties shelving units designed by Charles and Ray Eames. The Los Angeles-based couple had hoped to democratise furniture, but their Utopian ideals were subverted by the Hollywood bohemia, and the pieces quickly became collectors’ items. Boyce takes the shelving units and subverts them again: stripping them, painting them black, creating dark hidey holes inside them, or setting them on fire.

“One of the things I am fascinated by is Douglas Copeland’s concept of de-narration,” Boyce explains. “He uses the term in relation to celebrities such as OJ Simpson and Marilyn Monroe. It’s where your personality is chewed up and spat out and re-presented to you, so the trajectory of you as an individual is taken out of your hands. I was interested in the de-narration of these pieces of furniture. What I am doing is derailing them from their trajectories and pulling them off into imag-inary landscapes.”

For the Frankfurt exhibition, he created the foyer of an imaginary glass tower building on 1959 Capital Avenue. Around the walls, rising up towards the ceiling, are the words ‘Punching Through The Clouds’, a phrase coined by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in an attempt to express the soaring optimism of his constructions. But by including a ceiling-high bomb curtain and other more subtle allusions to September 11, Boyce twists them to convey an altogether more sinister meaning and atmosphere.

His upcoming exhibition at the Tramway, whose title – Our love is like the flowers, the rain, the sea and the hours – is taken from a line from a New Order song, will be less ‘noir’ and more ‘poetic’ in feel: an attempt to conjure up a special, secret place at night. Boyce’s move away from the angst-ridden themes of the past may reflect the happiness surrounding his life right now (his second son was born just weeks ago) and the whole of Glasgow’s conceptual arts scene.

Last year, the contribution of the Scotia Nostra was celebrated in a seminal exhibition, Here & Now, at Dundee Contemporary Arts. There are still too few commercial galleries (The Transmission and Street Level on Glasgow’s King Street and doggerfisher and Ingleby’s in Edinburgh) selling their work, but there are plenty of commissions from abroad. And, since 1998, they have been bolstered by the Modern Institute, founded by Glasgow School of Art graduate Toby Webster, where Boyce is based. Part agency, part commercial gallery, it represents 15 artists, giving them studio space and helping them to organise and promote freelance exhibitions. Recently there has even been a dtente with Glasgow Galleries. Apparently ashamed of its previous neglect, the city council has set up a purchasing panel to redress the balance.

This is easier said than done, of course. For a start, works that could have been snapped up as bargains at the beginning of the Nineties are now fetching sums well in excess of its budgets. For the artists, there’s the issue of having their work displayed in what they consider to be a vastly inferior space. “Eventually someone has seen the grave, grave damage Spalding did, and is trying to sort it out,” says Boyce. “But I guess it’s hard because you know that, even with the best of intentions and support, it is going to take decades for GoMA to come close to being a serious museum of modern art.”

Still, as the scholarships, residencies and prizes pile up, Glasgow’s loss is Europe’s gain. How far the likes of Boyce have come can be summed up by a work he did for the Windfall exhibition at the Seaman’s Mission in Glasgow in 1991. The words ‘Potential For Greatness’ were painted on three panels. On the first, below the word potential, the text read, ‘Martin Boyce Born 1967’. On the second, below for, it read, ‘Martin Boyce Art School 1986-1990’. And on the third, below greatness, he wrote, ‘Martin Boyce 1991 I’m a little worried about my future’. There’s no need to be. Not any more.

• Martin Boyce’s exhibition at the Tramway, Albert Drive, Glasgow, opens on Thursday and runs to January 19, 2003