A sculpture show that is full of wit and playfulness

Bruce McLean with one of his works
Bruce McLean with one of his works
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A new exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery celebrates the work of Bruce McLean. Yvette Huddleston spoke to curator Sarah Brown.

“It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with him,” says Sarah Brown, curator at Leeds Art Gallery, of artist Bruce McLean whose work is the subject of their latest exhibition.

“He recently retired from teaching at the Slade School of Art but unlike most people who step down a gear when they retire, he has an incredible amount of energy. We have three new works in the exhibition.”

The show is entitled Another Condition of Sculpture, so called because McLean, who is now 70, has been investigating the condition of sculpture since the late 1960s after studying at Glasgow School of Art and St Martin’s in London. Although his work includes paintings, film, photography, performance and ceramics, McLean considers his whole body of work to be sculpture.

“Bruce was part of that generation of artists who went to St Martin’s – like Gilbert and George – who were experimenting with art as performance,” says Brown. “At the point at which the plinth was being dispensed with in sculpture, Bruce brought it back and in doing that he brought back a kind of theatricality.” Spanning half a century of McLean’s career, the exhibition includes a range of his multi-disciplinary work from never-before seen drawings to the premiere of a new chamber opera The Changing Room and begins in the entrance hall with Henry Moore’s Falling Warrior (1956-7) set alongside McLean’s photographic version created on the banks of the River Thames in 1969.

Because there is so much work to choose from, Brown had to concentrate on certain elements. “We have focused on his recent work – paintings he has done in the last three years – and his early work,” she says. “The earliest piece dates back to 1965. The scale of pieces he is doing now – the new paintings are 2.5m x 4m – are the kind of thing that a much younger person might be doing.” The energy and physicality required to create a work that size would challenge someone half McLean’s age – and he doesn’t have a team of assistants, he makes everything himself. “It’s really exciting that he is still energised and excited by making work like that,” says Brown. Humour is, and has always been, central to McLean’s work and is one of the many aspects of his creative output that appeals to Brown. “While he is seriously committed to his art he has a lovely witty take on things,” she says. “There is a playfulness about his work – it isn’t about abstraction and his approach is very refreshing. When you hear him talk and see his work, you end up looking at the world differently.” McLean’s chamber opera The Changing Room will be performed in the gallery’s Tiled Hall and is inspired by Gustave Courbet’s painting The Artist’s Studio (1854-55). “There will be singers, an orchestra, and film projection,” says Brown. “Bruce will be part of the performance and is also choreographing – it will be quite unlike anything people have seen before.”

• At Leeds Art Gallery until May 11.