ARTIST Peter Howson has taken a swipe at the English ”art mafia” which he says is suffocating figurative work. He urged leading Scottish artists to rally to his call and stage more exhibitions of their work north of the border.
It is one of the reasons that he has opted to launch a major international show in Scotland next spring, with new paintings on display including a nude of the singer Madonna and a portrait of actor Robbie Coltrane.
Howson, keen to tap into the figurative energy that led to the emergence of the so-called New Glasgow Boys, believes the figurative art market is being neglected with a surge for conceptual English artists, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. The resurgence of the figurative style of the 1980s was largely driven by a talented group of artists from Glasgow School of Art, including Steven Campbell, Stephen Conroy, Ken Currie and Alison Watt. It has recently faced a tough market as Hirst’s large-scale works sell for £1m.
Howson said: ”The English are very frightened to show their emotions, frightened of work that is in any way challenging in a social kind of way. ”They love conceptual art because no-one actually understands it. But they hate Germanic expressionism or anything that’s got any social comment. The Scots, on the other hand, are right into it.
”The market is definitely not geared towards figurative art in England. There is still a market there but it is not in the trendy market, like the Tate. They are not interested at all. That is one of the big problems. There is definitely an art mafia. I have studied it and I have watched people coming up through the years, getting to the Tate and once they are there they practically decide the direction of the art world.”
Howson hopes his rallying call will encourage more big names to show their work in Scotland following in the success of eminent Scottish artist, Alison Watt, in having a major show at the National Galleries in Edinburgh. Howson added: ”I want to fly the flag for figurative painting more than the conceptual art that is flying around. There is a lack of social comment in paintings like that compared to the way it was in the1980s and I want to get back to being quite political. To me, Scotland’s artists are great artists, people like Steven Conroy and Stephen Campbell will come back.”
With social inclusion the political buzz word of the moment, Howson’s next exhibition promises to be one of the most widely viewed ever. It will open next year in Howson’s home town of Ayr at the Maclaurin Gallery, on the Rozelle estate, then move to major venues in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, and Aberdeen. Smaller venues, notably Stornoway, are also being arranged. Once the Scottish tour is complete, the paintings – which Howson promises will reveal a change of direction – will be shown in London before moving on to several European capitals. He declined to say if Madonna will sit for the nude portrait, but confirmed he has some life sketches of the star made some time ago which will act as reference material.
Patrick Elliott, curator at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, said conceptional art had an influential support base in London. ”It is less of a north-south divide and more of a London and a Tate Modern focus. However, I think that it is correct for them to show what is new and exciting,” he said. ”While every artist has his or her day in the sun, I suspect there are others who are in the shade.”