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Boyle family with Landslip Studies, 2001/2

It’s hard, thinking back, to separate the experience of meeting Mark Boyle from the experience of meeting the Boyle Family. In the notes I made afterwards, the phrase ‘jovial joker’ is scribbled next to Mark’s name, but that does nothing to capture the forceful charisma of the man.

There was a soap opera aspect to that lunch in the gallery space at their home in Greenwich. Joan, playing mum, was a quiet, insightful presence. Sebastian, the son, operated as the family historian, coaxing stories from his parents and summarising. Georgia, the daughter, affected boredom at the business of going over old ground. She had, I suspect, heard these tales many times.

Mark, meanwhile, was happy to revel in his paternal mythology, which was a surprise, since the art of the Boyles has such an air of high concept about it. His ruminations rambled, but they were never less than engaging, whether he was complaining about the way the CIA conspired to promote abstract expressionism, or re-living the moment he first fell for Joan. After a discussion of plein air art, he mentioned how he longed for the summers of his childhood, ‘where you could be outside in Scotland running wild’.

‘We all seem to think we grew up in a time where the summer holidays were marvellous,’ chided Joan gently.

‘Is that just growing old?’ asked Mark.

‘Yeah,’ said Georgia, ‘it is.’

Before we got there, Mark made some attempt to explain the ground rules of art, as they pertained to this family firm. The Boyles had collaborated since they represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1978. Collective working was nothing new, Mark said, and had only been viewed as odd since Michelangelo, ‘who invented this idea of the single, preferably male, obsessed artist.’

Going back further, Mark reminisced about the experience of discovering Joyce’s Ulysses . He was 15 or 16, and had taken up an anti-Joyce position in a school debate. Quickly, he realised that there was a limit to how long he could maintain such a stance without reading the author’s work. He went to the Mitchell Library, and had his first serious experience of modern art. ‘It was going to change me for the rest of my life.’

It changed him by turning him into an ex-Catholic. Meeting Joan altered his chemistry further. ‘This over-lush, over-dramatic, thrilled Catholicism comes up against this very cool, restrained, careful, modest Presbyterianism.’

He traced the roots of the Boyles’ fascination with realism back to the fact that his father was a lawyer who believed in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He wondered how it might be possible to tell the whole truth in art, and concluded that the only way was ‘to practise acceptance on a total scale’.

It was at this point that he told a lovely story that purported to be about art, but was actually a tale of romantic attraction. The action was set inside a café in Harrogate, where Mark was training himself to be aware of everything he saw. ‘You’d say: that’s the Gaggia coffee machine; there’s the gold sugar disappearing into my coffee; got that, and you try to be aware, fix it, keep it, don’t lose it.’ On this particular day, he was sitting in the café, trying to notice everything, when the café‘s owner came over. ‘I thought, God, he’s going to talk with me. Remember it, this is part of it, accept it, and what he wanted to do was introduce me to someone else. I thought, “Oh God, this is too much, no, hold it, she’s part of it.” Then he went off, and I began to become very aware of this girl.’

The girl was Joan. They went for a walk, then back to the café. ‘Had another coffee. Talk talk talk. Then we went off to a Chinese restaurant, and for five-and-six we got two Chinese dinners.’

By the end of the dinner they had decided they would work together for the rest of their lives, and that this was not love at first sight. ‘I told this to my mother,’ Mark recalled, ‘and she said “That was love at first sight, you fool!”’

From this meeting of minds, the Boyles’ obsession with reality was cemented. They framed reality in the missing screen of a broken television, or threw a frame onto the derelict landscape of bombed London. Everything was about reality, because art could not improve on reality.

I wonder now whether Mark really believed that. In his stories, as in the Boyles’ art, there was randomness, but there was also editing and emphasis, all of it designed to make things look brighter than they usually seem. Certainly, Mark was aware that we all filter reality, because, he said, ‘The world is such a brilliant, obsessively wonderful, exciting place to be, that you wouldn’t be able to do anything with your life if you were constantly aware of that.’

In which case, it wasn’t reality he was trying to express at
all. It was something better than that. It was optimism.

Alastair McKay is a writer living in London