Norman Gilbert

Three figures sit or stand in a kitchen draped with colourful patterned textiles, vases and lush houseplants. Their expressions are thoughtful. The leaves are flat matte red. Deeper woven blues and greens ripple beyond, through the room. A pair of toddlers embrace—no, it’s a small statue depicting lovers. Perhaps the background was a still life and the fore a live one, a family home. The brushstrokes of Arran knits pleat into subtly worked blankets, the perspective, at first clear, dissolves, slants, slips. Six sets of hands and fingers, holding. Two wooden chairs. ‘People in a Kitchen’ was painted in 1968 and gives us a timeless glimpse into a close social system.

What is the balance of jeopardy and joy when we put the lives of our family and friends on show, their privacy, their delights, insecurities, vulnerability, their love and affections? Intimacy is a precious thing, the ultimate locality, our closest encounters arriving by choice, blood, necessity, accident. When rendering their likenesses and lives for our own work a subjective document is created, semi-fictionalised and therefore edited. In contemporary painting fidelity rarely needs to be contested and perhaps a torquing of life is sometimes necessary to highlight its realness.

Entering the Norman Gilbert show at Tramway’s T5 Gallery a story unfolds of a place, within a stone’s throw, where painting and drawing have enacted such a documentation. Each of the three times I visit the exhibition it is lively and people are talking. Its affect is clear: exuberant intergenerational connection. Over forty artworks on board and paper, alongside personal items, soft furnishings from Gilbert’s Shield’s Road home studio, decorative wallpaper and painting are presented in the modest space. The show feels like the work looks—busy. All of the paintings save the work in progress depict people, largely in domestic spaces, interacting with others and their surroundings. It takes a minute for the space and works to come into focus, the volume of visual information meets the generous decorative hang in an encounter not dissimilar to entering a party.

When someone local dies, and you know they were beloved, and the show really is gorgeous, it is difficult not to write an elegy/eulogy.The presentation reads as a generous gesture of commonality in a time where a conservative state would have you believe the lives of others are only in competition to your own. [1] The exhibition is like entering a utopic neighbourhood, the house, the pregnancies and the hospice visits that made up the intimate world of the late artist. As my old school bus driver would have said the ‘hatches, matches and despatches’.

It would be easy to read the exhibition as just that though, a utopia, however the interlocutors that inhabit our lives are not so designed as a painting, or curated exhibition. In Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism they ask, ‘which lives count as a (good) life?’ and in Gilbert’s paintings we might see something of what they refer to, in both the obvious or ‘normal’—children playing, a couple reading the newspaper—and the ‘other’, an elderly woman dying from dementia, her desensitised unconscious face sagging. These forms of slippage are perhaps what hold the tension in Gilbert’s otherwise animated Mediterranean style.

‘You create utopianism not because you are getting a future, but because you experience affectively a world you want to live in’, says Berlant. [2] In Gilbert’s case these two concepts overlap: he creates a utopia of colour, pattern, gesture and then inserts the strain and difficulty that comes with the challenge of attachment. This is a person who is not evaluating their self-worth through their audience, but who is deeply committed to a sincere depiction of the people around him.

The show calls to mind Love, an exhibition of Stephen Campbell’s collages in the same space in 2018. Completed at the kitchen table, in amongst kids and cooking, the collages are testament to Campbell’s adaptability: ‘In these works, we see a manifestation of the most powerful cornerstones of his life, his family, the natural world and his boundless imagination.’ [3] The text could almost stand in for the Gilbert show. It is an interesting curatorial inclination that the two shows devoted to family, friends and love are held by dead working-class Glaswegian men. Perhaps a nod to the ways in which patriarchy harms/dominates us all. Both artists push towards an atmosphere of intelligent optimism, but where Campbell’s machismo sometimes got the better of him, Gilbert’s influences make their mark: I wonder what his work would look like had it leaned more towards say Paula Rego and away from the more toxic male artists of the late 19th century and early 20th century. However, like the essays of Doreen Massey which frequently zero-in on the details and complexities of the specific, often local, place she was writing about, Gilbert appears to see beyond epiphenomena to a core relational life [4], where our emotional responsibilities to each other cannot be eroded by neo-liberal capitalism’s individualistic drive.

Down the road there is a small, German, 15th century tapestry [5] in the Burrell Collection showing a pair of lovers following a stag through a forest: it has the woven caption: ‘we are hunting for fidelity and if we find it we would rather live in no dearer time’. [6] In the Gilbert show, which harbours love’s touch at its core, I was reminded of this little wallhanging and its message venerating the importance of true dear time. Gilbert offers us the solidarity that can be gleaned from documents of such time: documents that become the models from which we observe and are reminded of how important it is to be together and hold each other close.


Rosie Roberts is an artist, writer and editor from Glasgow generally working collaboratively through ideas of synchronicity, time, locality and affect.

Norman Gilbert, Tramway, free, 3 Sep 2022-5th Feb 2023


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[5]The Pursuit of Fidelity, Circa 1475-1500, Wool, linen, silk, metal, 76.2 x 86.3cm, The Burrell Collection © Glasgow Museums

[6] In 2010 there was a retrospective of Alexander and Susan Maris’ work at Stills gallery in Edinburgh. The Marises work looked at ‘Seeking out fissures across time and space, the Marises search for the impossibility of truth, persisting in the face of this journey’s failure.’ This is where the tapestry was first brought to my attention.