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'Red Real Life', 2006, oil and acrylic on panel

Studio Real Life—Amsterdam 1995
Real Life Rocky Mountain—Glasgow 1996
Fortress Real Life—London 2001
Selected Real Life—Karlsruhe 2002
The Real Life Rock Opera, Volume 1—Touring 2004

These greatest hits, a selection of the installations available on the REAL LIFE label, have played in galleries and off-site venues since Glasgow artist Ross Sinclair set out on the road in 1992. This year, he returns with his biggest solo show at home since 1996, when he installed Real Life Rocky Mountain at the Centre of Contemporary Art. Now back in the CCA with The Real Life Painting Show Sinclair has taken a surprising turn on this lifelong art roadshow. He’s into paint. In a big way.

Meeting at the gallery, which has become temporarily full of half-used paint tubes, pots and testers, and paper bags of half-eaten sausage rolls from Gregg’s the Bakers across the road, we blether about music first. Part of a Glasgow art scene naturally inclined towards popular sounds (these days the mix is increasingly common, half-expected even, with regular performance gigs by young artists at openings), Sinclair was inspired early on by vinyl, not just its sound but its look. From bedroom to band, he was the drummer for theindie punk group the Soup Dragons (named after a character in the kids TV show the Clangers) from 1985 until 1989— the era of Postcard Records, Roddy Frame and Edwyn Collins. ‘That time I spent doing bands and records, enthused by this idea of doing the record covers and everything. You were putting together and making this sort of object—it was back in the days of records, of course, where the disc itself was more of an object, an actual thing. Everything was there, down to the little thing inscribed in the groove, the little message you could see. I really loved the idea—too grand to call it a work of art, but you could be involved in making it, then somebody could get it and take it home and could pore over every tiny element of it.’

Ross Sinclair and 'Violet Real Life', 2006
Ross Sinclair and 'Violet Real Life', 2006

While music was his youthful pitch, it’s the visual territory of ordinary life that holds his art together—the one that crashes round us on TV and radio, at concerts, in politics, in holier than thou places. Sinclair takes them on, strips them down, cracks the codes. He takes action. He performs from his huts and sheds, the man on his island, surrounded by folk and friends. And if he’s not performing, he’s making his art work the streets. Murals and neon and billboards blend with the real things, the ads and signage that we’ve forgotten to analyse. Sinclair is there to stir them up in our senses. The 2000 Leipzig mural ‘REAL LIFE…and how to live it: GEOGRAPHY’ advises ’1. Burn Your Passports 2. Ignore Continents 3. Embrace Statelessness 4. Renounce Citizenship 5. Explode Borders…’ His Museum of Despair on Edinburgh’s High Street sold ‘all the shit left over from five years of making art’ in 1994. The market stall set up in London, Utrecht, Berlin and Toronto in 1999, sold REAL mugs and T-shirts direct to a sales savvy public. His mini red-steepled hut-cum-church is now part of the collection at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. Inside, Sinclair sings the hymns on video, that as a committed aetheist, he wouldn’t be seen dead droning in real life. He is often in the thick of it, casting himself in a Beckettian, observant role. ‘The voyeur looks in but the creature turns his back, trying to find some privacy in this completely public space, symbolically putting the most private moments of creation on show for all to see.’ (Shift, de Appel, Amsterdam, 1995). And since 1994, when he first bared his back, he regularly displays the REAL LIFE tattoo carved as a T-shirt in the raw, his very own brand taken to the conceptual and literal limit with a pinch of peaty dark humour.

Curator Katrina Brown, writing in REAL LIFE, published by CCA a decade ago to coincide with Real Life Rocky Mountain sets a typical Sinclair scene of the time: ‘a fabricated chunk of mountain, its wooden substructure exposed on two sides making its artificiality quite explicit… replete with small, cutely stuffed Scottish wildlife, a wee trickling burn, the odd bush or wildflower, some rocks and boulders and a small wooden hut… When the world thinks your world is Brigadoon, what can you do to find out what it really is and how do you then go about communicating that to others?’ Sinclair’s answer was to live it—in public.

Constructing the Real Life Painting Show in CCA
Constructing the Real Life Painting Show in CCA

Ten years on, REAL LIFE has changed. Sinclair is married with a young family and seems a devoted father. He’s now in mid-career time, with a European reputation. Coincidentally, he’s standing back this time and taking a director’s role. No guitar. No flags (though the paintings’ emblematic composition might suggest a ‘Jasper Johns-style’ otherwise), no scenes or selling. The work has been stripped down to the most basic materials—paint and MDF. So if you think you’ve seen Ross Sinclair and bought the T-shirt, think again. This is a different story.

In the weeks before the exhibition opened on 19 April, as a key component of Glasgow International, the now bi-annual contemporary art fest directed by Francis McKee, Sinclair has been holed up in a studio at Cove Park on a hill near his home in rural Kilcreggan. So far, so rocky mountain. Bracken outside, dead cold inside. Deer visit. And they call into the wild back garden at his house by the loch. It seems an idyll, but we all know the truth is written behind the lines on the roadsigns of the area —that these hills are swarming with military, the carriageways are smooth and specially widened for the transport of nuclear equipment, that the nearest secondary school (he has three daughters to think of) is a distant 45 minutes away by bus. Signposts and clues and consequences—Sinclair’s work has an instinctive antenna for them all, the good and bad and the ugly.

‘I just have the feeling of wanting to find out how we get from A to B, how we got to where we are at the moment. My interest in things is more like a sort of autopsy or chopping a tree and seeing the absolute mystery of what something or an idea is constructed from.’

In that respect, despite their departure from the more complex and sculptural installation work, these new paintings fall into the Sinclair mould effortlessly. Made of 18mm MDF boards, they adopt a deadpan but seductive Warholian (colour) Ruscha (letters) media style—paintings as posters—to get the message across. Massive alphabet, big reds, in your face.

Nothing passive. Something about the giant words, the uniformity of size, the weighted walls constructed by Sinclair and added to the gallery ones, the let-loose, swift-brush colour, all suggest filmic action. As you walk through the building, the camera rolls. And flirts. You see the paintings, smell them, hear them. They’re a noisy, bulky bunch with layers of personality.

So where did they come from? He seems quite astonished himself at how much passion there is to be discovered in working with paint.

Real Life Painting Show installation in progress
Real Life Painting Show installation in progress

‘You get the blue and mix it and there’s something else there. And then there’s this third colour and it’s amazing and it’s for free. Put these two down and another one comes. It’s just that absolute joy, that unbridled colour passion with just one brushstroke.

‘I suppose I’ve never considered where those moments of intuitive decision—making come from—that’s something I’ve never indulged myself in much and have always felt quite critical of with the painting thing that says “it just pours out of one’s fingers like magic, it’s unknowable, it’s the unsayable” and all of that. I’ve never bought that at all.

‘In a way this all grew out of a desire to respond to what was going on and give detail to some of these bigger things I was doing. A lot of things sort of whizzed by over the years and in a sense I was trying to look a bit more closely at some of those details that got subsumed under the greater push to get the bloody project done, whatever it was. I wanted to take a few steps back to look at why decisions were getting made and just decide on colours of things or positioning of things or composing of things.’

The discovery of joy in working with the materials has had Sinclair hooked. He has sized and measured this project with what sounds close to loving care. There are at least eight fields of paint on each board, oil and varnish on top. REAL LIFE is lettered into each one, along with a colour in capital letters, or a heart. GREEN REAL LIFE takes you to a damp forest, SILVER begs for the boardroom (Sinclair’s own suggestion), BROWN has a chocolate finish, PINK has style-mag chic (Warhol’s Interview comes to mind), while BLACK is lost in space. Some have I LOVE hearts instead. YELLOW, RED, BLUE, BLACK, MAGENTA, VIOLET, WHITE ? the walls are dense with colour, like a spring landscape or a city street. There is excitement in the air. It feels like curtain up time.

Sinclair had planned for the show to pack this kind of power. ‘The paintings are so solid and fixed. I really wanted to define those things before a visitor actually got into the gallery so it wasn’t just about opening the door and saying OK here’s some paintings on the wall. It’s more like, here’s some shoddy walls just sitting there. From the front it all looks perfect but then you look round the back, you see it’s pretty shaky and made of cardboard or something. That’s something in lots of the work—that appearance of solidity when in reality it’s not.

Jim Colquhoun's response to Ross Sinclair, 'Notes From The Sea of Lemonade', 2006 
Jim Colquhoun's response to Ross Sinclair, 'Notes From The Sea of Lemonade', 2006

‘So there’s some kind of dynamic between the ‘heaviosity’ of the paintings, which weigh about 50 kilos each, and these walls. Actually, the walls need these ridiculous sandbags to keep them standing up. If they fell over they would crush anything. I wanted to sort of define the really solid echoes of modernism in these big paintings but without the same kind of surface or the same certainty of space that it would have had in the late 50s. There might be echoes of that formally, but the whole surface, the whole body is completely changed. I just feel it should be like kind of arms when you come in the space, pushing you round. And in the bookshop space it’s different. Everyone knows it was the shop space so this grid of little paintings makes them more like commodities.

‘In a way, over the last ten years, I’ve moved away from me being in the work itself so much for various reasons, and have been trying to articulate them so that the person who comes in feels a bit more at the centre of it rather than watching me. It’s about the relationship between the spectacular and real life, but placing you more in the centre with me activating the work and deciding to go this way or that way. When you come in it should just get you. David Bellingham said to me, he thought there was an incredible sense that I was always trying to make this little space somewhere someone could come in and feel quite enveloped.’

Unpropitious changes (the departure of the director in December followed by closure) at CCA have serendipitously contributed positively to the paintings’ progress.

‘It feels like mum and dad have gone away and they’re never coming back. In the more installation-based things I do, I always like to try and change the space I’m working in completely—if you know a space really well it can be so dull, show after show. This space had become notorious—the consensus of opinion is that it’s much worse than it was before they spent millions on it. When I agreed to do the project this painting idea had been kicking around in the back of my mind for at least a couple of years. Taking advantage of the chaos here has been great for that process. And it seems like a really good moment for CCA. It’s had such a bad reputation for the past few years, from the arts community particularly—good shows happened but the space is terrible—this big ridiculous café with a couple of rooms off for looking at art. The project just pushes things out of the galleries a bit.

‘It seems like this is the start of saying CCA can be about art again. I hope this show can say that. Of course I agreed to do the show under the old regime and certainly would have been happy to do that, but it seems much more exciting now.’

Alice Bain is editor of MAP