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Poking Fun

Artist Bruce McLean places himself on the sculptor's pedestal, and, with his books, twits the pretensions of modern art

As a young man studying sculpture and printmaking in the '60s in London, Bruce McLean came to feel there was something in-bred about his teachers' attitudes toward art. These attitudes struck him as funny - as something, perhaps, to be mocked. Maybe this was his way of testing their value: If something can stand up in spite of being made to look silly, then it probably has a solid base. The Scottish-born McLean saw much of what fascinated but dismayed him in the art world - and outside it - as ``pose,'' as pretentious or not really true to inner feelings. Style can mean a front, an outward appearance. At one time he and some friends formed ``Nice Style,'' a rock band which posed but made no sound. He also posed, on plinths (or pedestals) of varying height and size, as if he were a sculpture, making fun of work such as Henry Moore's.

Particularly comic was ``Fallen Warrior'' in which (wearing a tin hat) he struck up a typical fallen-warrior pose on a mucky riverside in London - carefully positioning himself on a special plinth.

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McLean's point was that plinths are simply not important, either as something to use or to abandon. They are, anyway, a pretentious art-world device, and McLean's concept of art is that it should be something completely down to earth and not separated from the everyday.

It gradually dawned on him, he says, that he didn't want simply to be ``a sculptor'' or ``a printmaker.'' He felt that ``art'' all too easily becomes compartmentalized, having meaning only to other artists, or to people with a very strong interest in art. He didn't want his art to be just about the concerns of art. He wanted it to invade the ``real'' world, to enter the commonplace.

AND what could be more commonplace and earthy than a potato? Or a scone - that domestic and appropriately Scottish ``flat, round, or triangular tea cake, usually unsweetened, cooked quickly on a griddle'' (Webster)?

Potatoes and scones are the ``subjects'' of two of McLean's books. These books were inspired by the ``artists' books'' of Braque, Picasso, Matisse, and Mir'o. They were also inspired by childhood visits to his grandfather. At each visit, McLean was handed a sketchbook for free drawing. His grandfather, without fail, before the drawing began, made a special remark: ``What shall we do this week? Shall it be a potato against a black background, or a scone off a plate?''

McLean has used these questions now, years later. With a friend and collaborator, the writer Mel Gooding, he has made a number of ``artists' books'' - seven of them so far.

Certainly, in the potato and scone books, he might be thought satirical. The humble grubby potato is not exactly a subject one might expect in an artist's book - especially when some of the printing is actually done using cut potatoes, inked. And yet, immediately, such precedents in the history of art as Vincent Van Gogh's painting ``The Potato Eaters'' comes to mind, or the kitcheny, peasant-good still lifes of Jean-Baptiste Sim'eon Chardin.

Being artists' books, McLean's books are consciously in an art-world tradition which has, it must be admitted, its own pretensions. One is that the artists' book, like the artists' print, comes in a limited and therefore expensive ``collectible'' edition. It is signed to increase its value. And it sometimes includes an original print by the artist as an extra.

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At the same time, the potato book is a conscious nod to Japanese style: elegantly produced, printed on fine handmade Japanese paper, and full of suns and moons - staple, even facile, visual themes of Japanese art. But it is hard to know if McLean is attracted to Japanese art or if he conversely sees it as a ``pose'' and a ``style'' to make fun of.

As an additional kind of joke, the whole slim volume is housed in a cloth cover: The container is really nothing more than a bag of common hemp sacking ... it's a sack of potatoes. The entire book is a fascinating mix of lush celebration of art and the commonplace banality of non-art.

And what could be more banal than a scone? McLean grasps this forgettable, edible tea cake and makes it a deflationary symbol for (among other things) sculpture. Images in this book present ``Scone Off a Plinth,'' ``Reclining Scone,'' ``Scone Without a Base,'' ``Endless Scone'' (a reference to Constantin Brancusi's sculpture), ``Pierced Scone'' (a Moore or a Barbara Hepworth), and even - since the same two British sculptors used such titles for their works - ``Stringed Scone'' and ``Locking Scone (two-piece).''

SUCH jokes are, in fact, art-world jokes. And they point to the fact that McLean treads a thin line. He knows he does. He once set up a photo he called, ``People Who Make Art in Glasshouses.'' He is standing, looking like John Lennon, in a roofless, glassless little suburban greenhouse, in the middle of one of his own early sculptures.

A clear implication of this ``photowork'' is that he, like any artist, is trapped by the name ``artist,'' and that if he chooses to tease other artists' poses and pretentions, then he mustn't forget that he is throwing stones while living in exactly the same brittle glass house they do.

The other trouble is that, by being a professional mocker, McLean has made his own practice as an artist, when he decides to be ``straight,'' somewhat open to suspicion. My sense is that he likes such ambiguity of intention: He doesn't want to announce categorically if is he being ironic or not.

Bruce McLean is both a mocker - and a maker - of art.

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