Spires Launch The Wyllieum Greenock

George Wyllie, ‘Portable Spires I and II’ 1984, steel, stone, leather, and ‘Thirty-Two Spires for Hibernia’ 1994, wood, stone
George Wyllie, ‘Portable Spires I and II’ 1984, steel, stone, leather, and ‘Thirty-Two Spires for Hibernia’ 1994, wood, stone

George Wyllie: Spires

Wed - Sun 12:00 - 17:00

From: 26 Apr 2024

To: 1 Sep 2024

The Wyllieum
Greenock Ocean Terminal
Custom House Way
Glasgow & the Clyde Valley
PA15 1EG

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The opening of a new purpose-built building for art in Scotland is all too rare, but The Wyllieum at Greenock’s quayside is now proudly open, in a showpiece purpose-designed building, home to the collected works of the much-loved Scottish artist George Wyllie (1921-2012) and to the George Wyllie Foundation. The Wyllieum’s galleries, project space and shop occupy one wing of the handsome new Greenock Ocean Terminal, in blue-grey engineering brick, designed by Richard Murphy Architects, who have delivered many other fine arts buildings in Scotland (including the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh and the DCA, Dundee) and further afield. 

The Wyllieum foyer
The Wyllieum foyer

Wyllie is most widely-known for The Straw Locomotive (1987) and The Paper Boat (1989) (see Artmag.co.uk post, Feb 2024), however there is so much more to his life and work, which will all be celebrated in this new building. George spent many years of his working life as a Customs and Excise Officer at Greenock and lived in nearby Gourock, before retiring in his late fifties and pursuing his art full-time. In fact he carried forward his creative work with great energy throughout his sixties, seventies and eighties.

In his personal manifesto, George said, ‘The nature of my art has meant being in public spaces and being beyond the gallery – schools, clubs, colleges, societies, universities, media, theatre, journeying at home, abroad, in raz-a-ma-taz places and in quiet places; roving ranting raving and interpolating’ – these are the stories that The Wyllieum hopes to tell, and his approach to art that it wishes to continue. 

Wyllieum Collections Gallery, ‘The Paper Boat’
The Wyllieum Collections Gallery, ‘The Paper Boat’

Moving through the new building’s welcoming foyer area and the appealing Wyllie-related shop brings you to the ground floor galleries. There are two galleries at this level, and the first you arrive at – the Collections Gallery – provides an overview of George’s life and his whole body of work, featuring a visual feast of Wyllie-made artefacts and works on paper, together with video presentations relating to many of his big projects. This space is relatively modest in floor area but its part double-height volume works really well, allowing you to look up at items displayed high up on the wall as well as those at floor level. Works relating to his performance piece A Day Down a Goldmine and projects relating to his interests and travels in America are displayed here alongside The Straw Locomotive and The Paper Boat. Pieces made by George making comment on the ‘All-American Movie Cowboy’ Tom Mix, provide both a humorous and thought-provoking view on the universal idea of the good cowboy.

George Wyllie, ‘Tom Mix’s Gun’ 1984, steel, leather, soap
George Wyllie, ‘Tom Mix’s Gun’ 1984, steel, leather, soap

One side of the gallery has a series of biographical text panels with just the right amount of detail to introduce the different aspects of George’s earlier life and then his life in art. One panel highlights that as a young Royal Navy Officer George visited Hiroshima in January 1946, only a short time after the explosion of the atomic bomb there. The impact of this experience on him was profound and is reflected in some of his artistic work. 

Collections Gallery of the Wyllieum
Collections Gallery at The Wyllieum

George was all about accessibility of art to all and there will be widespread community participation in The Wyllieum. Just off the collections gallery, a side-gallery with a wall of small ‘doocot’-like display shelves will allow workshop participants’ work to be displayed directly alongside George Wyllie items, without any distinction being made as to who has made what: everyone’s art shown together – what a lovely idea! 

Wyllieum main gallery, inaugural exhibition ‘I Once Went Down to the Sea Again’ with ‘Arch Spire’ (date unknown), steel, stone
The Wyllieum main gallery, inaugural exhibition ‘I Once Went Down to the Sea Again’ with ‘Arch Spire’ (date unknown), steel, stone
George Wyllie, 'Spires’ at the Wyllieum on Greenock waterfront
George Wyllie, ‘Spires’ at The Wyllieum on Greenock waterfront

Beyond the Collections Gallery you reach the main gallery, double-height and filled with light, with floor-to-ceiling views of the River Clyde. The main gallery will host changing exhibitions, and the opening one, co-curated by The Wyllieum’s Director Will Cooper and sculptor Sara Barker, which will run until 1st September, displays eleven of George’s sculptural ‘Spires’, made across more than twenty years, under the title I Once went Down to the Sea Again, from a notation on a drawing that you will see in the exhibition.

George Wyllie, ‘Arch Spire’ (date unknown), steel, stone
George Wyllie, ‘Arch Spire’ (date unknown), steel, stone

On display are spires both large and small. Set in the centre of the gallery is the towering Arch Spire, with the arch fashioned from sections of recovered steel ‘I’ beam, and the spire from a tall slender stripped tree trunk. The placing of this along a central axis can be appreciated in a long view on approach from the collections gallery. 

Along one wall of the gallery are 32 lengths of tree branches arrayed on a ledge. These are the remains from his work 32 Spires for Hibernia (pictured at top) that spanned the Irish border in 1994, bridging a stream outside Derry, with half of the spire in Northern Ireland and the other half in the Republic. As the exhibition text describes, ‘The work called for a peaceful resolution to the ongoing Troubles‘.

George Wyllie, ‘Portable Spires I and II’ 1984, steel, stone, leather
George Wyllie, ‘Portable Spires I and II’ 1984, steel, stone, leather

Also on display are a number of portable spires that George would transport around in the boot of his car. It raises a smile to see two of the spires shown with the old narrow leather golf bags for a half-set of clubs that he used to carry them to their next location. These spires are elegant and minimal in their use of materials, mostly very slender steel rod, and their kinetic element was influenced by George’s time working in the USA with fellow sculptor George Rickey. 

George Wyllie, ‘Daphne’s Happy Compass’ 2004, wood, steel, stone
George Wyllie, ‘Daphne’s Happy Compass’ 2004, wood, steel, stone

The most personal spire, set in a wooden case, is Daphne’s Happy Compass (2004) for his wife Daphne, which he took to her bedside in hospital – a touching gesture to help her on her ‘cosmic journey’. 

Of his spires, George says in his personal manifesto, ‘Art is beyond the walls and roof of the gallery and my ‘Spire’ will see to that. Art is in nature and our being… synergy. The spires on display are accompanied by a selection of wonderful development and fabrication drawings, other complementary Wyllie drawings and his etching of the 32 Spires for Hibernia work

Talks, events and workshops are planned in relation to the Spires exhibition, and the upper gallery level houses the workshop space for community use. There is wall space for George’s printmaking on the staircase to the mezzanine level, and along a mezzanine gallery which overlooks the foyer and shop area.

Actor and Wyllie-collaborator, Gavin Mitchell with Wyllie’s ‘Machine for Applauding Paintings’
Actor and Wyllie-collaborator Gavin Mitchell with Wyllie’s ‘Machine for Applauding Paintings’

There is a great sense of fun in much of George’s work on show. It is art to make you think but also to make you smile, as seen in A Machine For Applauding Paintings (with Critic’s Thumb Attachment), a marvellous contraption which does what its title says. The building is designed with spaces for larger Scul?tures (as George called them) such as this to be displayed, both in the wide common foyer or on the riverside terrace outside.

The Wyllieum is also the home of the George Wyllie Foundation, a Scottish charity, and it is important to appreciate its aims for the involvement of the local community through participation in art, volunteering and employment opportunities – aims that go beyond the mounting of exhibitions of Wyllie’s work but also reflect his social conscience and his declaration that at any age or stage, ‘now is the time for art’. This is a significant new cultural focus for the town of Greenock and for Scotland, and with the cruise ships docking at the new pontoon just outside, hopefully one that will be recognised by the wider world too.

I think The Wyllieum is going to be truly great – like the artist’s famous clock in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Bus Station, it is now up and running!

Artmag would like to thank Nicola Jeffs, Miriam Morris, Michael Dale, Will Cooper, Sara Barker, Pete Searle, Monica Sutcliffe and Willie Sutherland for all their kind help, and thanks to Gordon Reid, for this review.

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