ON MAY 29, 1996, Glasgow City Council opened its new Gallery of Modern Art in the Royal Exchange Building. At a cost of almost 10 million pounds, the renovation transformed what had once been Glasgow’s great temple of commerce into a shrine to modern art. The Exchange Building stands on Queen Street, long ago a narrow cattle track on the outskirts of the medieval town. With the rapid expansion of the city in the eighteenth century, this natural area was transformed into a center of commercial activity.
Originally built in the 1780s as a splendid private residence, a few decades later, the building was renovated by architect David Hamilton to house the exchange. On the east front he added a Greek temple façade with impressive Corinthian columns and a triangular pediment. The “news room” to the rear, where business was carried out, was the temple’s nave. Sandwiched between these two examples of religious architecture, the original mansion added a flavor of the secular and domestic to the building’s sacred vocabulary.
Today, after being greeted by a monumental equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington outside, visitors pass through the portico into the old home, which now forms the gallery’s central hub. From here they may continue to the large exchange hall, now the main exhibition space, or ascend the classically proportioned southern staircase to three other galleries. Reflecting the rural origins of the site, each gallery is themed around one of the elements of water, air, earth, or fire.
At the top of these stone stairs was a rooftop restaurant, a split-level space which Julian Spalding, the gallery’s first director, hoped would become not only a meeting place for friends and colleagues, but a spot for trysts as well. The commission to decorate this love nest was given to Adrian Wiszniewski, one of a talented group of figurative artists, which also included Steven Campbell, Ken Currie, Peter Howson, and Stephen Conroy, who graduated from Glasgow School of Art in the early 1980s and quickly became known as the New Glasgow Boys. At a time when the art world was dominated by abstraction, video art, conceptualism, performance, and urban art, their vibrant works helped to spearhead a renaissance in figurative painting.
Wiszniewski, a Scot of Polish and Irish ancestry born in 1958, was particularly suited to undertake this commission, having spent four years studying at the Macintosh School of Architecture before transferring to the second year of the multi-media art degree at Glasgow. His architectural background shows in the striking decorative scheme. Rather than setting up an oppositional debate between his paintings and the building’s structure, the paintings themselves become the architecture, replacing walls, ceiling, and balustrades with an explosion of vibrant color and form that echoes the building’s eclectic history [see Plate 8]. Every available surface, including fixtures and fittings, is engulfed in large, irregularly shaped shards of red, orange, pink, purple, turquoise, black, blue, yellow, green, and umber. They reach out to us in an intoxicating, myriad-hued embrace of visual love, dazzling our senses with a force that is almost physical.
The room pulsates with a sense of restless energy, as areas of densely applied color contrast with the dynamic brush marks of more loosely painted sections. While slabs of scarlet and vivacious yellow leap out to engage us, quieter pools of deep blue and inky black draw our gaze in. Occasionally the forms suggest a familiar landscape, offering tantalizing glimpses of land, sea, sky, and even a horizon-line. But then the sea flows into a slab of scarlet and the horizon is blocked by a neighboring abstract form, shattering the naturalistic illusion. For this is no mimetic space that uses color to re-create an external ideal of natural beauty. Instead, this is a dynamic colorscape, in which the substance of color reaches out to us and pulls us in. It offers an experience of purely visual communication, one that can prompt an emotional and at times physical response.
As the dynamic outlines of these shapes sweep, curve, and zigzag across the surface, they carve it up into an interlocking puzzle. But where these irregular tessellated forms meet, and contrasting colors touch, they create areas of distortion and instability that transform the flat surfaces of the architectural fabric into a multi-faceted cubist space that is as disorienting as a fairground cakewalk. Instead of placing his crowd of characters within a unified and coherent pictorial space, Wiszniewski has created an impossible environment of multiple perspective points. As a result, they perform their roles on a series of distinct stage sets. Some are intimate and enclosed, the actors shielded by the suggestion of walls and screens; others provide an open arena for the drama.
Wiszniewski has undertaken many other significant commissions over the years, including two large paintings for Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s Anglican Cathedral in Liverpool and the Hamilton Town Square Millennium Tower Project. He has worked in paint, print, neon, and glass. He has produced film scripts, plays, and a novel that was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2011, and his work is in public collections around the world. But it is the murals he produced for GOMA’s rooftop restaurant that most completely capture the essence of his work. They offer a visual metonym for his ongoing search for the truth that lies beneath the world’s surface. In this relatively small space we encounter all his most significant themes: We are dazzled by color and drawn into an interconnected world. We are intrigued by narratives that tease with their subtle mystery. His sense of fun and his gently ironic humor are apparent throughout, as is his consistently romantic outlook, which allows him to reveal the wonder, hope, and light inherent in even the darkest and most difficult material.
The actors on the stage sets of Wiszniewski’s GOMA murals are the archetypal men and women he has painted since his days at art school: chiseled, youthful men in jackets, shirts, and ties and young women with flowing hair in long dresses or trousers and blouses. Across the walls and ceilings, down the stairs and along balustrades, these idealized figures act out their love stories. We wander among this teeming crowd like Baudelaire’s flâneur, observing this world in all its diversity. Sometimes we encounter a figure standing alone in a moment of private reverie, or a group caught in a freeze-frame tableau. Some figures engage us with a fixed stare; others are so wrapped up in their own dramas that they are unaware of the world around them.
On one of the side walls, a seated artist holds a drawing board on which he sketches a simple white open cuboid. Nearby stands a tall young man, a dandy in a bright yellow jacket, blue trousers, black shirt, and red tie. Beside him teeters a stack of chocolate boxes. On the opposite wall a young man kneels before a seated woman who returns his ardent gaze. As she reaches to caress his cheek, their bodies mirror each other, creating a subtle interplay of gentle curves. Behind them stand two other figures, each looking away from the scene, yet intimately connected to it: a man stands with his arm across the kneeling man’s shoulder; a woman holds the seated woman’s arm. Is this scene a proposal? Is this man worshipping at the feet of his idol, who sits enthroned on a red dais? In the distance behind this group we glimpse a man in a red suit reaching into a hole in the side of a cross-shaped wall.
On another wall, opposite the short flight of stairs that connects the two levels, we are confronted by a woman holding a bow, the arrow already loosed toward a diamond-shaped target with a deep red bulls-eye. The target shields a seated man who is looking up at a disembodied arm that offers him enlightenment in the form of one of the wall sconces. Next to the archer is a woman playing a harp, a female Orpheus capable of bewitching the natural world and even taming death. Beside her is a blindfolded woman who spins a waterwheel laden with jugs rather than paddles. Further along, two young men, Arcadian shepherds, according to the title of a preparatory sketch, are about to fight for the hand of a woman, Daphne.
These are narratives of love in all its complexity: images of hope and adoration, blind devotion, romance, passion, inspiration, even jealousy. In some scenes the entire drama is captured; in others we glimpse only fragments: disembodied heads peer from behind vases of flowers; dislocated arms, legs, and torsos tumble through the air. On the surface they have a simple, graphic immediacy, archetypal figures adopting archetypal poses that convey emotion through single gestures. But like so much of Wiszniewski’s work, these parables of love are elusive, mysterious. They resist a single reading, offering instead a multilayered allegorical tapestry whose subtle and not-so-subtle references range from the classical and biblical to the contemporary.
Like the Exchange Building itself, the murals mix classical sources with other elements, creating a dynamic hybrid with its own distinctive vocabulary. Wiszniewski often fuses disparate elements with a playful touch. In classical iconography, the goddess Diana was traditionally represented as a woman archer. The daughter of Jupiter, she was associated with woods, nature, the heavens, the moon, and virginity, and was the patron of childbirth. Diane is also the name of Wiszniewski’s wife, a visual pun that brings the personal into the archetypal. The man reaching his hand into the cruciform wall suggests both the little Dutch boy of legend and the Apostle Thomas placing his hand into Christ’s side after the resurrection, a meeting of the sacred and secular that speaks of the love that inspires public service, as well as love that can be undermined by doubt. In the blindfolded woman spinning her water wheel we find a number of allusions, from blind Justice to the Fates spinning at their wheel, and even a female Sisyphus engaged in an endless task, collecting water only for it to be poured away again. Here, love is seen to be blind, inevitable, and unending.
If the individual narratives defy simple interpretation, the same is true of the complete iconographical scheme, which has no obvious overarching storyline to unite its elements. The theme is love, but this is not a single love story. It seems to reflect a poststructuralist skepticism regarding any overarching meta-narrative of universal truth. But Wiszniewski is a visual artist, not a narrative one, and visually, these disjointed and fragmented love stories do coalesce into a larger, multifaceted account of love, one that is simultaneously subjective and objective, multiple and single in its point of view.
For as colors and lines run across the disparate stage sets, they form a network of connections that bridge this divided world. Sometimes these connections are physical, like the lines of color that tie together separate forms; sometimes they are less tangible, like the visual echoes that allow the viewer to bridge gaps. Wiszniewski’s figures may seem separated, but their clothes unite them. A green suit worn by one man seems linked to a pair of green trousers worn by another. Blue trousers find a sympathetic echo in a blue suit. Color connections crisscross the space—and all sorts of objects and shapes join in the game of visual tag. Yellow leaps from chocolate box to flag to jacket, before becoming a fiery comet tale, then an irregular hexagon behind a tree, then an angular wall. It drags us with it as it travels the room, its dynamic presence weaving the background shapes and the foreground figures and objects into an interconnected whole.
Not all the connections are intangible or broken. Running almost the whole length of the ceiling, cutting across its different elements, are two continuous ribbons, one yellow, one red. The yellow line follows a serpentine route, playing connect-the-dots with the recessed downlights before looping around to frame a naked man holding a pear, then turning back on itself to become a swing for a blonde girl in a blue dress contained in another loop. The red line takes a more direct route, traveling straight across the different elements and binding them together in its vivid cord. The scheme includes a third set of unifying lines, one that even more completely envelops the disparate elements: the clear outline Wiszniewski uses to contain each object, form, and figure. The notion of an outline is usually associated with separation and distinction, boundaries and limits. But here, as these individual outlines cut across and intersect with each other, they form a continuous, uninterrupted whole, a delicate lattice that helps to unite the surface.
Other visual elements also draw the design together. Shared gestures and exchanged glances create invisible pathways that cross the space or travel the length of a wall, while the close similarity of the figures and the recurrence of certain geometric forms provide further bonds. The seated artist and the man standing beside the chocolate-box mountain may appear unrelated, but three interlocking rectangles connect them: the artist’s drawing board overlaps the shape he is sketching, which is in turn overlapped by a semitransparent drawing in the hand of the standing man.
In the middle of the ceiling is a deep blue circle that stands out from the organic and asymmetrical shapes of the background. Inside is the simply drawn outline of a man’s head and shoulders [see Plate 9]. There is no attempt at plastic modeling, just a few red lines drawn onto a white silhouette to delineate an idealized head and shoulders. A black cloud forms a halo behind his head. His is a distinctive presence, reminiscent of the central figure of God in a Byzantine apse or a Baroque church ceiling. Like an artist considering his act of creation, he gazes down intently, taking in the whole scheme and its individual stories. Although he looks like the other men in the work, he is also something other; his white flesh appears insubstantial against the richer-hued palette elsewhere. Despite its simplicity, this figure in its mandorla-like roundel is the visual focus of the whole scheme, the lynchpin holding it together.
Wiszniewski’s Catholic background subtly infuses his work. While these vibrant murals may be seen as a celebration of earthly love, the presence of this ethereal godhead, along with the cruciform wall, proffered fruit, and hands with stigmata cannot be overlooked. These emblems transform the rooms into a sacred space, a new Eden, one that contains the cross. In this garden, light, embodied in color, and love, exchanged in glances and caresses, break down the barriers that separate individuals. It is an expansive vision of love, one that celebrates the community as well as the individual. Here, your neighbor is not just the one next to you, but the stranger on the other side of the room. The Bible speaks of God as both light and love, but does so separately. Here the two aspects come together in a unified whole.
In 2002, the restaurant closed, and the public was excluded from this garden of love. The space reopened two years later as the gallery’s education room. Now, although the door is left open for visitors to catch a glimpse of the murals, it is mostly children who are given entry to this Edenic space.
In his Metamorphoses, Ovid recounts the myth of Daphne, who was transformed by the gods into a laurel tree when she prayed for help as she fled from the god Apollo. The image of Daphne and the association of women with nature are recurrent themes in Wiszniewski’s work. In the GOMA murals, as the two shepherds prepare to fight, Daphne looks beyond them, into the distance, her hand resting in the crook of a gnarled, red tree. Though Wiszniewski’s scene bears little resemblance to the classical myth, it manages to capture its inner truth: the men’s self-absorbed and destructive lust is contrasted with the gentler attitude of the woman, who is more outward-looking and connected with the natural world. Elsewhere in the mural, the woman who stands by in the proposal scene is crowned with foliage like a contemporary Green Man (one of those leafy, semi-pagan faces that fill the margins of medieval art and adorn architecture with their promise of resurrection and new life). In an untitled drawing from 1997, a young man in a shirt and tie gazes longingly over a brick wall towards a tree in a gently undulating landscape. The tree’s sinuously curved trunk resembles a woman’s body, and its two branches are raised to the sky like arms. Is the young man the infatuated Apollo gazing at the newly transformed Daphne? Or could this be the newly clothed Adam looking back with longing at the tree which caused his banishment from Eden?
Constructed from countless tiny hatched and cross-hatched lines, the drawing shimmers in pastel tones of pink, green, yellow, and blue. These dynamic marks make no distinction between the different elements of the composition; instead they dissolve the hard-edged boundaries between objects, drawing together the tree and the landscape, the wall and the man, into an interconnected whole of flowing, undulating lines and forms that seem to pulsate with potential life.
In Wiszniewski’s visual universe the distinction between male and female, masculine and feminine, is likewise blurred. In a 2011 drawing, The Boy from Carcasonne, a naked young man lounges in a verdant landscape [see Plate 10]. The intimacy of his experience with nature seems to have transformed him and brought out his feminine side: his long hair flows in thick curls, while his body adopts a gentle curve.
These idyllic visions of natural harmony, like so many others painted by Wiszniewski, offer us a glimpse of how things should be, a foretaste of a new Eden in which humans exist in concord with nature in luxuriant environments of riotous growth, filled with brightly colored blossoms and exotic plants. In this landscape where animals and humans live in a prelapsarian state of peaceful coexistence, there are no hard edges or solid boundaries, only curves and fertile, organic forms. Here, the human figures who smile wistfully as they gaze into the distance in rapt contemplation are eternally youthful.
But Eden was a garden, and many of Wiszniewski’s seemingly rampant wildernesses are in reality subtly cultivated spaces whose wildness is encouraged. This reflects his own experience with the overgrown garden he found when he moved into his house in the village of Lochwinnoch in west central Scotland. He was told by a local gardener to let things grow without interference for at least a year, because only then could he discover the rich variety of plants that might be lying dormant under the soil. The following spring, the cultivated wilderness was full of flowers.
Wiszniewski loves flowers—their colors, forms, and hidden meanings. He gives them as gifts to both men and women, and they have recently been the subject matter of a series of paintings in which richly hued blooms stand out vividly against black backgrounds. Like seventeenth-century Dutch floral paintings, they seem to be a celebration of beauty and the natural world. Yet their dark grounds might also be seen as the void from which they emerge newly created, ready for planting in this new Eden.
If Wiszniewski’s work can at times be elegiac and romantic, offering an Arcadian image of harmonious nature, it is also intensely playful. For a number of years in the 1980s and ’90s, the statue of the Duke of Wellington in front of GOMA’s entrance was almost permanently crowned with an orange-and-white-striped traffic cone—an act of gentle vandalism typical of Glasgow’s subversive humor. Wiszniewski’s work has a similarly mischievous quality. Rather than trying to hide the restaurant’s various fixtures and fittings, he transformed them into visual jokes: light bulbs became the centers of flowers; a woman stands on tiptoe to peer over a wall.
Puns, both visual and verbal, play a significant role in Wiszniewski’s work. His titles frequently tease the viewer with double meanings. Poles Apart alludes to the political tensions and divisions of Polish society, but the image itself captures none of this. Instead it portrays two men, seated slightly apart, holding two flags on poles.
In Two Men at an Exhibition of Contemporary Modern Masks, a pair of elegant young men stand contemplating two open cuboids hung on the wall in front of them—the modern masks of the title. It is a simple painting, which offers a subtle and ironic statement on contemporary art: these dandies, who seem to epitomize an art world obsessed with abstraction and minimalism, are themselves the subject of a traditional figurative painting.
But Wiszniewski’s playfulness is not just ironic or humorous; it is also joyful. The surfaces of his paintings are richly textured; his colors are vibrant and electric; his lines dart and dance. Our eyes are never allowed to linger long in any one place, but are always challenged by the discovery of something new: some new mark or area of delicate hatching; a tantalizing glimpse of over-painted color lying just beneath the surface; a sinuous line to follow through the composition. And where the design is a simple figurative or geometric pattern, as in the Newleafland series, areas of the restaurant, or many of his prints, its resemblance to a child’s collage or nonwestern art reinforces the overwhelming sense of joy and wonder.
This playfulness also characterizes the way he has tackled explicitly Christian themes over the years. With his unique outlook, he has transformed subjects such as the crucifixion, the Stations of the Cross, and the parables of the Good Samaritan and the houses built on rock and sand, often turning traditional iconography and biblical narratives upside down. In his painting of the Good Samaritan for Liverpool Anglican Cathedral, the Samaritan who tends the naked stranger is a woman rather than a man, a change which allows clear parallels with the gospel story of the Samaritan woman at the well. The strongly Eucharistic overtones of this story are reflected in the chalice-like vessel which Wiszniewski’s Samaritan woman offers the prone victim, whose arm reaches across a wall behind him into the peaceful landscape beyond; for, as Wiszniewski so often implies, it is through the ministry of women that we are able to touch heaven.
Wiszniewski’s Christian themes, however, are not confined to his explicitly biblical or religious paintings. They occur throughout his work as subtle background presences, creating dual meanings and alternative readings that fuse the sacred and the secular into an undifferentiated whole. We encounter them in the image of a man with his hand in a cruciform wall, a woman holding out a piece of fruit for the viewer to taste, a father and child, a man touching the shoulder of another man mending a net beside a lake in which his companion is fishing, a hand with a subtle stigmata, a shepherd protecting his sheep.
One example of Wiszniewski’s love of double meanings is Omega Man. Here a man slouches casually in a chair, while around him coils a peacock-skinned snake [see Plate 11]. Instead of menace or threat, there is a sense of natural harmony and interconnection. This is reinforced by the figure’s feminine curls and full lips—an androgyny characteristic of Wiszniewski’s recent work, and also by the elongated fingers and hands whose gnarled texture transforms him into a male Daphne. He wears a wristwatch—perhaps an Omega, but perhaps this is also an image of Christ, the Omega Man who completes the alpha of Adam and restores the concord between humanity and nature that was fractured when Adam took the forbidden fruit. Like the GOMA building, whose air, earth, water, and fire-themed galleries return elements of its site’s ancient rural past to a contemporary urban space, Wiszniewski’s work offers a vision of a restoration of Edenic harmony.
His eternally youthful men and women may be his most recognizable trademark, but it is the bright, fractured cubist backgrounds they inhabit that represent the deepest truth of his work. For as his lines and colors blur and cross boundaries, and as he reassembles the fragments from the truths broken apart by the deconstructionist attitudes of the postmodern world, he discovers a new, multifaceted narrative. It is dynamic rather than fixed, whole rather than broken, and told from multiple points of view. It makes no division between the sacred and the secular. For his is a new Eden, where heaven and earth have become one.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.