Uncanny adventures in Glasgow, Part 1.

“Hangers” © Tim Gomersall, 2022

I heard once that an artist is someone who goes to a place nobody has been before, and brings back a picture. It’s something like this I was hoping to do by going on a journey to Glasgow School of Art last week. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying nobody has been to Glasgow before! The idea is to step back and notice things that other people don’t notice in the course of everyday life, and looking at a city from the perspective of an outsider seemed like a good way to do this. As well as getting out of my home town, I was interested in stepping away from my usual style, with its lively linework and playfulness. This notion of the uncanny, in particular, appealed to me. Do you know it? The idea comes from psychoanalysis. It’s about how, with a subtle shift of perspective, what has been familiar, homely (Heimlich) becomes strange and disturbing: unheimlich, uncanny. We have all had that experience where we are suddenly uneasy about something or someone intimate and familiar for reasons we can’t quite explain. Maybe it’s in the tone of voice, a look, a feeling of strangeness about a room we spend much of our time in. It’s something we tend to brush away as adults: Better to keep our comfortable day-to-day reality intact. Kids experience it all the time though. So do animals: the cat sitting frozen like that and staring into space, or the dog going berserk at an empty corner… Making artworks that unsettle us, and that make us ask more troubling questions, was something I hoped to do here.

Hangers is a piece that developed from the first couple of hours’ research work our group did around Glasgow. We were working in the Reid Building; a gigantic Tetris block of glass and steel merging with old stone architecture of the Victorian era. Our tutor (coincidentally, another Tim who became an artist in his 30s) called the building “ego architecture” – a form of design whose main aim is to impress inhabitants and visitors. Our drawing task within this space was to short-circuit any temptation to admire the architectural flair in the building’s complex geometry, or its unique driven voids (“a way for the dense, deep plan studios to breathe”, if you’re interested). Instead, we were to examine the mundane quirks of the building that might go unnoticed: rhythms in the light switches and electrical fittings, for example. Above all, we were to pay attention to the atmosphere of the space: the feelings it evoked in us, the sounds and smells of the building more than its physical properties.

It was during this exercise that I came across three empty coat racks, loitering in a corner in the communication design studio. I can’t quite explain why, but the image made a strange emotional impact. The racks themselves had an almost clinical feel to them: curved right angles on white metal, set against the harsh right angles of the corner of the room. Against this austere backdrop, empty coat hangers were arranged in an almost chaotic pattern: lines shooting off in all directions, following their own internal logic. The main thing to affect me, though, was the eeriness of the experience. You know the sort of feeling you get when a space that “should” be teeming with life and movement is empty? Think of the early days of the pandemic, when usually bustling city streets became empty, shop fronts closed with their contents sat inside, as if waiting for something to happen. This is what drawing the coat racks was like. Occasionally, I’d hear a fragment of conversation echoing through the cavernous spaces of the building, adding to the ghostly atmosphere. On some of the coat hangers were little red or green tags, fragments of meaning that seemed to say “there was once some significance and life here”. I jotted down a couple of 5-minute sketch of the coat racks, and took a photo for reference. When we came back together to share our observations after another half hour or so of drawing, the subject stood out as something with mileage in it – it’s a curious thing how your mark-making somehow can convey the essence of a place and a feeling.

Rough sketches for “Hangers”

The final painting I developed is an attempt to capture the uncanny experience of being with the coat racks in this vast empty space. The icy clinical precision in the drawing, along with the ghostly transparent washes of grey-green, capture the cold feeling of the scene. The coat hangers, with their complex patterns and dabs of colour, hint at an absent or disappeared life. It is quite a contrast to my usual art practice, with its freewheeling linework, sense of play, and warmth. I’m not sure it’s the sort of thing the people who typically buy my work would want on their walls, but whether anyone else enjoys the piece is besides the point.

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