Scottish Design Icons: Bruce Mclean

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. Becca Clark reflects on the drama and impact of Bruce Mclean's work, beautifully conveyed in his jug on display in our galleries.

To me, Bruce Mclean is an operatic superstar. I'll never forget working with the team at DJCAD's Cooper Gallery in 2011 to stage an epic event of constant movement, motion and meandering thoughts on the collective (or something along those lines!).

A Cut A Scratch A Score: A Comic Opera In Three Parts is a project difficult to define even now, eight years on. But it's one I was fortunate to be part of as a student at the art school; the opportunity to work alongside Bruce Mclean was not to be missed.

I was deeply interested in performance art during my time at DJCAD, and I had been reading about Mclean’s musings on sculptural performance and sculpture as performance...or the other way around. He has many musings!

Mclean was, in my mind, a performance artist. Or one of those wondrously playful artistic polymaths who have a practice that is in no way singular. A graduate of Glasgow School of Art and St Martins, London, his approach to education and academia was playful and inspiring, often poking fun at the establishment and pushing the terms of creating work.

Seeing his name in the object list for the Scottish Design Galleries before we opened to the public was exceptional! Realising that we were to display one of his literal sculptures (a ceramic jug of disproportionate proportions) was unexpected and had me intrigued to see and understand it in a performative sense.

A large, orange earthenware jug with blue and dark blue markings and a face carved into it.
Bruce McLean's 'Jug', 1987. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Jug (1987) is, despite its scale, a fairly unassuming object on the inspiration wall within our Scottish Design Galleries. Nestled as it is between big hitters the Speedo swimwear and the intricate, archaic marvel that is the Orkney Chair, Jug is a glorious splash of colour that makes you double-take. Think of a jug (gravy, measuring, any sort of jug that you may have in your kitchen cupboard) and increase its scale tenfold.

On seeing Mclean’s piece, you understand its form but the size is ridiculous. A wonderously extravagant object that intimates a humorous interaction between itself, the user and the incidental audience, like much of Mclean’s sculptural works. The mark making and decoration could be compared to Picasso. Perhaps this is one of Mclean's pieces ‘in the impression of’, as he calls it. But it has a distinctly comical twinkle in its execution, reflecting a cheeky take on someone else’s work that only Mclean can get away with!

Close-up of a large, orange earthenware jug with blue and dark blue markings and a face carved into it.
View of our Scottish Design Galleries and a range of objects on display. In the centre is a large, orange earthenware jug with blue and dark blue markings and a face carved into it.
  • Close-up of Bruce Mclean's 'Jug' in our galleries.

  • Bruce Mclean's 'Jug' in our Scottish Design Galleries.

The pale blue squiggle of a line feels like a gentle warning of the precarious performance that would be required to pour from this vessel: the outline of a face entangled in some arms, marks of a being perhaps embossed in it after being squished beneath the weight of this well-shaped clay!

The label describes Jug as defying categorisation, curiously summarising Bruce McLean more than his object. Blending conventional premises with ever surprising and provoking techniques to create objects, moments and research means that, as well a ceramicist, painter and print-maker, he will always be an operatic superstar to me: my memories of A Cut A Scratch A Score no longer dichotomous to McLean's beautiful, un-wielding jug.

Becca Clark is a Programme Assistant at V&A Dundee.