When the painter Jock McFadyen was 17 years old, a truck pulled out in front of his Matchless motorbike. He swerved, but collided. He still remembers his relief that his head remained attached to his body, but his leg was shattered. “When I tried to stand up to attack the driver, my knee went the wrong way and I fainted,” he told me. “My foot was facing me in the eye and my shoes were on the other side of the road.”
You could imagine a painting of this tragicomic moment, one like the cartoonish tableaux that made McFadyen a rising star in the age of punk, in the 1970s and early 80s. He depicted terrible things – a man’s head might get smashed by a falling ceiling, or one cowboy might casually decapitate another, and callous witnesses might stand indifferently by. The works were harsh, dark, but with a sliver of empathy, the feeling that the victim in the picture might as well be him, the painter, or you, the viewer.
Sympathy for mortality lies behind his work as coordinator of this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, a technical-sounding title that belies the scale of its creative and diplomatic challenge. The coordinator is the person who has to make sense of the high-end car boot sale that is this annual institution, now in its 251st year, in which the works of venerated Academicians jostle with the “send-ins”, the pieces that absolutely anyone who fancies themselves as an artist may submit for consideration. Recent coordinators, including Grayson Perry, Yinka Shonibare and Michael Craig-Martin, have helped to lift the show from a previous state of near-chaos into something more purposeful and directed.
The job is about making sense of the senseless and managing considerable egos. It requires some generosity, some acceptance of the multiplicity of submissions, together with the ability to impart to this herd of artistic cats – this year there are 1,500 works – a sense of direction. A particular job of the coordinator is to choose and hang the work in the Academy’s largest single room, called Gallery Three, and in the octagonal Central Hall through which you arrive and leave. This is intended to set the tone for the exhibition spaces around.
His theme, he says, is “art which is a response to the world”, a phrase that is a fair summary of a 50-odd-year career. In that time he has painted what he sees around him, whether in London’s East End, where he has worked and lived since 1978, or in the Hebrides or Orkney, or in France and the United States. The choice of subject is, for him, natural. “I saw poor people, prostitutes, Hawksmoor churches,” he says of the East End, “I saw cars with different coloured doors, a red car that needed a new door but they only had a green one in the scrapyard. I saw litter, dogs, skinheads, police… When you see a cave painting of a bow and arrow and a bison, well of course that’s what they would paint. The things around them. It’s as old as singing. It barely needs justifying.”
He has painted people and landscapes, with a preference for the damaged and the fractured, for wildernesses urban and rural. In Isle of Dogs of 1985, for example, a trio of awestruck men hover next to a naked pinched-faced Eve, seated on a patched-up car, a twiggy apple tree and a battered building behind her. Over time, the human figures tended to disappear from his paintings, leaving only the buildings and landscape, which now carried alone the pathos and struggles of the people who used to occupy the foreground. A turning point was the commission to design sets for Kenneth MacMillan’s last ballet, The Judas Tree, at the Royal Opera House in 1991. As a backdrop for the dancers it required no painted bodies, which prompted McFadyen to realise: “I had been painting landscape all along, that I was taking as long over the background as the figures.” In Tate Moss of 2010, painted after an illicit kayak trip with the writer Iain Sinclair on to the site of the future Olympics, an abandoned warehouse is the entire subject of the painting.
It was through such subject matter – as well as through meeting him at the gate of the Bethnal Green primary school where our respective children went, I forget which came first – that I got to know McFadyen and his work. As a writer on architecture and on cities, with a mistrust of the glossy rhetoric of urban renewal, I was drawn to his large canvases – rendered with unflinching detail and a certain love – of the desolation, enervation, false starts and faint hopes of a post-industrial city. In 2004 our shared interests led us to collaborate, along with Sinclair and the painter Helena Ben-Zenou, on an exhibition about the unobvious beauties of the A13 road, held at the Wapping Project in London. Now we have completed another collaboration, a monograph based on many hours of interviews in McFadyen’s studio and home – about art, life and his reasons for owning 13 motorbikes – to be published by RA Publications in June.
His life to date has been eventful, since he was born in Paisley in 1950, full of chances and accidents, of moments like the truck collision when it was a matter of luck that it was his leg and not his head that got wrecked. A life in art was possible, given that his father was a draughtsman in the Clyde shipyards and his boatbuilder grandfather drew cartoons in his spare time, but not inevitable. It took an art teacher at school, a Miss Sloane, to spot his talent and recommend that he took classes at the Glasgow School of Art – which, as it meant he could give up boxing lessons that he disliked (“it hurt when you got hit”), he was pleased to do.
At the time of the crash he was studying at an art school in Newcastle-under-Lyme, in the Potteries, his family having moved to the area. By the time he came out of hospital, the leadership and ethos of the school had changed, away from art and towards design, in a way that McFadyen couldn’t stand. He fought with his teachers, made and burned an effigy of the principal, was expelled, and had to finish his foundation course in Leek. A damning report on him (as he later found out) thwarted his efforts to enter degree courses at other art schools. His girlfriend, Carol, became pregnant. They married, their son was born, and McFadyen took jobs as a hospital porter, a warehouseman and a dustman to support them.
It required a Mr Holt, the only staff member at Newcastle-under-Lyme who supported him, to help him restart his career. He ripped up the file containing the report and wrote a new one, which enabled McFadyen to enter the Chelsea School of Art, then “the most desirable school”, about as far as can be imagined from his life as a Staffordshire dustman: “The King’s Road in 1972: boutiques and discos, Ken Russell driving around in his Jaguar XJ6 with his Dulux dog by his side, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards living across the road and so on.”
Chelsea School of Art was “a bit starry”. Anish Kapoor, Helen Chadwick, Shirazeh Houshiary and Christopher Le Brun were students, also Alexei Sayle, who had not yet fully found his vocation as a comedian. Brian Eno, Ivor Cutler, Tom Stoppard and Quentin Crisp gave lectures and tutorials. “People were clever and debate was strong, it was what an art school should be. You didn’t want to embarrass yourself.” McFadyen was ambitious. “I thought I had messed up my life. I was 23 years old, five years late. My attitude was to make a fist of it, a harder attitude.”
He and his family lived in squats (a lifestyle that contributed to the break-up of his marriage) in the remote suburb of Charlton and – as it was possible for penniless artists to do in those days – in Chelsea. Christine Keeler was a neighbour and Margaret Thatcher lived round the corner. McFadyen sold his first painting, for £100, to the artist Allen Jones, who, not least because his work inspired the decor of the Korova Milk Bar in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, was something of a demi-god.
In 1978 he had his first show, with fellow artist Peter Smith, at the Acme Gallery in Covent Garden. In 1979 he was taken on by a dealer, Blond Fine Art. In 1981 he got a write-up from Sarah Kent, the Time Out critic with the power to make reputations, that prompted Thatcher’s arts minister Lord Gowrie to walk into Blond, the magazine under his arm, and buy the painting that illustrated her piece. A US Senator, a Roy Orbison fan, bought a painting called Only the Lonely. McFadyen was awarded, also in 1981, a residency at the National Gallery.
In this picaresque progress certain patterns recur – the happenstance, the near-misses, the lucky breaks and flirtations with disaster, the brushes with fame and oblivion, the gamut he runs through all levels of society, but most of all the persistent determination to paint. For painting is what McFadyen has kept on doing, from a schoolboy on, whether in squats or in collapsing warehouses in the pre-Conran docklands, or in the august environs of the National Gallery, or in the relative security of the studio and the house he now shares with his wife, Susie Honeyman, in east London. He has done it as a student, as the next big thing circa 1980, and when knocked back by the double hit of the early 90s recession and the simultaneous rise of a new generation, the YBAs. He has continued to do it since, rebuilding his reputation with private collectors and self-initiated exhibitions in (for example) a used Mercedes showroom, up to his present re-recognition by the Royal Academy.
And painting – the multiple physical actions of laying it on canvas or other surfaces, the playing with transparency and thickness, with colour and tone, with the ways it captures or transmits light – is, as he keeps stressing, what it’s all about. The subject matter, whether the Italian Chapel built by prisoners of war in Orkney, or the full moon over Calton Hill in Edinburgh, or a lovemaking couple in a series inspired by Walter Sickert’s erotica, is incidental. It is the occasion or pretext for the performance of painting.
McFadyen likes to make an analogy with music. A song, he says, might be about love or loss or some such, but it is the guitar solo in the midst of it, the unrepeatable performance of the musician, that makes it memorable. Painting can also be symphonic: “You’ve got everything from a sweeping brush to a No 1 sable with just two hairs. It’s like in an orchestra: you’ve got brass, woodwind, strings and the guy with the triangle going ‘ting!’ It’s all important.”
His ways of working exploit the full range of his medium. He might lay a canvas flat on the floor and use a cleaning broom to represent sky or water. He might pour white spirit over it to dissolve the paint, then tilt it so that the liquid rolls off, then see what happens to the dribbles – “if it’s crap I throw it away. If there’s a glimmer of hope I keep working.” He might press cardboard to the paint and lift it off to resemble the texture of a wooden door, or he might apply a stick to thick paint to make the joints in masonry. The paint has to carry the spirit of thing it represents, but also be itself: he wants “to make bricks look like bricks but also like the paint is having a good time. It’s got to feel like paint as well as feel like the damn building.”
His paintings emerge through intention and accident. They will often start with a degree of order and construction – a rectangular outline of a building, for example, transposed from a photograph – and be finished with some precision in the detail. In between comes the controlled chaos of the slipping and sliding paint: “I’m making accidents happen, then I manipulate the accidents,” he says. “You have to set up collisions of paint so you can configure them into images.” He adds: “It’s like a woman giving birth or a road accident.” For someone like me, who thought we liked McFadyen’s work for its urban content, it takes a bit of relearning to find out that it’s really all about the paint. But it’s not stretching things to see connections between the things that he paints and the ways that he paints them. His subjects, whether people or buildings, tend to be just about surviving, beings clinging to the surface, but still determined to make something of whatever pieces of life they might have. Which could be said, with certain adjustments on the scales of joy and misery, of the way his paint attaches to the canvas.
Nor is it a stretch to see connections between his painting and the precariousness of his rackety younger years, nor to see another link with his love of bikes. Here, too, he is just barely attached to the surface of the road, improvising in response to chance, using instruments to create different moods. He has so many, he says, because they have different characters: “You’re basically sitting on a plank and being shot through the atmosphere on a superbike or rolling through it on a Harley… You’re holding on to a bar like being on a trapeze or waterskiing, or you’re trotting gently in tune with the terrain.”
The “response to the world” that he has been seeking in the exhibitors at the Royal Academy can take many forms. His selection includes My Ghosts by the 73-year-old John Davies, a moving ensemble of sculptures of dead people that the artist has known, some nude and some clothed, including his parents dressed for their wedding photo. It includes Ishbel Myerscough’s tender portrait of a mixed-race nearly naked expectant couple, and a piece by Marcus Harvey – the artist whom the RA made famous and notorious by showing his portrait of Myra Hindley – of a billowing man-of-war flanked by busts of admirals, which seems to be saying something about British exceptionalism.
The theme includes landscapes and buildings as well as people, such as the 84-year-old David Hepher’s large paintings of tower blocks, or a broad-brushed rendition of a road sign by Humphrey Ocean, whom McFadyen calls the “poet laureate of the hard shoulder”. He has invited the film-maker Wim Wenders (“one of my heroes”) to contribute a large photograph of a street that looks uncannily like an Edward Hopper. Abstraction is welcome, such as a painting by Trevor Sutton that “picks up the colours of the Irish landscape”.
The spirit is broad-minded, unsnobbish, indifferent to the art world’s hierarchies of value, attentive as you’d expect to the spirit of the paint, or whatever other medium a work might take. The hang brings out qualities through similarities and contrasts. A lyrical, beautifully painted landscape (“If that person had been in Florence 500 years ago,” he says, “they’d have had a job”) is surrounded by scabbier scenes of concrete and decay. A rough landscape is made to look photographic by placing it below an actual photograph.
It is a celebration of doing art. McFadyen sees his formative 1970s years as a special time, when work was valued more for itself than for its value in the market. “The voice in your head was critical rigour,” he says, whereas for the generation after it was “will this sell?” He continues: “At art school we were told not to think like that. We were ashamed to think like that. People who sold were ‘commercial artists’. You’d not be invited to sit with someone in the pub if you’d sold something. Now it’s the other way round.” The great thing about the often derided Summer Exhibition, he thinks, is that “it is the only show curated by artists.” Critics, he says, “are not snooty about Art Basel Miami, but that’s curated by shopkeepers. It’s market-driven. Where’s the credibility in that?”
He takes the summer show “very seriously”; but seriousness, for McFadyen, comes laced with humour. The first room the visitor will see will be full of animals, including a Banksy rat hacking away at the padlock of a border-control shutter, using a “T” that has fallen off a KEEP OUT sign. “Face your demons, man,” he explains. “People criticise the summer show for having paintings of people’s dogs and cats, so here they all are. Snakes, penguins, fishes, squid… the lot.”
The Academy won’t have seen a menagerie like it, but it’s all life and it’s all art.
The Summer Exhibition is open from 10 June to 12 August at the Royal Academy, London W1
• Jock McFadyen by Rowan Moore is published by RA (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99