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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

George Wyllie (1921–2012)

A sculptor, writer, performer and social commentator, Wyllie was born in Glasgow but lived in Gourock, Inverclyde, from 1954. He worked as a Post Office engineer until undertaking war service in the Royal Navy, after which he became a customs officer in Ireland and on the west coast of Scotland. His admiration for Italian metal sculpture led him to attend welding classes at the Royal Technical College, and after studying part-time at Glasgow School of Art he became a full-time artist in 1979. Defying easy classification, his work crosses many boundaries, combining mixed media and kinetic sculpture with installation art and the theatre, all underpinned by a Dadaesque commitment to the subversion of conventional thinking. Wyllie himself defined his practice as a form of ‘Social Scul?ture’, humorously exploiting Joseph Beuys’ assertion that ‘all art is questionable’. Visual puns abound, even in his large-scale permanent public sculptures, such as Just In Case (1995), a colossal safety pin in the manner of Claes Oldenberg, now installed in a garden near the site of the former Rottenrow Maternity Hospital, Glasgow. In his finest works, however, the monumental is allied with the ephemeral, most notably in the Straw Locomotive, which was commissioned as part of the Glasgow Mayfest celebrations of 1987, and ritually burnt as a lament for the destruction of the city’s heavy industries. An artist of international stature, and admired throughout Scotland as the country’s unofficial ‘Whysman’, he was the winner of the Gulbenkian Prize in 1990 for sailing his Paper Boat successively down the Clyde, Thames, Sheldt and Hudson rivers. The newspaper Scotland on Sunday went on to present an annual ‘Paper Boat Award’ to artists producing work of outstanding quality and originality, but this now appears to have been discontinued. In collaboration with Kenny Munro and LesleyMay Miller, he created the Stones of Scotland for Regent Road Park, Edinburgh (2000–02).

Bibliography: M. Jeffrey, ‘George Wyllie obituary. Self-taught sculptor whose work had an enduring influence on Scottish artists’, The Guardian, 22 May 2012; R. McKenzie, Public Sculpture of Edinburgh (2 vols), Liverpool, 2018, vol. 1, p. 224, vol. 2, pp. 396–98, 494; R. McKenzie, Public Sculpture of Glasgow, Liverpool, 2002, pp. xvii–xviii, 78, 105, 320, 501–02; T. Wyke, Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester, Liverpool, 2004, pp. 73–74, 137–38.

Ray McKenzie 2018

Wyllie, George

George Wyllie, 2006 (photo: Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)