Donald Urquhart: drag, disco and paranoia - Art Collector

Donald Urquhart, Paranoia’78, 2014. Ink on paper, unframed 42 x 29.7cm. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London

By Emma Capps

Donald Urquhart is an artist whose biography insistently finds its way into the substance of his work. The drawings, collages, sculptures, and installations he creates are personal – directly related to memories and events from his captivating past.

An artschool offcast, Urquhart (b. 1963) left Scotland for London in the 1980’s, and quickly found himself at the forefront of the drag and performance art scene, collaborating with and befriending many of its key figures, including Leigh Bowery. During the 1990’s – along with his friends Sheila Tequila and DJ Harvey – he established a disco and cabaret club, The Beautiful Bend, and, as can happen at these kinds of establishments, Urquhart’s drawings (which were pinned to the walls of the club, and used as flyers and invites) managed to catch the attention of some influential eyes, allowing him to sidestep into the art world.

Donald Urquhart, 1978, 2014. Ink on paper, unframed 42 x 29.7cm. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London

These experiences still feel close to the work Urquhart is producing now (as he writes, “history had followed me to my future”) and his recent outpouring, currently on show at Maureen Paley, embodies the committed fascination the artist maintains with his past. A series of highly illustrative ink drawings (all on A3 paper – some framed, some unframed), dominate the exhibition and cheerfully follow a narrow variety of themes, largely related to disco culture and its icons. Paranoia ’78 asks “Will Blondie split? Is she a man? Is it a drug? Am I dead? Does it smell? Will I get in? Should I dance?” Another work simply reads in bold white text: “1978”.

Particularly effective is Urquhart’s
Murmurations of Eyes series, for which the artist has drawn clusters of long lashed, disembodied eyes that seem to give the impression of a crowded nightclub, and are rendered with an appropriate kind of languid exuberance. These works are joined by collages, ‘disco bolts’ of acrylic lightning, and several yards of oversized crepe paper chains, which are strung from the ceiling with a refreshing sense of abandon, and hint at, as Urquhart describes, the “handmade hell of clutter that festooned The Beautiful Bend”.

Donald Urquhart , Murmurations of Eyes # 15, 2014. Ink on paper, unframed 42 x 29.7cm. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London

This is work that was clearly made (as Urquhart writes) “to the beat and swish of disco” – and the insular pleasures and mores of disco culture echo throughout the gallery space. The show’s consistently effervescent and waggish tone follows the dictates and customs set by this tradition, wherein brief interactions with new and familiar faces mean that droll wit and razor sharp one-liners are as important as rhythm, stamina, and a good outfit.
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