Jock McFadyen: Underground | Grey Gallery

I’ve long been a fan of the painter Jock McFadyen, a self-described abstract artist whose scenes are nevertheless piercingly familiar and strange - showing as they do London’s grit, grot and light. Recently he’s been opening up temporary exhibitions in the building that houses his studio in east London, the latest of which is a joint show with musician Jem Finer.

Finer, a founder member of rock group The Pogues, originally composed a soundtrack for the show that was partly recorded from the London Underground. It featured the announcements and signal sounds that form part of the ambience of any London commuter’s life. These sounds would have closely reflected what was shown in the paintings: a series painted by McFadyen in the 1990s, depicting various tube stations.

Jock McFadyen ‘Aldgate East’ (date not found, late 1990s)

Aldgate East, above, is a wonderful example: the grandeur of the generous staircase offset by the pitiless artificial lighting; the elegance of the trellis gate next to the murkiness of the tunnel. Rendering a place that local residents (myself included) have passed through thousands of times. But rendering it in a way that makes it somehow separate from the day to day: familiar - and strange.

Finer’s original soundtrack for the exhibition was junked and replaced when news came, a couple of weeks ago, of Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan’s death. Now, the mechanical whirrs and groans that ring through the gallery, that we hear as we look at McFadyen’s lovingly depicted station walls, stairs and signage, form a sort of requiem. It lends a sense of epic grandeur to the scenes: I remembered that these tunnels connect a vast infrastructure, miraculously transporting thousands of people to where they need to be. Usually, we don’t appreciate this miracle and barely notice what’s around us. Like a beloved friend who, all of a sudden, isn’t here with us anymore.

The dark tunnels reflect private grief, then. In fact, the trains, and the tiled rooms where they rest, for a few seconds, before entering the tunnels again, remain impassive or indifferent. We roll on to the next station. Unless we stop, and look, and listen.

Jock McFadyen and Jem Finer: Underground is at Grey Gallery (London). 25 November 2023 - 28 January 2024