Scottish artist France-Lise McGurn told me that, growing up, her family had a running joke—if you sat still for too long, their mother would crochet over you.
“Matching Mother/Daughter Tattoos” a new exhibition at New York’s Margot Samel, offers a window into the artist’s relationship—as a daughter and a creator—with her mother Rita McGurn, a mother of five, and a set and interior designer who spent decades making delightfully idiosyncratic crochet figurative sculptures, as well as paintings, drawings, and fiber objects in their Glasgow home.
Rita, who passed away in 2015, rarely showed her creations in her lifetime, and only ever locally. “She didn’t think of them as artworks in a traditional sense,” France-Lise explained. This marks the first time the McGurns have had their works exhibited side-by-side and the first display of Rita’s works in the United States, offering insights into the complex and even unconscious ways Rita’s creative spirit shaped her daughter.
But this isn’t a maudlin tribute. Decidedly not. “My mother didn’t have a sentimental bone in her body,” said France-Lise, speaking to me at the gallery. Her mother’s delightfully colorful and idiosyncratic crochet figurative sculptures crowded around us as though listening in. “She’d find all this art talk very pretentious,” she said with a wry smile, “She loved me and worried for me, but talking about art wasn’t part of our mother-daughter relationship.”
The title of the exhibition hints at Rita’s winkingly down-to-earth spirit, too; in the 2000s, a young France-Lise returned to Glasgow from a trip to New York with a black star tattoo, one that matched her mother’s own. Rita looked over at the tattoo while cooking, and said, “‘Matching mother-daughter tattoos? Charming,’ with lighthearted practicality. “She was not impressed,” laughed France-Lise.
In eschewing memorial indulgence, “Matching Mother/Daughter Tattoos” instead offers something quite lively, full of color and movement. The exhibition has the buzzing electric feel of an apartment party or a full family house. A floor-to-ceiling mural fills the gallery walls. France-Lise painted it over three days. “My mum would not have liked a very clear, austere art gallery setting. She would have absolutely painted over the whole thing. We wanted it to be very playful,” she said.
Known for her free-flowing compositions in vibrant, quasi-Mannerist hues, the younger McGurn works intuitively and often in sweeping gestures. Her works have earned her shows at London’s Simon Lee Gallery and have entered the collections of Tate Modern. Here, androgynous figures dance across the gallery’s walls. New paintings, made specifically for the exhibition by France-Lise, are installed atop the mural, as are two paintings by Rita from the 1990s. These paintings are distinguished not only by Rita’s distinct painterly hand but also by their decorative frames that hint back to the domestic sphere she so loved.
Rita’s crochet sculptures and carpet, all of which are untitled, are arranged in groupings throughout the gallery. One sculpture, larger-than-life-size and in a purple and blue swimsuit, is situated by the gallery window like a benevolent sentry over this familial space. These works are just a drop in the bucket of her oeuvre. “She was the most prolific artist I’ve ever met. It was a compulsion,” said McGurn.
When asked about the motivations or meanings behind her mother’s work, France-Lise hesitates. “I wouldn’t attach too much explanation of mine onto individual works of hers. It’s very difficult for me to talk about how she thought,” said France-Lise. “She never talked about it.” Then turning back to the bathing-suited sculpture by the gallery window, she noted, “Well, this one has a mannequin inside, so the feet pop through occasionally. That shows something of her process. She would have gotten that mannequin and she would have humped it up the street and then covered it. Everything was material for her.”
While she won’t speak for her mother, France-Lise does have her own suppositions. “My mum was an orphan, raised by her gran. She had a rough childhood,” she explained. “In my childhood memories, she just seemed to be filling her life up with people. Either she was having them, or she was making them. Or she was inviting them over. But she was never, ever, alone. She was just populating everything all the time and always cooking.”
Rita started making her sculptures in the ‘70s, before France-Lise’s birth, building into a height of creative output in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “I’m attracted to that period of Glasgow in my work, too, but also, psychologically, it’s quite an important period for me,” said France-Lise “It’s a time I remember my mum. It’s quite interesting to see works from the ‘90s, right next to all my work which is made in the last couple of months.”
France-Lise believes the very busyness of her parents’ home pushed her toward art-making. “Which way round is it? Are you alone a lot because you’re a painter? Or is it actually why you’re a painter? Because you like to be alone?” she thought. “I was always trying to be quiet, away from all the madness.”
Unlike Rita, who never titled her works, France-Lise’s titles offer clever, even cheeky, insights into her thought process—and her humor. The sides of her canvases are often filled with title ideas written in paint and crossed off. Music—particularly from her childhood and teenage years—is a major inspiration and so is that childhood home. The painting (2023) hints at both. The painting shows a woman in pink and purple blues, with her legs pulled up. The title comes from a popular Scottish cleaning product of the same name—famed for its distinctive indigo hue, similar to the painting’s background. While that painting recalls a certain domesticity of housekeeping, it also hints at the era when France-Lise was throwing events at late-night clubs, when she herself was a kind of night-blooming flower.
Two works— and —more directly reference her childhood home, picturing a giant mirror her parents had in the living room.
But more than ornament or object, Rita’s primary influence on France-Lise seems to be in the spirit of constant evolution, of embracing change. “Creating for her was all an ongoing project that she didn’t really want to anchor down. She lived with these objects and she did go back and make changes to them. Nothing was ever finished. As soon as you said something was good, she would almost immediately change it,” France-Lise recalled. On one occasion, she even remembers coming back from college to find her mother had painted over one of her own paintings. “I said, that painting looks oddly familiar,” she remembered, with a laugh. “And It is strange to see these objects from her life in a frame or a gallery. It’s a little bit like seeing our childhood car in a gallery.” For France-Lise, who has been shepherding much of her mother’s artistic estate, the process is complex, not without its gray areas.
“Things change. This exhibition is about time in a way,” she said, “This mural I painted wouldn’t be the same mural if I painted it next week. And when this exhibition ends, it will go, and there will only be the memory of it. And that’s as it should be.”