I have returned to this theme many times, but I first painted Labyrinth, based on the Greek legend of the minotaur, in 1993. Although it might initially appear that the small child and the enormous bull is a jarring combination, it’s been an extremely successful painting for me. The first time I painted Labyrinth, with a red bull, it hung in a bar in Glasgow called Mojo and was bought by film producer Jake Scott, son of the British director Ridley Scott. Another version I painted with a white bull won the Daily Mail’s Not The Turner prize in 2003 and was bought by Ewan McGregor. The most recent version, again with a white bull, was painted in 2018 because I wanted to revisit the theme.
Labyrinth exists on many levels. This brute of a beast occupies the bulk of the frame in contrast to this small girl, immediately setting up an intriguing tension. But the child is untroubled and in control, holding a rope that tethers the creature, set against a background of urban decay. In turn the bull, despite its size and power, appears docile and benign. This jarring sense is deliberate, designed to pack a visual punch and elicit an emotional response in the viewer. If the painting doesn’t grab you, if it doesn’t work viscerally, then any hidden meaning, any symbolic content, counts for nothing.
Like the minotaur lost in the labyrinth in Greek mythology, the bull, which represents raw masculine power in all its brute primal force – physically, culturally, politically – is lost and without direction. It is waiting to be led by the nose by the girl, who is the civilising force here. The only way ahead is through the female side of human nature – to redeem the damaging excesses of raw masculinity by combining them with elements of the feminine. Together the bull and the girl symbolise a balance of male and female energies, creating harmony. Nevertheless, quite a few people found the painting a little disturbing because of this arresting and provocative combination. And that was fine by me, I was very clear in its intention.
On the wall behind in the form of graffiti (a device I use often), the word ‘labyrinth’, ‘coil’ and ‘entanglement’ can be seen, all of which derive from the notion of the labyrinth itself. And the last element to mention here are the magpies: one for sorrow, two for joy – and three for a girl.