“The British Art Show”

Mappin Art Gallery


The British Art Show is a whistle-stop tour, lingering nowhere very long, an out-of-focus series of detours around current British art. The best that can be said of shows like this is that they give an inkling of what is happening in studios up and down the country. The show is dominated by safe, mundane choices. Even where Packer has picked good artists he often chooses substandard or old works. He could. for instance, have chosen far better paintings by John Hoyland than Wotan—a painting in which a large, greenish slab rides over splinters and shards of busted-up forms more by graphic implications than through a sense of real, physical impact. There’s no real protagonism betwen the parts. each of which seems to be painted for its own value rather than in terms of the overall drama. He could have picked less familiar paintings by Bruce Russell, a better John Edwards than Desert Drift, a more commanding Anthony Caro . . . and so on.

John Walker’s Ostraca V is one of Packer’s more appropriate choices, albeit that the painting isn’t exactly new. Walker has been criticized for the perhaps overbearing muscularity, he-man forms and brutal physicality of his paintings. but looking around this show I begin to think we could generally do with a little of it, and less narcissistic preciosity and sensitivity, less caution. While the collaged overlay of shapes—reminiscent of the steel off-cuts beloved by heavy-metal sculptors—layer themselves back into the painting, the colors, a dry ultramarine, bright yellows, a dirtied, transparent green, punch the illusionism forwards, into the gallery. Charcoal drawn accents infer further connections between the many elements; like intrusive, half-formed thoughts, they suggest (in contrast to the spirit of the rest of the painting) “maybe,” “perhaps, if . . .”

Of the two John Edwards paintings, Hawker is the best. As I’ve written elsewhere, it seems that the success of his paintings is somehow dependent on the degree to which he gets impatient or dissatisfied with the devices—the solid X’s and crosses which fill his paintings, set in their worked-up, glazed atmosphere—and here the painting is nervous and acute. Above the usual ragged X a bristling, scrambled configuration of marks chews its way out through a deep, pitted glaze, giving a sense of violent events taking place beneath the surface.

Brian Fielding manages to get a feeling of tantalizing, half-hidden events going on in his pictures, too. These small paintings, from his “Mandrake” series, look like they’re collaged—but in fact the layers of torn-edged, ripped-up, crunched, brushed-in color are all painted. The layers half obscure each other, trapping calligraphic gestures under and between themselves. Occasionally one will splash through to the top, floating free.

These paintings have fantastic scale for their small size, making most of the more grandiose color paintings look over-blown. Fielding’s paintings reward close scrutiny, their layerings seem to go on in unending succession beyond what is actually visible, each painting taking a distinct section through several strata at once.

A number of artists here have difficulty in using geometric shapes and linear devices without their efforts looking like no more than a graphic designer’s fantasy version of Modern Art. Bruce Russell solves the problem in his circular “Dance” series, by going over the top; all the elements are here—stenciled crosses, TV weather-chart snow symbols, clustering disks, Hogarth’s Line of Beauty contours, graphic scribbling, vile furnishing-fabric colorways—used so blatantly that their ultimate grossness undermines any supposed designer’s sensibility. Everything collides. The two here are called Tango and Rhumba. The result is like what might happen should anyone attempt either of these dances at a roller-disco.

Martin Ball’s Mercury and Zephyr, the titles derived from figures in Botticelli’s Primavera, read like horrible ugly cityscapes viewed in fragments through venetian blinds. The paintings splice a geometric figure reading into an abstracted vision of the city, their cubist morphology breaking up the image into twisted planes, alternating a basically chiaroscuro rendering with equalized color values, so that, in Zephyr, the roughly-painted shapes jerkily spiral in on a dark blue triangle. hitting you by turns as color then tone as they click-clack round.

If Ball’s paintings seem rather confusedly complicated (rather than complex) there’s no such danger inherent in Sean Scully’s paintings. He avoids the risk of a mismanaged form or an over-complex format—which might, at least, be fertile—by eliminating shape altogether and by restricting himself to two close tones and a formula which results in the emanation of a low, peripheral, masculine hum between the matte black/gloss black or black/dark plum pinstripes. There’s a big painting here by Barrie Cook—an immense grille of sprayed, burnt-out looking columns—which vibrates at about the same pitch but is much more exciting: it’s like the difference between hearing Reggae music on a cheap radio and then meeting the real thing, thundering out, vibrating your guts, from a bass speaker built like a cast-iron wardrobe. But whereas Cook’s painting seems quite prepared to stun the viewer with its sheer physical effectiveness, unashamedly turning a dangerous phenomenon on the viewer as a demonstration of elemental power, Scully would surely shun the speculation that his paintings were merely set up to demonstrate a visual phenomenon. That said, there’s something prissily routine masquerading as sensitivity, or as a radical departure—demanding perhaps new ways of looking—that ends up being pedantic, in Scully’s new works.

I have a similar suspicion regarding the nevous little nicks and dots which pepper Euan Uglow’s paintings. Sue in a Blue Swimming Cap looks as though she’s cut herself shaving, so besmirched is her face by tiny location points and grid traces. These reminders of the constructional mechanics of the painting detail the artist’s perspicacity as much as they actually locate contours and forms. Uglow, to judge by the number of diminutive flecks, had as much trouble with a copy of Poussin, which is surprising given that the latter can’t twitch and budge like a real model. Like the minute variations in surface handling in a lot of Minimal works these reminders that there’s a sensibility at work as well as a formal program, these tentative intrusions are equally clichéd in both cases, equally ineffectual in countering the stasis of the works.

Where Uglow’s paintings contain an anxious, unemotional rigidity, David Tindle and Harry Holland use coolness as an emotional value. Tindle’s pictures are dead quiet—an armchair in a vacant room, a box of eggs by a french window, a quince and a dead moth unaccountably resting together on a housebrick. You can hear your own blood going round it’s so quiet. Holland’s paintings aren’t nearly so painstakingly detailed, and his subjects less offbeat. Ordinariness characterizes these paintings, but they’re not at all boring. They’re like movie stills—figures frozen in mid-gesture, half-turning, gazing out impassively; they might be androids they’re so unmoved. Its the subjects that are ordinary here—so much so that the pjctures are almost macabre. The architecture is anonymous and boring, rooms lack detail or decoration. people wear everyday clothes and have comonplace hairstyles, they sit in utility, mass-production chairs and lean their elbows on Corporation Housing balcony rails. Nothing dramatic happens, but it feels like it might. Maybe its the affectionate, softening light, or the unshockable expressions, the endless acceptance of the dullness of it all, that makes Holland’s paintings enigmatic.

Sculpture in the show comes over less well. Even the Caros look lost and easily passed by. The selection comes out worst here, with little that’s new or striking. There are the obligatory Hamish Fulton and Richard Long documentation pieces. the usual charmingly escapist records of walks across the world without motorways. electricity pylons, polluted rivers, farm tractors and so on. Nigel Hall’s linear spaceframe arches off the wall elegantly and sparsely, very like most other Nigel Hall sculptures done over the past few years. Why couldn’t Packer have cho-. sen one of Caro’s terrific Writing pieces?

If I can’t find the best sculpture I have no difficulty with the worst. Ivor Abrahams shows Large Wall with Buttress 1 and Gateway. The first is worst, because its bigger. It’s a mock-up, probably life-size, of a bit of a concrete garden wall, replete with algae stains (probably slug tracks too, should you care to look close enough) and a topping of mosslike vegetation, all made in wood, latex, and an indescribably silly material called flox-fibre. probably generally used for landscaping model railway sets. As sculpture the whole thing’s inert, prosaic, ugly, lumpen, and lacking in either wit or sophistication. It would look great as part of a window display advertising weedkiller, or as the before part of a before-and-after ad for wooden fences to Beautify Your Garden.

Adrian Searle