Phoebe Unwin, Swimmer, 2010, acrylic, pastel, and pastel ground on canvas, 67 x 47 1/2".

Phoebe Unwin, Swimmer, 2010, acrylic, pastel, and pastel ground on canvas, 67 x 47 1/2".

Phoebe Unwin

Wilkinson Gallery

Phoebe Unwin, Swimmer, 2010, acrylic, pastel, and pastel ground on canvas, 67 x 47 1/2".

Something has been happening in the painting departments of London’s art schools in recent years. The Royal College of Art, Slade School of Fine Art, Goldsmiths, and the Royal Academy of Arts have all turned out young painters who have rapidly ascended into the city’s best contemporary galleries and collections. While it seems harsh to be so reductive, there is a common thread many of them share: a semi-naive, figurative approach that pays homage to Guston and early Picasso, often offering Dana Schutz a deferential nod too. The trouble is, not all of the members of this new “London School” are as great as the hype suggests. Phoebe Unwin, though, is definitely one of the good ones. Her recent solo exhibition, “Man made,” may not have been perfect, but it did show the potential of her thoughtful approach to paint.

Unwin lays thin, watery images on top of one another, a technique that results in a strange ghosting in her paintings, and a wobbliness that places her figures in a kind of jet-lagged middle distance. One of the best examples of this is Swimmer, 2010, in which a pair of hot-pink-goggled eyes peer out of the painting’s milky depths. Fluoro Portrait, 2010, plays similar spatial games, as cartoon clouds float around a flattened, fluorescent sitter. These were the standout works on the gallery’s ground floor, where, in general, Unwin played it pretty safe. Upstairs though, braver works were on view. In Three Bananas, 2010, she strips things right back: Pink bananas are trapped behind an allover pattern of black diamonds—one of the simplest compositions in the exhibition, but also one of the most destabilizing. In Warm Change, 2010, she builds up glowing tropical stripes as if she were stretching candy. Palm trees drift in and out of the surface, while the center of the painting appears to be on the verge of melting through: a clever combination of material and content in which Unwin uses her trademark washes to convey a prehurricane sense of heat. In Key, 2010, she uses similar stripes to evoke an arm, its stumpy blue fingers holding up a pink key as a grid seeps through the background.

These works show that Unwin is at her best when she doesn’t dive too deep below the surface, and when she uses colors lurid enough to make viewers wince a little. She slips into more dangerous territory when her surfaces get sticky, as in Self-Consciousness, 2010, or when the colors get sweet and easy, as in Interior Man, 2010, or Mirror, 2011. The hanging didn’t do her complete justice either. Though each painting was given plenty of space, one suspects that they’re actually more outspoken than they were given credit for here. It would have been interesting to see them more tightly packed, so that they had to shout at one another in close proximity rather than call across wide distances. Unwin clearly understands that good painting has nothing to do with choosing between abstraction and figuration, and everything to do with managing the dialogue between materiality and image: a conversation where time, space, process, and the raw stuff of paint collide with the medium’s illusionist, performative possibilities. There are few artists around—especially in her generation—who control this debate with such subtlety. But as with any exchange, the brashest usually have the final word. In the case of “Man made,” the loudest, boldest works definitely won the argument.

Anthony Byrt