ART / Dreams of everyday life: Prunella Clough may be in her seventies, but her work looks fresher than ever

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The Independent Culture
MANY creative people give praise to the ordinary world - the world that includes, say, bananas, pebbles, red buses, rooftops and bin-liners - but few of them are abstract painters. Prunella Clough, whose wonderful pictures are at the Annely Juda gallery, is one such artist. She always begins her canvases with the sight

of something mundane. Then painterly instinct takes over, the picture sings away without words and ends with Clough's characteristic mix of hieroglyph, decoration and happily lopsided accident.

She likes cheap marvels such as sweet wrappers, the grain of wood, and shelves of folded shellsuits. Clough has been a social realist since her first exhibition in 1947, when she painted urban scenery and factory life. She is as interested in the look of things as any Euston Roader. The difference is that she started painting like a grumpy old man forever going on about the miners and now she paints like an exotic dancer rouging up for a date at the Top Rank.

Clough's present unpredictable gaiety is owed to abstraction. Her recent work would hang naturally next to the paintings of some artists (mainly women) who are 40 years her

junior. They share freshness and the feeling that abstract painting can be made out of anything that engages your curiosity. But Clough's paintings also have a resonance that comes from experience. I think she feels gratitude for the Sixties: not the fashionable or pop side of the decade but the way that painters kept putting new abstract ideas in the arena.

Clough was born in 1919 so wasn't among the artists who gave us the original Sixties abstraction. Now she is re-exploring their perceptions with a wisdom of her own. For instance, Stack is reminiscent of Bernard Cohen in his brilliant 1962-63 period. It is also the weightiest of the paintings here, as though Cohen had grown up and Clough had got younger. The whole show seems out of time. Clough in her seventies is extraordinarily free of the way that most of us are marked by our generation.

Of the 30 paintings on display only one grumbles, the tall Dark Garland. All the others are lively, and the finest of them is Partial Recall. Clough paints in oil because it's the best medium for scraping and reworking. So look how the surfaces of this picture balance delight and labour. And then note the off-balance of the black square at the top left. Ordinary painters would have placed it at the bottom like an anchor. Clough floats the black and puts random-looking lines of colour at the lower half of the painting. Another artist would have made this passage look floral. Clough suggests that she is looking at the discarded off-cut of a piece of fabric.

She prefers artefacts to flowers. The dreamy air of her pictures always goes with the suggestion that she has been looking at something man-made. The web of lines in Partial Recall refers, I think, to a piece of wire mesh which appeared in a number of paintings of the early Eighties. Other themes from that period are repeated. There were paintings of a gate-post, for instance, and their forms turn up again in Earth-Bound. This excellent painting is made of brown and speckles, a kind of colour that also harks back to earlier days. So it is with Black Penny. In general, though, the palette of this exhibition is much lighter. Social realists always like brown. Clough the exotic dancer wants something more vivid.

Not that her colour is very pronounced. The strongest hues come in little patches of decoration. Clough seldom if ever gives assertive colour to a whole area. She breaks the colour in various ways, often by dappling blobs across the surface, as in Spin-Off. But every picture is different. Clough's gift is to take unlikely things and formats and turn them into art. Hence the pictures have a throwaway character, even if they are the result of much hard work. All this is immensely likeable, but it does have a drawback: Clough cannot produce a completely magisterial work. Stack is the nearest thing to what we might call a museum painting. Talking of museums - why don't we see recent Clough pictures in the Tate? And why do other art institutions avoid her?TH

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