ART EXHIBITIONS / A trip round the wonders of Davieworld: In the Fifties and Sixties, Alan Davie was famous and influential. A new gallery in Brighton reminds us why

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The Independent Culture
ONE OR TWO interesting new galleries are being opened in places of education. When the old art schools were absorbed into polytechnics they often took with them functional galleries where student exhibitions were held. Now that the polytechnics are universities, they are starting to make a public feature of such facilities. At the new University of Brighton, for instance, the gallery isn't splendid but it's serviceable; and it is currently presenting a timely tribute to the painter Alan Davie.

Timely, because we forget how famous he once was. In the Fifties, Davie was reckoned a strong creative force and undoubtedly had an effect on new art. David Hockney's student paintings - which remain his freshest works - are among those indebted to Davie's casual but persuasive manner. So much is evident from a 1961 painting at Brighton, Oh What a Beautiful Bird, a Miroesque, transoceanic work which can stand up next to anything painted in Britain at that date. Two earlier paintings suggest Davie's own influences. Sometimes he looks like a crazed Graham Sutherland. But mostly he was trying to outpaint people of his generation at the Edinburgh College of Art, like Robin Philipson and William Gear.

In other words he is not as spontaneous as people imagined, and this show suggests that pure and undirected improvisation has never been Davie's forte. His lawlessness had a base in canny appreciation of European and American modern art. In Venice in 1948 he met Peggy Guggenheim and admired her Jackson Pollocks. He was probably the first British artist to follow the first stages of Abstract Expressionism, with spirited, rhythmic movements of the brush that suggested a sign language.

Davie was not, however, inclined to be part of a movement. When he visited America his interest was in jazz rather than current art. Nor has he been particularly close to other British artists. He had connections with the Cornish avant-garde and taught for some years at the Central School, but his mature art has separated itself from the concerns of his contemporaries. That is indeed its point. Davie looks for creation that has nothing to do with the world and culture that we modern people have made or marred. The ambition may be chimerical, but what other contemporary painter has established such a self-contained and apparently primitive world?

The closest comparison is with Miro, one of Davie's early enthusiasms. The Spaniard's friends used to talk of something they called miromonde, terrain both earthly and heavenly, a realm in which anything might happen, governed by spirits that might or might not be benign. In this mythical land Miro's art burgeoned, subject to its own fantastical rules. Both style and content were shut off from the mundane and the rational. From the mid-Sixties Davie felt similar impulses. He cannot compete with Miro in terms of quality. But he has made a similar Davieworld and deserves the credit for its riches.

The Brighton exhibition is subtitled 'The Quest for the Miraculous', and argues that the gouaches of which it mainly consists enabled Davie to come close to the ancient springs of creativity, and that his rapid and boisterous oils of the Fifties and Sixties were followed by more profound explorations of the human spirit. But while it is true that gouache techniques gave him smoother, more sumptuous areas of colour, and his drawing is firmer with his own, not a borrowed, aplomb, such advances do not further belief in his philosophy. Rather the opposite. For his symbols from differing primitive cultures tend to become interchangeable, therefore without their own meaning. We are at the surface more than the depths of life's mystery.

Davie is almost as eclectic a primitive as Henry Moore (for years his Hertfordshire neighbour). Like Moore, he has roamed the world and studied aeons of history but has elided the differences between cultures that have taken his interest. The result is a modern-academic sameness. This type of primitivism in sophisticated Western art is probably now concluded, primarily because it smells of colonialism.

But for all the reservations about Davie's art, the 10 little brush drawings, experiments for future pictures, show that his hand has a fine assurance. And many of the gouaches have a unique and pungent character. Perhaps the best of them is Il Mago Study No 3. As its title implies, this is the sort of work that can be expanded into a fully-fledged painting, although it is complete and moving in its present form.

Alan Davie, Brighton University Gallery, Grand Parade, 0273- 643012, to 28 May.

(Photograph omitted)