ART REVIEW / Painting themselves into a corner: Confronted by the Roger Hilton retrospective at the Hayward and recent works by Fiona Rae at the ICA, Tom Lubbock wonders whether painterly abstraction adds up to all it's been cracked up to be

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The Independent Culture
The Roger Hilton exhibition at the Hayward Gallery has been showing for two months now, but these pages have so far failed to give it a notice. Perhaps culpably. For, to many people - to judge from things published elsewhere - it seems obvious that Hilton is a major, though neglected, figure in post-war British painting. And to those same people, the Hayward is itself culpable in not giving Hilton, who died in 1975 aged 63, a major retrospective. His work occupies only one room in the gallery, with Julian Opie getting the rest (and he has been reviewed on these pages). So is there a problem here?

To speak for myself: there is. During the last month, conscious of this omission, I've been deliberately putting off making it good. And the reason was simply my suspicion that I don't speak the language in which Hilton's pictures ask to be talked about - in which, if you're going to praise them, they need to be praised. This is probably a generational thing. The pictures on show date mainly from the Fifties and Sixties, and they are essentially involved with mid-century pictorial issues: questions about abstraction and figuration, figure and ground, gesture and mark. Hilton operated (enthusiasts say) with the fundamentals of picture-making. He understood that a painting is, first and finally, marks on a surface. He was above all - and you have to say the word with a peculiarly urgent emphasis - a PAINTER.

That is the language. But it's a language that invariably and perhaps inevitably substitutes emphasis for articulacy. Take for instance some of the paintings from the early Fifties, pretty well pure abstractions, arrangements of quite simple irregular shapes in a limited palette ('humanised Mondrian' Hilton called them). Sure, these are forms in a kind of wonkily balanced tension, and some of them are more wonkily balanced and tense than others. But to use a phrase like fully achieved pictorial statement about any of them: what could that mean?

Nor is the problem just with abstraction. From the late 1950s there is usually a figurative element - sometimes hinted, sometimes (as in Dancing Woman) very explicit. And here the thing to notice would be the way Hilton achieves, or struggles to achieve, a fusion of mark- and shape-making with a figurative content, hanging on to the figure without losing hold of the picture's ground - resolving this opposition being high on the mid-century agenda for painting. Yes, but all painting tries to do that; and to isolate it as the idea seems pointless.

On the other hand, a sense of struggle has always been central to the appreciation of Hilton's art. This has partly a patriotic aspect, the artist pursuing modern lessons in a culture often resistant to them, keeping the side up for British Modernism. It also has a personal one: Hilton was almost permanently pissed (when not drying out) and a bit of a wild man, and this provokes a large measure of sentimental good-blokery in some quarters, with talk of living dangerously and high risk-taking. One mustn't hold Hilton's 'image' against his images, but something of this side of him is at least continuous with the work. It is often wild, it has an air of improvisation, raw colours and raw lines, fast blobs and off- beam compositions. But how far this amounts to (what's often claimed and praised) direct emotional self-exposure on the artist's part, I'm not sure. You can see the idea. You can see a man might feel that way when he was doing it. The question is, though, what actually is exposed?

I don't want to be faux-naf about how these pictures work. Hilton enthusiasts aren't, of course, responding in total limbo, nor do I draw a blank myself. For while there are often very free variations on the female nude, Hilton's real figurative content is the trace of the painter's own hand, the action of his shapings. This is how they communicate. This is how their character is read. What it requires of the viewer is a graphological sense - but a graphology almost without rules. And I think that, with appropriate emphases, I could half persuade myself that Dancing Woman, say, was a serene, or a joyous, or a terrifying picture. That, you might say, is at least a sign of its life. And that's true. Undoubtedly they are signs of life, and they can be seen at the Hayward for one more month, and then at the Ikon, Birmingham.

The paintings of Fiona Rae (born 1963) are an appropriate contrast, in that they offer a riposte to the alleged powers of shape- and mark- making. They work through a kind of tease. Those who know her work already won't be entirely surprised by the latest batch on view at the ICA, but still the first glance is extremely exciting. What you see are really zippy and explosive collisions of manner and gesture: sloshy brushstrokes, geometrical forms, biomorphic blobs with the odd figurative bit peeping through - a crash course in the languages of abstraction, and a feast for style-spotters. So far so good. The initial excitement comes not from the impression of variety and complexity in itself, but from the feeling that, on further inspection, it's going to add up. And here Rae's pictures let you down.

The effect is rather as if a film- script had specified a character who was described as an 'abstract painter' and who, for the purposes of one scene, had to be supplied with a body of work. So they get a studio artist to do some pictures - pictures whose function is to create the impression of 'abstract paintings'. Rae's paintings are like that: all first impression. But this is deliberate. It's the point, or at least the game. Some sort of abstract meaningfulness is promised, and then not delivered. Aha.

But it's important to see exactly what this game is, what kind of meaning it is that's not there. It's not simply (as some people think) that Rae paints in a variety of borrowed styles, and therefore cannot be sincere; a painting can, after all, employ styles in a dramatic way. And it's not just that her apparently spontaneous marks turn out on a close view to be fairly calculated; painters often rehearse their spontaneities. It's not, in short, that Rae gives the brush-off to pure self-expression - for pure self-expression was always a chimera - that makes her pictures meaningless in the way that they are indeed meaningless. The thing is, nothing acts and nothing comes together. Both the individual elements and the relations between them go dead under a hard look. It was only the sheer variety that prevented this being apparent from the start.

So this is the real nature of the riposte. The resources of bona fide abstraction seem to be mobilised - they have the look after all - only to fall flat. But the trouble is, subversive pastiche turns out to be little different from simply not doing the business very well. Rae's pictures find a welcome because they reflect a taste which has become weary of the portentous claims of abstract painting; but actually they offer just another instance of that weariness. It is only to eyes for which abstraction is merely a 'look' or a range of 'looks' - briskly familiar from art books but already ancient history - that they could pass muster at all. My own eye has gone that way too, but you can tell the difference if you try.

Tom Lubbock has just been awarded the 1993 Hawthornden Prize for art criticism

(Photographs omitted)