IN THE STUDIO / Renaissance man: Iain Gale meets the reborn Kevin O'Brien

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The Independent Culture
Entering Kevin O'Brien's small East End studio, it is hard to detect any vestige of the painter who 10 years ago was praised for the fulgent figurative allegories created during a year-long residency at the National Gallery. It seems as though, having deliberately destroyed all trace of his former self, the artist has emerged from nine years of voluntary exile, remade in an entirely new character.

In 1986, just as his career was taking off, O'Brien took the decision not to exhibit. 'I was a hostage to success,' he says. 'I wanted to move away from narrative painting. I was looking around for something that had more to do with the actual act of painting itself.' That the artist's absence has been justified is proven by the obvious success of the 'Spanish Chapel' paintings, a series of works, made over the past two years, which goes on show in London this Friday. O'Brien has eschewed an easily read narrative in favour of an iconographic language from which he intends viewers to construct their own meaning, a personal narrative based upon the dialogue between two compositional elements, one more 'worldly' than the other. In these intensely spiritual paintings, mankind's distance from the ethereal is suggested by differences in texture. But if O'Brien's use of heavily applied and incised paint recalls the work of Tapies and Fautrier, this does not imply that he is a mere Art Informel plagiarist. O'Brien has created his own visual language.

One of the most frequently occuring motifs is a crenellated rectangle whose shape suggests that of a reliquary. Such a similarity implies that these works are the 1990s equivalent of Renaissance icons, intended to have a similar effect upon a contemporary audience as a Duccio might have on the faithful of the trecento. O'Brien's insistence on the tangible evidence of the artist's presence - heavily incised gesso, resin and paint - proposes further parallels with the Renaissance masters' use of stamped gold leaf and carved wood. This is particularly evident in the most powerful of these works, Spanish Chapel I, in which a red-hot reliquary, created by spraying red flock on to a silver-painted surface, is 'reflected' in the polished surface of an ovoid, hovering uncertainly in mid space. It is deeply unsettling. Having seduced his viewers, the artist leaves each of them to derive a purely individual response. As he says: 'These paintings are positions for contemplation'.

Art Space Gallery, 84 St Peter's St, N1 (071-359 7002). 21 Oct to 19 Nov (Photograph omitted)

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