Reach for the sky

David Hepher's latest paintings of tower blocks display a powerful abstraction shot through with moving human detail. By Jonathan Glancey
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David Hepher is a painter who has made the monumental modern housing estate his subject. His latest work can be viewed at Flowers East gallery, east London, and should not be missed by anyone who has ever wondered if the "high-rise horrors" of newspaper headlines can ever be beautiful. In Hepher's hand they can be, although it is a beauty at once both daunting and haunting.

Hepher, who began his career as a painter in the Euston Road style in the mid-Fifties, started capturing high-rise housing estates on canvas in the late Seventies after he had painted himself, almost literally, into a cul-de-sac in the previous decade. Before the tower block, Hepher's subject was the semi-detached suburban house - not suburban houses in general, but a row of south London Edwardian semis in Townley Road, East Dulwich. These were represented in oil on canvas in an obsessively detailed manner often referred to as "super-realist". In fact, no one else, that is, save someone with a galleon-out-of-matchsticks mentality, would have been prepared to devote several years of their life glued to a task at once painstakingly meticulous and apparently banal.

What Hepher's efforts ultimately revealed was the curiously discomforting and disquieting character of houses that, intended to shelter individual family lives, were really all the same. Through Hepher's eyes they were no more and no less characterful than the bleakly monumental concrete blocks that formed the housing estates of surrounding south London. Having exhausted the semi-detached suburban as his subject, Hepher then turned his attention to just such modern housing estates.

If the Townley Road paintings are an exhibition of imagination connected to canvas via a razor-sharp brush and a photographic eye, Hepher's tower- block canvases are a tour de force of technical prowess. Albany Flats (1977-78), Walworth Flats (1977) and Arrangement in Turquoise and Cream (1978) are extraordinary creations. At first sight they are hugely powerful abstracts; second sight reveals them to be minutely detailed portraits of some of the country's most superficially brutal housing. Even closer observation reveals the texture of weather-stained concrete represented by the artist in a mix of sand and oil, and underscored by a filigree brushwork depicting the individual patterns of net curtains in several hundred identical steel-framed windows. Stand back again and these encyclopedically detailed images become muscular abstracts once more.

Hepher does not comment as such on the desirability or otherwise of suburban villas or high-rise estates. His paintings - and he is at pains to point this out - are not political statements of any kind. Hepher has painted houses since leaving the Slade school of art and they are his subject as much as the Madonna was Bellini's or the sunset Turner's. In fact the cool abstraction of his first series of tower-block paintings culminating in Arrangement in Turquoise and Cream is an outward sign that there is no inward comment. The fact that the artist chose not to reveal the name of the flats in these tower-block paintings is perhaps a statement of intent: Arrangement in Turquoise and Cream is an abstract that happens to have the tower block as its subject.

By the time Hepher had reached this point of pure abstraction, he stopped and changed direction. The canvas is exceptional, but if repeated would push the painter along the road of those who paint war planes and railway locomotives over and over again, trying to achieve a greater realism with each new start. Which is why Hepher began to paint the tower block afresh in the early Eighties, this time imbuing his subject with human warmth and character. The result was a sequence of paintings that have something of the wistful quality of the American painter Edward Hopper about them. Hepher's nighthawks, however, do not hang out in lonely Thirties roadside diners, but settle behind the net curtains of London council flats, televisions glowing, smalls hung to dry from high concrete balconies.

If these are not Hepher's best paintings (they veer on the illustrative), they were a respite from an earlier obsession: Albany Flats, for example (owned by the Tate) took 18 months to complete. The softer paintings that followed were done relatively quickly with the artist employing much broader and freer brush strokes. In a sense they were a kind of liberation from those microscopically detailed abstracts.

Hepher's swing between a minutely observed abstraction and a much looser and more emotional approach to paint has come together in his recent and latest work, which is also, happily, his best. Blue Study for Lower Ground 1 (1995), illustrated on this page, makes convincing use of both techniques. The menacing tower block is bereft of people, but wounded with that stigmata of all too human decoration: the canvas is pitted, carved and impregnated with violent and exuberant graffiti.

These details are accurately recorded on Hepher's walks through south London estates, but blown up on a bombastic scale in the paintings themselves. They include the usual love trysts daubed in aerosol red, football slogans, political taunts, the incomprehensible and defiant "tags" of rival street gangs and, in the case of the canvas Home Sweet Home, a child's drawing, big and splashy in yellow paint, of a house with four front windows, a centrally located front door, a pitched roof, corner chimneys, a garden and a big sunny sun.

This is a telling detail: even the child brought up in a brutal, late- Sixties concrete megastructure depicts the idea of "home" in exactly the same way as every child has before, whether from a smart house in the country, a semi-detached in suburbia or a local-authority tower block.

Hepher does not use graffiti or a child's drawing to make a cheap political point. He is not telling us how dreadful these buildings are nor how alienated their occupants: he is depicting the abstract beauty of a building type that all too often we pretend not to see or ask polite architects to cover up in childish post-modern cladding to make them seem suburban and thus, somehow, homely.

The truth is that no amount of architectural fancy dress will ever make giant housing estates better places to live. Hepher has spent long enough sketching the estates he depicts and talking to residents - they talk to him openly because he is an artist rather than an architect, the latter considered to be "officials" - to know that most people want freedom from violence and damp, lifts that work and good plumbing and a sense of community rather than stuck-on pediments and other left-overs from giant-sized boxes of architectural toys.

Hepher allows us, the viewer of his work, the luxury of reading whatever we want into his work. This is more visceral and emotional now than at any time over the past 40 years. The paintings will make you look afresh at housing estates, their architectural form and the ways in which they are inhabited. David Hepher painted himself out of a suburban cul-de- sac 20 years ago. In his latest tower-block sequence, he is painting castles in the sky that have, in his hands, a power to move as great as the architectural forces that make them such provocative and unmovable monuments in the urban landscape

A version of this article appears in the current issue of `Modern Painters'

`David Hepher: New Works' runs until 19 January, Flowers East, 199-205 Richmond Road, London E8 (0181-985 3333)