Hughie O'Donoghue: The Geometry of Paths, James Hyman Gallery, London

Van Gogh meets RAF bombers
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The Independent Culture

In a culture that values solipsistic irony over the heroic and the mythic, Hughie O'Donoghue's intensely serious paintings rather stand alone. Because the contemporary art world is so highly commodified, artists tend to produce work that conforms to a recognisable "brand", with the result that any serious questions about the human condition often seem secondary.

O'Donoghue is an artist deeply embedded in the history of painting and the work of masters such as Titian and Géricault. Yet to be a painter today is to employ a language that has, in many ways, been sidelined by photography, film and video, where the veracity of an image can easily be blurred.

For O'Donoghue, every mark and brushstroke of his sensuous canvases is significant. History and memory inform his work, and war – or, to use Wilfred Owen's phrase, "the pity of war" – is a theme to which he continually returns, as if to understand the past is somehow a way to make sense of the present. Inhabiting much of his previous work, like the ghostly presence of the Unknown Soldier, is the shadow of his father, Daniel O'Donoghue, whose war campaigns in Italy have been the subject of many of O'Donoghue's previous paintings.

Now a different presence has infiltrated the work, that of Van Gogh. Inspired by Van Gogh's The Painter on the Road to Tarascon, which was lost in a Second World War bombing raid and now only survives in photos, O'Donoghue has created a potent, if complex, synergy between this lost work, the series of paintings by Francis Bacon based on the same image, and the seemingly unrelated event of an RAF plane en route to bomb Cologne in 1944.

The title of the exhibition, The Geometry of Paths, suggests that diverse events are in fact linked, and that history is cyclical in nature. These richly resonant paintings, which consist of many layers and films of oil pigment, have been worked and reworked so that their making becomes mimetic of the processes and understanding of history itself.

Photographs are embedded in O'Donoghue's paintings, adding another layer of imagery and metaphor. His Yellow Man series signifies a new departure and a greater realism. In these extraordinarily intense works, he not only pays homage to Van Gogh but also seems to evoke the spirits of Everyman and Piers Plowman. A central figure, with what appears to be a bandaged head, looms like a wraith through the fog of paint, while in another canvas the phantom of Joseph Beuys in his famous hat is conjured. All seem to carry intimations of mortality.

The complementary sequence Red Letter Days depicts the nocturnal journeys of a pathfinder bomber over the devastated German cities. The oranges and reds evoke both the horror of fire and the elemental grandiosity of Turner.

In the 12 paintings that form The Geometry of Paths, photography evokes a place between fact and memory. Starry Night on the Rhine and The City of Cologne give aerial views of targets below. These have been reduced to their abstract elements. The areas partly erased by paint feel like the process of struggling to remember real events through the haze and trauma of shell shock.

The thesis of this exhibition feels a little strained, yet the viewer who does not strive to make logical connections can simply feel the potent, visceral lyricism.

T o 19 April (020-7494 3857)

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