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Visual Arts: Another time, another place

Gillian Ayres Royal Academy, London
Gillian Ayres at The Royal Academy is an exhibition of recent work with a scattering of earlier things, which gives the air of a mini- retrospective. It starts in 1955, when she was 25, with a little tonal landscape; all greens and greys and blues; a blend of early Ben Nicholson and William Scott. It's a lovely little painting, unassuming, quietly contemplative, and completely out of sorts with the rest of the show.

What happened, one wonders, turning from this first picture to face a room of huge canvases thick with paint and clamouring with colour? The answer is on the opposite wall in a painting called Cumuli from 1959. In one word: America. In two: Abstract Expressionism. At some point in the late Fifties, Ayres saw photographs of Jackson Pollock dripping and pouring his paints on to a canvas on the floor and the freedom of what he was doing struck a chord.

Freedom and the expressive qualities of paint and colour for their own sake have been constants in her work ever since. In the Seventies, she heaped thick sweeps and curls of paint on to the canvas, its surface literally swelling with the stuff like a painting in the early stages of pregnancy. By the early Eighties, she had begun to use fewer layers, but the covering across the canvas remained as dense as ever and increasingly untethered. Blues slither into whites and greens and splodges of yellow are smudged with red and pink and orange in a kind of multi-coloured jungle.

I have to admit that I am not a fan of this sort of painting, although I cannot but admire the energy that Ayres brings to her task. One gets the feeling from these pictures that she must be very likeable: bright and cheery, obviously, but also generous. She is the sort of person (according to her friend Alexandra Pringle, who has written a note in the catalogue) who takes her chickens to the vet.

She was also, by all accounts, a generous and inspiring teacher, first at Corsham (where Howard Hodgkin, England's greatest living colourist, was also on the staff), then St Martins, and finally at Winchester where she gained the distinction of being the first ever woman to head the painting department of an English art school. The Hodgkin connection goes deeper than a few years teaching together and their brief overlap as students at Camberwell. He is a more subtle painter, a master of mood and memory, but there are moments when her pictures work in a similar way, especially with titles (such as Suddenly Last Summer) that seem to hark to another time and place.

Like Hodgkin, Ayres is keen on India and although her paintings are always abstract (in that they are not of or about anything), they often seem steeped in the heat and noise of foreign worlds. Occasionally, half-familiar shapes suggest a vague sort of reality. In Sucked Up Sunslips, it is flowers on a window sill, in Flighted Ones it is a kind of fruit salad made with weird new species of fruit: a riot of red and pinks and orange. The absence of taste is spectacular and very cheering, or as Ayres puts it in the opening line of the catalogue: "Why should painting be a bloody misery?" To 2 Mar. Booking: 0171-439 7438