Arts: Beauty in the eye of the brush-holder: John McLean's work is modern, graceful and too little-known

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The Independent Culture
JOHN McLEAN'S new paintings at the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh have a belligerent grace. Their tone is unlike that of his previous work - indeed, they are not really like the paintings of any other artist in the contemporary world. I write 'belligerent' perhaps with over-emphasis, but these pictures do take the spectator on, being very frontal and declarative. As for the grace - surely that is apparent. Few painters have for so long and so ruthlessly pursued beauty as a goal. Of course, all artists do to some extent, juvenile stuntmen aside, but beauty for McLean is a very pure notion. I think he boots things out of his path if they get in beauty's way.

McLean isn't easy to place. Though they are of different generations and work in different media, I think he has a lot in common with Anthony Caro, whom he must have known for a quarter of a century. Both are lyric artists. Both have long had an ambition, stated or unstated, to become even more abstract. And both are Modernists, utterly wedded to the central traditions of 20th- century art in France and America. It is unfashionable to say this. But why anyone should think that such allegiances are reprehensible is beyond me. I cannot understand why the art-world bosses allow their heads to be stupefied by neo-conceptualism, or whatever they will chance on next. No one can question Caro's stature, but this is why an excellent painter like McLean gets sidelined.

It's not right, and this is why the Talbot Rice exhibition is important. This is McLean's first big solo show in a public rather than a commercial gallery. His is not a well-known name, except to other painters, and his background is not quite usual for an artist. McLean was born in 1939 and is the son of the Scottish painter, Talbert McLean. He was a child prodigy (I know a consummate academic oil painting of some Scottish lord mayor, done at the age of 14), and perhaps it was because of such precocious gifts that he didn't go to art school.

In fact, McLean is the only important British painter I can think of who didn't train at an art college. Instead, he was at the Courtauld Institute in the early Sixties, and thereafter taught history of art at Chelsea and at University College, a part of his life he would probably rather forget. He exhibited, but was not widely recognised, as a painter before a stunning show at the House Gallery in Primrose Hill in 1978. Now I suppose he qualifies as a rather senior artist, but that's not the impression one receives in Edinburgh, so fresh and ebullient are his paintings.

It's a big gallery to fill, the Talbot Rice, and McLean has chosen to do so with a set of paintings done in the earlier part of this year. One or two canvases go back to 1990. Nice to see them, but they are not really at home. This exhibition is about a concerted body of spring paintings that form a quite separate phase in McLean's career. He has hit a particularly rich vein. The pictures don't repeat themselves at all. They have very simple formats and often not more than four colours, but each has a distinct and complete effect.

Their simplicity must be the result of concentration, yet it seems the purpose of these paintings is to delight. Tucket (London-based McLean is a patriot, and his titles are Scottish) is typical of the horizontal pictures in the group. Years ago, a McLean painting would have had a ground on which a contrasting colour was floated or embedded. Now he divides the canvas in half with different colours, in Tucket a brown and a green, so that the picture isn't unified by one edge-to-edge hue. Instead we have this long meeting-place of a line between the colours. It gives a tenseness to the picture, and something more too.

For in fact McLean's lines or divisions are formed by bare canvas, and the crisp cleanness of the canvas is at one with the sweep and scrub of his brush. It may seem unusual to say that cleanness is a quality in a painting itself rather than a quality in its preservation, but these quite thinly applied pictures have a new-born look and a bit of a sparkle that gets terribly close to the sources of creative art.

After three visits to the show I was even more convinced of this creativeness and how simply good the paintings are. In any contemporary company they would stand out.

Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh (031-650 2211)

to 10 Sept.

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