ARTS / Exhibitions: A little local facility: Peter Lanyon - Cornish giant or neighbourhood oddball?

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The Independent Culture
SOME PAINTERS don't like to think that they might be better artists if they were to become sculptors. So it was with Peter Lanyon, a leading figure in the first phase of the St Ives school, who made many constructions - he did not call them sculptures - as studio props to help his work on canvas. Many of these open, painted, three-dimensional objects are in his new exhibition. They are not perfect, but they steal the show.

In fact the art on the walls would look rather weak without them. Lanyon's lordly abstractions lack the sharpness and experimental humour of his sculptures. His paintings, once begun, seem to have no goal. They are like his favourite hobby, gliding: you get afloat and then you wander, borne here and there by every little wind. In his sculptures, you find an artist genuinely at work. They are not relaxed. Lanyon pushes his materials this way and that, looking for something new and not caring if his search ends in eccentricity. As it did. His Colour Construction of 1960 is made of bits of stained glass forming an enclosed space, illuminated by a neon light. A bizarre invention, and one that almost succeeds.

This is by no means a full retrospective, but it contains work from 1939, when Lanyon joined the modern movement, to 1964, when he died in a gliding accident. A native Cornishman, he was impressed by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who arrived in St Ives just before the war. The exhibition begins with a relief and a painting that looks like a drawing. Both are obviously influenced by Nicholson but have individual poise. In the war Lanyon was in the RAF, so there's a gap. The show picks up his story with the sculpture Porthleven Boats of 1950-1, which may be compared with a painting of the fishing village from the same year. The sculpture is far better (though Lanyon put it on an awful base): it's clear and neat, while the painting includes too much and is finally indecisive.

This was the year of the Festival of Britain, and its promotion of what we might call the acceptable modern picturesque. Lanyon's painting fitted all too comfortably within the public ethos of the period. The horizontal painting Bojewyan Farms has such overtones of the primary-school mural that I found it difficult to allow the canvas its own private aspirations. Surely, though, Lanyon was looking for some majesty in the portrayal of Cornish scenery. Greys, black lines, a sight of blue and overall use of olive green make a pungent tribute to his home fields. A similar subject gives a more assured effect in Green Mile of 1952. This tall picture is the most determined in the show. And here's something that worries me. If this is an exhibition of Lanyon's most telling works, gathered from both public and private collections, doesn't it prove that his best period was rather short, a few years in the early Fifties?

A local patriot, he flew high when he should have dug deep, through the green to black. His later aerial paintings are too chalky. I'm interested in his meditations on St Just, which are like a belated form of war art. Lanyon was affected by the many lives lost in mining disasters. His paintings and constructions on this subject share the idea of a mineshaft-tomb. The 1952 Construction for St Just is impressive: an upright arrangement of sheets of clear glass on which the artist has dribbled and scrawled black paint. Enlarged and strengthened, it would have made a considerable sculpture.

Even so, it contrasts well with that cliche of public art, Reg Butler's Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, made in maquette form a year later. Lanyon's vision of suffering is the more original and heartfelt. Perhaps Butler thought he could speak for all the world while Lanyon lamented the fate of men whose families he knew. He strikes me as a peculiarly local artist, wedded not only to Cornubian life but to the weird practices of his studio. Now that we're presented with his sculpture, he looks more and more a neighbourhood oddball.

So he makes things that no one else is likely to see, out of ceramic tile, stained glass, Bostik, ordinary glass, paint, Perspex, plaster, wire and hardboard. Plus things he found around the house: bits of kitchen equipment, or his belt, or one of those rubber plungers that unblock drains. I hear Lanyon singing to himself as he rounds these things up and knocks them together. I don't believe his official explanation for them, that they helped him to paint. If only]

True, there are correspondences between a construction like Field Landing and a painting such as Glide Path. But the painting isn't as lively. The sculpture is boyish: it might have been fashioned by a young hobbymaker with no thought of art in his head. People nowadays say that these late constructions have to do with Pop Art, or, even less reasonably, with Anthony Caro and New Generation sculpture. They belong to Lanyon alone, and his distant provincial life.

Camden Arts Centre (071-435 2643), to 20 Dec.

(Photograph omitted)