ARTS / Exhibitions: Shape of things gone by

A NEW Gillian Ayres exhibition always creates excitement, in the first place through her daring and panache. Can a less cautious artist be imagined? Certainly the bravado of her sumptuous and liquid surfaces, high colour, and rushed and whirled pigment is unequalled. That's one reason for visiting her show at Purdy Hicks.

Another is that it contains intriguing developments. There are paintings of a familiar type, large baroque extravaganzas and pictures in a circular format. But in the three years since she last showed in London, Ayres' painting has undergone one of those sea-changes that have occurred every decade or so since the Fifties, when her career began. One such recasting accompanied a preference for oil paint over acrylic, in 1977. Another was in the beginning of her grandiose decorations of the mid-Eighties. Now she is making a further move, away from decoration, towards open painting with a linear design.

Hence the importance of the two large canvases that fill the gallery's front rooms. Both Songe and Fecund are wider than they are tall, unusually in Ayres' recent work. Their internal lay-out is also new. For years, her paintings have been rhythmic, flowing and returning in a way that was never far from pattern. Now, for the first time, Ayres is painting with rectangles.

Fecund is dominated by a rhomboid - its elongation suggesting perspectives. The main field of the printing is contained by a border in which Ayres strews a progression of dots and splashes in blue, black, violet, white and green. There are remarkable passages here, but none so dramatic as a zone on the right-hand side in which yellow, crimson and orange are intermingled. The colours of fire, and perhaps of some fierce, personal opera.

I don't know their chronological sequence, but surely Songe furthers the inquiry of Fecund. Now there is no border to the painting and the construction seems almost literally a construction, with the oddest hints that a little house is being built. There's a V-shaped element at the top and something like a notional roof. It's almost as though Ayres had crossed Klee with late Motherwell. More likely, though, that the invention is spontaneous, made to give room for completely abstract handling. Within the central and left-hand panels are the most liberated passages I have seen from Ayres' brush.

These paintings are so interesting that they tend to overwhelm Darius, dated 1990-91, which is a more complete and perfected work. If I am right that Songe and Fecund are the beginnings of a new direction then Darius may be the conclusion of something else. Future generations - who I hope will look at this wonderful painting in the Tate, where it should belong - will consider it next to the 1990 canvases by Patrick Heron. The two artists are not temperamentally similar; but they both have a real feeling for the French tradition of the windowscape and the garden portrait. And both have such sympathy with the expired genre that their paintings tend to be declamatory rather than wistful.

In Ayres, a Matissean vision of the domestic pastoral has been crossed with her own distinct touch. She has reinvented flower painting through the medium of an abstract artist. In Darius we discern shutters, perhaps a conservatory, quite overlaid by the bounty of nature as expressed through paint. The intricate passageways, its burgeoning shapes and changes of directions could all have been achieved by some sort of figurative mastery. But Darius's colour contrasts, its flatness and forthright application, are all owed to abstractions American as well as French.

Ayres has reached the stage where she can paint a picture quite of her own and still tease us with the thought of Picasso. Upstairs at Purdy Hicks is a vivacious canvas called Sancho. Even without the title we would notice its affinity to Picasso's early-Fifties tribute to Don Quichotte et Sancho Panca. The painting is a feat of humour, understanding and of Ayres' own personality. Another aspect of Picasso is in the upstairs room, for his ceramics have always been an influence on Ayres' round paintings. The two tondos on display show that she is becoming more economical in the circular format. That is probably for the better. Ayres finds such richness in paint that she tends to be over-generous. I predict that her next set of paintings will be sparer; and also more searching.

Purdy Hicks, Mill St, SE1 (071-237 6062) to 26 June; closed Sun, Mon.

(Photograph omitted)