Arts: The ghost in the cityscape

On Tuesday night the painter Prunella Clough won the pounds 30,000 Jerwood Prize, the art world's largest award. She turned to abstraction in the 1950s, but does the urban pastoral of her early paintings still haunt her work?
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Prunella Clough is an artist who makes you aware of things often overlooked: a tangle of wire, a stain on the subway wall, a discarded industrial glove, the sudden electrifying effect of Day-Glo colour in an urban wasteland. This is her starting-point: the industrial or city landscape. But since the Seventies there has been no exact topography in her paintings, and only rarely a literal object. Yet her abstracts, with their often layered and rubbed surfaces, chime eloquently with the edgy, worn environment with which any city-dweller will be familiar.

Three years ago Camden Arts Centre in London mounted a major Prunella Clough exhibition. It was confined to work produced since 1970 and showed, through abrupt juxtapositions of one painting with another, how freely and daringly inventive Clough is in her handling of an abstract language.

There was no obvious signature tune, no repetitive seductive tricks. Just the bold seizing of an idea and a willingness to take risks. The result was exhilarating, but tough on those coming to Clough's work for the first time. Very different is the exhibition currently at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, for here certain pictorial strategies have been identified and then allowed to unfold. Smaller and more select than the Camden show, it is ultimately more revealing.

There is no denying that Clough is an expert picture-maker who is skilled at handling layout, checks and balances. She often works with opacities, veiling her images so that resolution is delayed, then drops in an accent that brings the whole thing to life. She can make marks saunter elegantly across a grid, as in Mesh, or flit listlessly in a sub-aquatic terrain, as in Landscape through Glass. She changes the viscosity of her pictorial space so that shapes float or fall with varying weight. Even her most minimal images tug the eye this way and that.

Clough's careful mapping of the picture surface may have its origins in her war work: she spent her time drawing charts, graphs and maps of military railway lines for a war information office.

Later, in the Fifties, when she found her subjects in biscuit factories, printing shops, chemical works and building sites, she became adept at patterning three-dimensional imagery so that it is held in taut relationship with the picture plane. We find her looking at the shape of a catwalk, an old machine or stacked paper bales, and extracting from these a clenched design. By alternating bunched form with passages of relative emptiness, she offers both tension and sudden release.

Like other artists of her generation, Clough found herself disturbed and stimulated by American Abstract Expressionism during the late Fifties. She, too, shed representation. But if the outward clothing had gone, the bones remained, in the form of those constructional techniques that had evolved in the course of her industrial scavenging. An experienced choreographer, she knows how to make subfusc colours and apparently nonchalant shapes and signs dance, in an atmosphere that still derives from landscape. Not the verdant kind, but a landscape of cranes, walls, paving-stones and grit under an overcast shy.

Clough brings to her appreciation of the urban scene a sensibility rooted in the Northern romantic tradition. In a curiously dream-like early work, Shore Scene, painted in 1941, a stack of debris stands, like a theatrical personage, at the edge of a sea. Its surreal mood can be linked with Clough's use of dislocation in the Fifties, also with her liking for unexpected conjunctions and small, startling events. Its delicate poetry also suggests that she is highly attuned to weather and its effects. Whether they evoke human use or wind and rain, the battered surfaces in her paintings create "landscapes of presence", as Emma Hill writes in the catalogue.

One painting whose starting-point may have been a still life and not a landscape, is In Half Light. It presents an assembly of pale forms, too inchoate to accept any definite representational role, though the ghost of a suggestion remains of a bowl, candle and jug. Rich, velvety greys and blacks surround these eerie, flickering forms. The sense of encroaching darkness and the ambiguity between figure with ground is reminiscent of Braque's late, magisterial "Studio" paintings.

Certainly, within this fine show of her work, this elegiac picture brings many of Clough's tactics to a haunting climax.

`Prunella Clough', Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, to 26 Sept. Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, 4 Dec to 22 Jan