Arts: Views on and off the wall

Artist Chris Salmon is as unique as his work.
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The Independent Culture
IN CONTRAST to his serenely articulate etchings, Chris Salmon is a mass of unfinished ideas expressed in half-sentences and inadequate hand gestures. He seems constantly exasperated yet amused by something he cannot quite find the words for.

If Salmon does not know what he is doing, his etchings certainly do. There is a purposefulness about their peculiarity which is arresting. There is a girl in a drab dress dancing with a tiger, people with animals on their heads, a pope climbing up a ladder, businessmen calmly falling through the air, four men looking out of a box, a goat alone on a stage...

In the living-room, the walls were bare but the floor was full of pictures. These were the 30 etchings he was preparing for an exhibition at the Clapham Art Gallery in Venn Street, London (until Sunday). Here are policemen playing leapfrog, a girl crouched in front of a church, several cats, more people dressed as animals, and a man running on a beach, his own version of "Skegness is so bracing" poster.

Salmon is refreshingly isolated from the current wave of British art, which he admires from a distance for its cheekiness and punkish sense of humour. He is 38 and came to the work late. He lost a few aimless years after art college designing and making those ("horrible, horrible") hats with arms sticking out of them and playing guitar in a band called Stump, which reached number 45 in the charts with "Charlton Heston Put His Vest On".

It was a relief to start painting again, but he found himself isolated. He is closer to the Victorian illustrators whose sombre frivolity he admires. Much of his own subject matter is childish, but the effect is not. He is fascinated by the relationship between animals and humans. It is dark and eerie, but never malign.

"I try not to analyse them too closely," he said, "but sometimes, when I look at them, I think: "Aargh! You scary Devil!"

His isolation worries him. He frets about losing contact with other artists. He spends his summers painting and teaching at a shambolic art college/retreat in Cyprus run by Stass Paraskos, a former tutor of his at Canterbury Art College.

"It's a very wobbly set up; a bit like camping, really. This year, Rachel Whiteread was there and she asked Stass if she could fill the space underneath her bed with concrete, which would probably have made it more valuable than the rest of the college. He said: `No, you can't do this with my beautiful beds. Now go away and do some proper sculpture!'"

Some primeval-looking Cypriot sheep and Cypriot churches have started to creep into Salmon's pictures. "Those churches remind me of toys. I always expect a big wind-up key to be on the side." It all seems to fit into the Salmon world view.

Older etchings by Chris Salmon can be seen at the Artichoke Workshop and Greenwich Printmakers stall at the Contemporary Print Fair, Barbican Concourse Gallery (also until Sunday). There will be an exhibition of his oil paintings at the Mason's Arms, Battersea, in March