Body beautiful

VISUAL ARTS: Euan Uglow; Browse & Darby, London
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The Independent Culture
A new exhibition of paintings by Euan Uglow at Browse & Darby in Cork Street is a show of recent work, although with Uglow the term recent is always rather difficult to define. He works long and hard on even the smallest picture, often keeping them in the studio for several years, and so a show like this, of what might be called newish paintings, includes a range of work begun as much as 10 years ago and finished as recently as last month.

I mention this because with this exhibition, more than with any of his that I can recall, it seems to matter. There is a marked difference between the earliest picture, Boxing Day Freesias of 1988, a typical Uglow, carefully constructed in layers of thin, chalky paint, and the most recent - a small still-life titled simply 91/2 x 10 of 1997. It's an extraordinary little picture, all shimmering light and subtle shadow. It is alive in a way that his work has seldom been before.

His technique hasn't changed. These pictures are still the product of intense and careful scrutiny; of plumb lines and measurements planned with mathematical precision, but it is as if, at last, he has found a way of breathing life into the final result. In the past, Uglow's work has looked a little dated, unavoidably hinged to the "Euston Road" associations of his teacher William Coldstream, but the best of the new work has a freshness that leaves all that behind.

His Slade training was crucial, but these days the connection seems less with Coldstream than with Tom Monnington (who is himself, incidentally, the subject of an extensive exhibition at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum from tomorrow). There is little to connect their work, but it was probably Monnington who encouraged Uglow to look at early Italian art and especially at the analytical clarity of Piero della Francesca. A link which is recalled by the dusky blues and pinks (the colours of quattrocento fresco) that Uglow often favours for his backgrounds.

It is not just Uglow's still-lives that seem to have been recently reinvigorated. Take, for example, the two pictures that are ostensibly the most similar in the exhibition: Double Square Double Square of 1990-1993 and Jana of 1996-1997. They are roughly the same size and subject: a single naked woman viewed from behind. Both are night pictures, painted in Uglow's "night" palette of subtle greys and ochres, although in the more recent painting he has stepped beyond these usual self-imposed restrictions to colour some of the floor squares red. In the earlier picture, the figure is coiled on the chequered floor like a rock. In the recent work, she is raised above its surface on a small bench, with her legs sticking out at gawky, awkward angles. The colour of the floor tiles is the obvious disparity, but the real difference is in a quality that is much harder to describe: in both she may be sleeping, but in the newer work she seems to breathe.

The best of these nudes have a vibrancy that is new to Uglow's work, even in some suggesting a kind of eroticism - something which, in the past, he has been at pains to avoid. Uglow is still unmistakably the painter he has always been, but the familiar restraint of his work is increasingly charged with a new energy that marks the newest of his new paintings as among the most successful he's ever made. 19 Cork St, London, W1 (0171-734 7984). To 31 May Richard Ingleby