By the seaside, beside the point

The Tate St Ives opened to acclaim in 1993 and has attracted huge crowd s. But 18 months on Iain Gale laments a missed opportunity
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The Independent Culture
`The gallery?" said the taxi driver. "It's made a huge difference to the town. Brought in much more trade. Off-season too. It's a great success. I've never been inside myself. But I'm told its very nice." After five and a half hours on the train from London you feel it had better be.

The Tate St Ives opened on 23 June, 1993, to widespread acclaim. Its few critics were those who had never been impressed by the art it celebrated and others, worried that the Tate might ghettoise one of the more difficult areas of British art, were soon

overcome by the general elation that here, at last, the public could view the art made in St Ives in context. From the gallery they would, as Patrick Heron put it, "see a green Lanyon headland in one direction and some Bryan Wynter rocks in another".

Visiting the gallery today, however, you are hard pressed to turn from either of these views to the art that they inspired. The vistas that excited Heron are clearly visible only from the gallery's cafe and roof. Certainly, the huge front window gives onto the ocean, but for a glimpse of the sights that fired Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon, you'd be better advised to peer down one of the town's alleys - at blue water framed by white walls - or venture out on to the windswept moors of the Penwith peninsula.

If it's hard to see the landscape that inspired it, it's no easier to find the art itself. The museum's first gallery can only be reached by walking through three entrance halls, past two reception desks, a shop and too many doors marked "private", and climbing four flights of stairs. It's tiresome to the initiated and presumably confusing to the layman, on possibly his first encounter with the forbidding monolith of "Modern Art". For this is the audience which the gallery must address. In its first nin e months, 103,000 of the gallery's 150,000 visitors checked in during the peak holiday period of July to September. The Tate defines the remit of its western outpost as "to present changing displays of 20th-century art associated with Cornwall". But the

Tate St Ives cannot deny its more vital, implicit mission. It has a duty to make modernism accessible to the masses. And on the present showing it must fail.

That said, the introductory display in Gallery One, with its paintings by Wallis, Wood, Nicholson and Lanyon and its Naum Gabo constructions is sound enough, if disappointingly small. Beyond is the Upper Terrace, devoted entirely to a glass cabinet filled with dun-coloured pots of Bernard Leach. Individually these can be entrancing, beautiful objects. Seen en masse, as here, their delicate aesthetic is entirely missed.

Below, on the Lower Terrace, you will spot a few paintings, but don't try to reach them by the nearest stairs - they're a dead end. To get there you must walk around the terrace. Of the seven paintings hung here, by Heron, Lanyon, Hilton, Bomberg, Stoke s and Trevor Bell, only the Lanyon, Hilton and Heron are worth the detour. Look carefully though, and you might find, tucked into another dead end, next to the emergency exit, one of Denis Mitchell's spiralling bronzes and a fine little painting by John W ells related to it. Such gems are a rare relief from an abiding impression of mediocrity.

The Lower Terrace also ends in a cul de sac. To reach the other galleries you must turn back and return up the same stairs. Here, in an ante-room again largely devoted to pots, you might be lucky enough to notice Ben Nicholson's powerful February 28-53, hidden behind a door arch. More prominent is a poor painting of an anemone by Margaret Mellis, with a wall to itself. Like most of the art on show it has an "explanatory" label: "The strong decorative nature of this painting distorts the impression we are given of the artist's highly structured method of composition." Does that really help the visitor?

The museum's strongest space is Gallery Three, home to changing study displays. That its current exploration of Lanyon's Generation series of 1946-1949 should be so successful is testimony to the track record in the field of such temporary, educational exhibitions of the museum's curator, Michael Tooby. It is hard, though, to concentrate on the work on view. The air conditioning emits an irrepressible hum, and what is that nauseating smell? You might have noticed it on the stairs. It's the

grey rubber of the floor, which, if you're wearing rubber-soled shoes, will also squeak.

Now, as it diverts your attention from the walls, you begin to notice other architectural details: the way, for instance, that the white-painted wood of the chairs is beginning to chip and the white handrail of the stairs has worn to a dirty yellow. Eighteen months into its life, the gallery looks ready for a refit. In their zeal to capture the essential Englishness of St Ives modernism, the architects, Evans and Shalev, chose to finish their work in a limp compromise between craft and mass-production. They failed to account for the effect of 200,000 visitors a year. Now, worn and tarnished, the once clean, white lines essential to modernism no longer carry the necessary air of dynamic self-assurance.

It is not only the detailing which is at fault. It is a remarkable achievement to have made such a small space so confusing. To the uninitiated, a gallery so wearisome to explore might suggest similar qualities in the art it promotes. But the malaise runs deeper still.

At the time of the gallery's opening, the architects were hailed as having created a building that both reflected the gentle modernism of the St Ives artists and blended into the townscape. In retrospect, however, their design is merely a pastiche of the1930s Constructivist dream: a mannered hybrid of the De la Warr Pavilion and Whipsnade Zoo. Its imitative tweeness combines with the mediocrity of too many of the works on view and the various misguided attempts at spoon-fed interpretation, to se t up the very art it should promote to the assaults of those critics who have long characterised St Ives as a poor imitation of the "real thing", of international modernism and Abstract Impressionism.

Such criticism feeds off the sort of academic confusion evinced in the museum's permanent displays and typified by the incomprehensible display in the two galleries that inevitably round off a visit. Organised neither chronologically nor by discernible theme, these are introduced rather with pretentious titles which leave the viewer no clearer as to the significance of the art they contain.

The explanatory text writ large in the room devoted to "Myth, Narrative and Subject" concentrates mainly on Alan Davie - but fails to explain why his painting here is accompanied by one of William Scott's least impressive still-lifes and a second-rate Paul Feiler of St Buryan, or why one of Nicholson's 1950s Italian works should be hung alongside Lanyon's sublime Porthleven and a dreadful Karl Weschke. And I am still perplexed as to why Gallery Five should be entitled "In the Studio". Its works, we aretold - among them a huge Terry Frost triptych, a pre-St Ives Nicholson and Heron's important Horizontal Stripe painting of November 1957 (its international significance unexplained) - "show the interest of artists in pure form and colour as means of expr ession".

If they are to be used, such explanatory captions must explain. Here they are merely inconsequential pointers to the attitude of "muddling through" which appears to inform all of the museum's methodology.

The Tate St Ives must be more than a mere depository for the unique art in that town from the 1930s to the 1960s. St Ives art exhibits a potentially bewildering quality and diversity and it is the job of the gallery to place this in more than purely geographical context. There is more to the St Ives tradition than good views and a clear light.

If it is not to belittle the art it is intended to celebrate, this gallery must be a treasure house whose means of display and wealth of first-rate exhibits can rival America's finest. It is said that there is only room here for some 70 paintings, and a t present there seem to be even fewer than this. But if some of the remaining wall space were hung with paintings, and more of the vacant rooms turned over to sculpture, the number of works on view would be doubled. With the eye continuously engaged, perh aps the tiresome perambulation and tawdry decoration would be forgotten. With the Tate's extensive holdings, this would not be impossible.

Until such action is taken, however, what should be the flagship of historic British abstraction will remain a timid, quaint embarrassment.