Euston Road: it's slow but worth the wait

Two leading British artists have new exhibitions in the West End. David Hockney is the more famous, but it was Euan Uglow's show that sold out immediately. For he is the better painter
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Euan Uglow's paintings give me a feeling of satisfaction that I don't get from the numerous other artists who resemble him in technique and attitude and share his background in rather sedentary art schools. His show at Browse & Darby suggests that Uglow is a unique character who is never equalled in his chosen style. Obviously quite a number of people are of this opinion, for the exhibition has been a popular success and also sold out within a week of its opening. All this is nice for everyone concerned. Yet a mystery remains. Since their paintings are so alike, why is Uglow obviously better than the other survivors of the Euston Road tradition?

I think it's because he's such an abstract painter. Uglow probably won't thank me for saying this, since he's a dogmatist about realism and painting from life. But modern art sometimes produces painters who have a need to work from the model and who are figurative artists yet produce canvases whose tone is that of abstraction. Just think of Matisse. Not that Uglow has anything also in common with the French master. I guess he mainly likes central Italian art of the 15th and early 16th centuries. Modernism as a whole has meant little to him, though he's not a reactionary or a revivalist. Uglow's achievement has been to make good paintings from an utterly provincial background. Hence the impression that they are out of time and have little to do with the concerns of our day - or any hopes for the future, since Uglow does not develop, but addresses the same tasks over and over again.

The static heritage of Uglow's painting is as follows. In 1957 William Coldstream (with Claude Rogers, Graham Bell and Victor Pasmore) founded the Euston Road School. It was a little private academy; but quite shortly - and then for long afterwards - its principles would command obedience at the Slade and at Camberwell School of Art, the institutions where Uglow grew up. Coldstream, a man of the left-wing Thirties, thought that modern art had become detached from the real world. He was briefly interested in film-making and the sociological experiment of Mass Observation. In his art teaching he advocated a painstaking realism, dozens or even hundreds of sittings before any subject, and a way of plotting the location of planes by little marks which remain on the completed canvas. Such marks are still found in Uglow's paintings a full half century later.

For Uglow is Coldstream's child. He is more robust than his old teacher, a more definite colourist, and gifted with an even greater power of concentration. None the less his painting belongs also to the older man. Uglow studied under Coldstream at Camberwell and the Slade from 1948 to 1954 (surely quite a long time in a young artist's life), and he seems to have had no other example before him, then or since. If I detect an abstract quality in his paintings - which I do not in Coldstream's - it does not come from the influence of any other artist. The sense of the abstract has more to do with the capacity for meditation in the studio, far away from the distractions of modern life. Paradoxically, Coldstream's concern for a non-modern art that would address the people has resulted in paintings of ghostly privacy.

The pictures at Browse & Darby are, as usual, nudes and still-lifes of fruit and flowers. There's also a skull and a strange depiction of an ox tongue. The few drawings are disturbingly crabbed. Quite a proportion of the paintings are quite small. One might expect Uglow to be more of a muralist. His flatness, his palette and dry brushwork point in the direction of wall decorations. However, an expansive painting would not allow him to pore over the magic distance between subject and easel. The space that separates the thing or person seen and its depiction on canvas is a theme of these paintings. Uglow avoids landscapes. The genre is too airy. What he likes is to feel comparatively intimate space and make it palpable by means of his pigment.

Uglow also relishes very solid forms, even if the results transgress the rules of the life class. Pyramid has its title because the shape of the body has been made pyramidal. The model's left leg looks all wrong, but only at first. Gradually one sees that it belongs to the picture more than to the model. The women who pose for Uglow are said to have a demanding time. It is true that the nudes and portraits show little human sympathy. The artist is in pursuit of something else. Here, one thinks, is a dedicated and lonely man. All those hours at the easel every day, and he produces only two paintings a year.This is why his touch, whether with brush or palette knife, seems so carefully and preciously weighed.

Uglow is a more dedicated and a better painter than David Hockney, whose much heralded exhibition is at the Annely Juda Gallery. It's a sadness of our times that the wrong artists become famous, and all the sadder because renown does them so much harm. Famous artists need self-knowledge more than most people. Hockney has been so unwise as to announce that his recent flower paintings are a response to the great Vermeer exhibition at The Hague last year. The results are better than I expected, but are still the work of a minor artist. Take away the hype, and it's clear that Hockney's real level of inspiration is about the same as that seen in the average Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, where this new work would look at home.

However, Hockney does not like to show side by side with other artists. He is isolated - living in Los Angeles - from his British contemporaries and indeed from all real art life. Direct comparisons with other painters would emphasise how flimsy are his credentials. Here, he has devised a weird installation: two long rows of portraits of friends, close together, all the same size and all of them unframed. I do not see what point is being made. In any case, Hockney's talents as a portraitist always come out better in pen or pencil. An illustrator at heart, he has seldom been confident when making a traditional, well-crafted oil painting. The flower pieces have an occasional charm, but taken as a whole they are a superficial exercise. The contrast with Uglow is enescapable. Charm is the last thing we expect from any Euston Roader, but painters of that persuasion do give us the impression of serious thought and painterly craftsmanship. Hockney's flowers might have been better if he had simply taken longer to paint them, and if we could feel that they were in front of him when he was at work. Hockney is an opponent of abstract art and a champion of realism. Strange, then, that neither his portraits nor his flowers feel as if they were painted from life.

Euan Uglow: Browse & Darby, W1 (0171 734 7984), to 7 June. David Hockney: Annely Juda Fine Art, W1 (0171 629 7578), to 19 July.

Time, gentlemen, time: Euan Uglow takes a year or two to produce a painting like `Pyramid' (1994-96). If only Hockney had taken as long to paint his flowers

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