Exhibition: Now that's what I call painting

Small is Beautiful Flowers East, E8
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The Independent Culture
The annual "Small is Beautiful" event at Flowers East is popular with punters and artists alike. This year, no fewer than 160 artists responded to the Flowers invitation to contribute, and they make up a diverting and occasionally moving Christmas show. I wish more sculptors had sent work, but no doubt they found it difficult to respond to the theme of the exhibition, which is "Music". There are one or two sub-Cubist guitars, an inexplicable box by Paul Neagu, a nice little model of street musicians by Sokari Douglas Camp and a collage of metal and other materials by Emily Mayer. This last piece hangs on the wall, so is nearly a painting.

Historically speaking, it's quite difficult to think of any sculptures definitely influenced by music, though of course we know of plenty of representations of dancing girls, especially in the later 19th century. I wish Anthony Caro had given something to the Flowers show. Lyricism in his sculpture is surely connected to a love of music. In fact he may be the most musical sculptor of all time. I know that he likes to work to the sound of Mozart. So do many other people. Curious to reflect that artists' lives have changed since the invention of the radio. There must be a little music-box in every studio these days, and I don't know any artist at all who prefers to work in silence, though such people must exist.

Anyway, links between music and painting are clearer than those between music and sculpture. In earlier modern art there was lots of theorising about abstraction in painting as a form of visual music. There aren't many theorists in "Small is Beautiful", but we do get a sense that music is a private intellectual love, much pondered over and listened to time and again. And this may also be the consequence of playing favourite tapes in the lonely circumstances of the studio. Perhaps fancifully, I hear such tapes in the reflective, somewhat obsessional abstraction of, among others, James Hugonin and Noel Forster.

Not coincidentally, Forster is one of those artists who is also a fine instrumentalist. He plays the piano. Another painter-musician is John Loker. For two hours a day the lovely meditations of a violin issue from his studio. Yet I am not sure that a passion for music makes a difference to his painting. When you're an instrumentalist and you practise, surely you exercise self-criticism in obedience to a quite separate aesthetic discipline; while in visual art, if the truth be told, people shuffle around and improvise with messy materials, and push on in various unregulated ways until they see what's coming out, and whether there's anything good in it.

Such things are mysteries of the studio. My guess is that Loker's painting owes more to a recent visit to Australia than to his devotion to Euterpe, the muse of music. In classical art, she is depicted as a young woman dressed in flowers and is credited with the invention of the flute. What a darling, and what an emblem for Flowers East. But back to Loker the fiddler. He's simply put a musical title to his picture. So do others. Tory Lawrence contributes a picture of the sea. It's quite evidently of the sea and of nothing else. But she titles it La Mer to bring her painterly art within Euterpe's compass.

Given their theme, which by its nature is invisible, how are painters to respond? Some play a variant on the motifs of the stave and the treble and bass clefs. Sandra Blow does so with a thin maroon-brown acrylic, a colour that makes one think of ancient manuscripts. As so often with Blow, the picture looks queer and lop-sided at first, then settles down in contentment with its own lack of rules. At heart she's an anarchist, like other women artists - Gillian Ayres and Prunella Clough among them - who found their independence in the years just after the war.

Ayres's painting is completely unabashed and boisterous. These characteristics are connected to her free use of yellow, that dangerous, unmanageable colour. Is there a more yellow painter in the world? I think not. The Ayres picture is one of the few in the show which suggests dance. For her, Euterpe is an energetic goddess, while most of the other abstract artists apparently think of music as an aid to contemplation.

Of the abstractionists, it is good to see paintings from Richard Allen, Stephen Buckley, Rosa Lee, Sean McCracken, Sally Musgrove, and Carol Robertson. Clyde Hopkins's picture, dense and softly-touched, looks like a return to his best form. But the back of the stretcher reveals its date to be 1992-3. The oldest painting in the exhibition is from 1961, and has been sent by Bernard Cohen. It's none the less fresh, and could be taken for the work of a youngish painter of 1998. Speaking of young painters (and there aren't enough of them in this show) I was impressed by Donald Smith and David Ryan, both new to me.

For some years now, John McLean's paintings have given the impression of a voice lifted in song. This is a rare and exquisite quality. It is not a gift. McLean has worked for his musicality, however effortless it looks. By "work", I mean many hours in the studio and in study of fine art. I'm also convinced that McLean owes something to his other favourite art form, which is Lieder. Someone ought to give him a studio in the Wigmore Hall. I reproduce his An die Musik not only for its neatness and elevation, but also because it feels like Christmas, a time when we all sing together.

Yonder peasant, who is he? 'Pon my soul, it's old Jeff Nuttall. An age has passed since we last saw the once celebrated author of Bomb Culture in an art gallery. Nuttall's picture of old, gnarled hands running up and down the piano keys remind us of his background in revivalist jazz. Stylistically, Nuttall's drawing might come from the graphics on 12-inch record sleeves of the later 1950s. He's a traditionalist. So is Conroy Maddox (born 1912), our oldest joined-up surrealist, whose collage ingeniously abuses nuns, a theme of his art since the 1930s. I thought that modern times had marginalised nuns, but Maddox will keep poking at them for ever and a day.

I liked other interpretations of music by Colin Cina, Emma Douglas, Sheila Girling, Tess Jaray, Mali Morris and Ian Tyson. They are all to be interpreted as highbrows, both in musical and artistic terms. A lesson of this year's "Small is Beautiful" is that Euterpe declines to rule over the current disco scene. These artists spend their lives trying to do genuine art, so naturally incline towards good music rather than the false excitements of popular rock.

'Small is Beautiful': Flowers East Gallery, E8 (0181 985 3333), to 24 January.

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