Iain Gale on exhibitions

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The Independent Culture
Whoever came up with the idea that children are innocent? Anyone still to be disabused of this notion should hurry to catch Anna Gardiner's recent paintings at Art First. Gardiner paints little girls. They are not the angel-faced darlings of Victorian imagery. Nor are they the worrying prepubescents of Balthus. These girls are the real thing - sensitive studies of individuals and groups which tell us more about the essence of childhood than any photograph. They are, in their honesty, the contemporary equivalent of Velzquez's infantas.

What is most surprising about these pictures is that they are not in fact portraits but wholly imaginative creations - the creatures who inhabit the artist's mind, or the fruits of observation. "I look at people," she says, "and wonder what they might have looked like as a child... it's the look." Often, they might be hybrids - made up of a number of the artist's friends, not necessarily children. Always, they are compelling, staring out from the canvas in the isolation of growing up, or talking among themselves in groups of two or three - experimenting with the bitter-sweet beginnings of human relationships.

The truth, though, is that, while we necessarily contrive to read into their minds adult emotions and responses, in the stark reality of Gardiner's paintings we must face up to exactly what these children are. They are no more than ourselves, living through an experience which, no matter how hard we try, we can never recapture.

Art First, 9 Cork Street, London W1 to 9 May