Light fantastic

Hot, angry reds contrast with shrill greenish-whites, trapped within a painted frame. Howard Hodgkin's art is decorative and sensuous yet mind-stretching. And he's getting better all the time.

The work-in-progress show at the Hayward Gallery of paintings by Howard Hodgkin from the past 20 years offers an intensely enjoyable and engrossing experience in these bleak winter months. Hodgkin's work instantly draws you into the actual physical substance, the business, the manipulation of painting. He achieves this through the sheer physical impact and the brilliant immediacy of each painting. Before you begin to wonder about content or what's going on in real, recognisable terms, you are electrifyingly aware of broad areas of blazing or smouldering red, a deep moody blue or a luminously verdant green practically hitting you from the wall. Simultaneously you're aware of a passionately decisive welter of big, slashed brush-strokes, luscious but alert and bristling in their intensity.

Like the smile of the Cheshire cat in Alice, a generalised light-drenched mood seems to be transmitted from most of the paintings. It's a sophisticatedly bucolic mood, at once buoyant and elegiac, registered in a sequence of sharply focused images trapped like glowing vignettes in broadly painted frames which sometimes enter the action of the centrally contained images. And it is at the precise moment when you start to wonder about content that Hodgkin's paintings begin to work in two or more ways and confront us with a number of paradoxes.

There is a consistently edgy tension in Hodgkin's work between what is offered to us and what is withheld. Simple, bald titles promise one thing but the abstract images deliver something far beyond and behind those labels. It's rather as if a stranger in a crowded room were suddenly to give powerful voice to intimate disclosures and then abruptly retreat in pointed silence. Hodgkin's abstract paintings in content are introverted, intimate and circumstantial in detail and overall structure, and yet strongly extrovert, almost brash, in the way that this content is handled in presentation - like a shy person dressed in attention-grabbing, gaudy clothes. At one level, we have a pleasurable push-pull of tension between intimate content and bravura handling; at another level, there is the understandable puzzlement felt by many gallery-goers when the title tells them that the painting in front of them is called Patrick in Italy or In Bed in Venice and they can see only slabs and blobs of bright colour.

None of this bothers me as an early admirer of Hodgkin's work: I love his paintings on their own oblique terms, which touch on so many positive attributes of modernity in this century from the interior intimacies of Vuillard to the extrovert simplifications of Leger. Hodgkin is, of course, painting essences, memories and feelings about places, situations and visual events: a very hard thing to do within loaded and consequential abstract terms that also seek the freshness and directness of a sketch.

Robert Motherwell once told me that he didn't respond to some contemporary art because it was concerned with sensation - this was back in the Seventies - and he was preoccupied as a painter with feeling. I'm sure that Hodgkin is also primarily concerned with feeling but he is very good at conveying in robust visual terms elusive nuances of sensation, distilled and finally abstract, but palpably there, in the painting, in the glaring heat of midsummer, the veiled light of an interior, the wetness of a garden on a rainy day. These abstract paintings, then, take as their starting point, and finally embody through metamorphoses, a richly personal visual memory of tautly placed fragments of time and place, light and colour. But as Hodgkin has said, it's the idea of something or somebody, as well as what he sees, that's in his mind.

The tension between the intimacy and elusiveness of implied content and the almost swashbuckling bravura of handling and presentation, is strengthened by the dramatic way in which the central image of each painting is nearly always framed by brush-strokes which counterpoint or accentuate the actual frames with which Hodgkin encloses his paintings. Few of us can resist the pleasure of sneaking glances into a lighted interior as we pass by on a darkened street at night: somebody else's room, wallpaper and possessions, somebody else's life for a second. There's a similar sort of vicarious pleasure in looking at Hodgkin's paintings, which are not unlike a sequence of window views, alluringly focused and lit, mysterious, fragmentary and yet, in abstract terms, tightly composed and whole.

The impact is heightened, also, by a dramatic concern for the variable functions and properties of light. Hodgkin is something of a metteur en scene through the way in which he will contrast a hot, angry, sultry light of deep reds and dull crimson against a piercingly shrill cold, greenish- white light. This play with light seems appropriately dramatic for the way in which each scene is set up, composed and framed as in a theatrical proscenium. Hodgkin isn't obsessed with windows, nor is he a "theatrical" artist: his framing device is used as much to push the central action back in space as to isolate it; at other times, it is so fused in parts with the interior structure, that it becomes part of the formal design.

Hodgkin is among other things a gloriously decorative artist. In my vocabulary, the term decorative has no pejorative connotation, but exists as a vital attribute of any great art from Rubens to Matisse. At my suggestion, Hodgkin designed some beautiful sets and costumes for two dance works by Richard Alston for the Rambert Dance Company: Night Music in 1981, with music by Mozart, and Pulcinella in 1987, to Stravinsky's tenderly astringent score. More recently, he designed a ballet for Ashley Page staged by the Royal Ballet. In New York, there is a continually vibrant cross-fertilisation between music, dance and painting, witnessed in the Rauschenberg-Johns- Warhol-Cunningham collaborations, but in London the art world seems peculiarly isolated and Hodgkin's excellent work for theatre is not much known. The recent South Bank Show on Hodgkin showed us - with rather too many paintings for digestible assimilation - a superbly bracing and bold mural, a huge tree shape, recently designed for a new British Council building in India.

The Hodgkin show at the Hayward Gallery is also rather too crowded with paintings for total comfort: five or six works could have been removed to ease the space that Hodgkin's densely compacted images demand. There is a very long, straight line of small paintings which doesn't work in terms of presentation because their intimate scale is lost. But the unfairly maligned Hayward Gallery looks its elegant self again, stripped back to basic structure and free of the accretions of partition and screen which build up and destroy an interior's character over the years. The approach to the gallery and its forecourt remain disgracefully neglected.

I have always regarded Hodgkin's art as domestic in character, like the uxorious scenes of pastorales in the Indian miniatures which the artist collects. But, of course, many of the interiors or exteriors which, in recollection, prompt Hodgkin's imagination are quite formal and grand in scale and character, lending themselves to formal and grand paraphrase. And the scale of Hodgkin's paintings is increasing, with powerful presence. I don't equate size necessarily with virtue - Klee and Tobey made some of the most beautiful and original paintings of the century in very small format - but Hodgkin is plainly on the move, becoming even more impressive with time and age.

He is, of course, saying in these paintings something life-enhancing and directly connected with the great humanist tradition which we so often abuse or forget. If Hodgkin's work ever seems abstruse, we might recall the composer Ernest Bloch's observation that when we listen to music, we hear ourselves. When you look at a painting, you certainly also look at yourself. In Hodgkin's luxuriously cultivated art, you will find the warmest and most benignly mind-stretching stimulusn

Hayward Gallery, SBC, London, SE1 (0171-960 4242). To 23 Feb

`Turner in the North of England', reviewed last week, is at the Tate Gallery, London SW1 (0171-887 8000) to 9 Feb 1997, then at Harewood House, nr Leeds, from 15 March to 8 June 1997 (0113 2886331)

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