Painting himself out of a corner

His fogyish reworkings of Degas never earned Stephen Conroy the street cred of his acerbic Glaswegian peers. Now, says Iain Gale, he has found his voice
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The Independent Culture
The catalogue photograph says it all - the artist fixes the viewer with a cool stare. Don't be surprised if you detect a hint of accusation: three years ago, when Stephen Conroy last showed his paintings, the critical establishment was less than generous. The most memorable of many headlines read simply: "Can he paint?". For a young prodigy accustomed to adulation it was devastating - and it explains, in part, Conroy's decision to hold this, only his third exhibition, in New York rather than London. What is harder to explain is the fundamental change in style.

In previous photos, Conroy was shown, head only, in grainy, blurred close- up - the Artist as a Young Genius, eyes lowered, the better to contemplate The Struggle. Now he is transformed, full-length, gazing straight at the viewer, like one of the moon-faced clerks in his own paintings. The irony is that one of the most immediate differences in the new work is the lack of that stare. Gone are the men in suits and groups of conspiratorial young fogeys. Instead we have single-figure paintings of a disturbing intensity, carried off with impressive and unexpected bravura. While the artist has raised his eyes, those of his subjects are now downcast, or lost entirely in tenebrous bands of deep shadow.

Conroy has always favoured a confrontational stylisation, drawing the viewer in with simple devices borrowed from Degas, to whom he was compared ad nauseam. Now, however, our engagement with the work is less direct, the mystery less contrived. One of his mistakes in 1992 was to attempt an exaggerated, Caravaggio-esque chiaroscuro which proved merely embarrassing. Now he has abandoned this mannered approach in favour of a greater realism, moving from high-life to low-life with deceptive ease.

Overnight, it seems, Degas has metamorphosed into Sickert. Conroy has learnt at last that there is no need for blatant gesture or complex narrative; no need for pretentious mementos mori or enigmatic titles; no need even to specify location. Caf and concert hall have given way to an anonymous and spatially ambiguous backdrop, fixed between two broad verticals. The effect of these sidebars has been to elongate the image. The canvas size has not changed but the part of it on which we focus has become reduced to half its former size. Often, too, the effect has been to make the paintings appear like single frames of a reel of film which, in turn, emphasises the character of the new protagonists.

The bottle-glass-bespectacled clerks have been replaced by square-built men in long coats, baseball caps and bandana handkerchiefs - philosopher- bandits, graduates of the James Dean school of attitude. This affiliation with the silver screen is further emphasised by the nebulous aura in which the artist envelopes his figures, creating a sense of physical and emotional detachment from the real world.

The theme of these works is concealment. Conroy catches his characters as they make a furtive entrance, their faces hidden in bandanas, or turned to the wall. Undoubtedly his critics will portray all this as evidence of the artist's own timidity, or a deliberate attempt to woo back detractors with a use of the sort of deconstructed figuration which characterises the most banal post-modern figuration. Certainly Conroy is aware of such devices, but these changes come from the heart. These are self-assured paintings by an artist who has finally discovered his true direction.

The recent exhibition in Glasgow of the Kasen-Summer collection demonstrated once again the high esteem in which US collectors hold young British painters. The real importance of Conroy's new work lies not just in its quality (yes, he can paint), nor in the fact that most of the paintings had sold within an hour of the opening, but as a reminder that if we are not to miss out in future on our own, prodigious, native talent, we must simply learn to recognise good art when we see it.

n Stephen Conroy is at Marlborough Galleries, 40 West 57th Street, New York to 29 April

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