Public View 3: A Single Moment

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The Independent Culture
On the back of a contemporary-art magazine is a whole-page illustration advertising a show of recent painting by Peter Joseph at the Lisson. It's a wonderful picture.

A man is walking up a country road, away from the viewer. He's walking out of darkness and shadow towards a huge light blue sky, guided on either side by grass, hedge and trees. The dark torso is the focal point of the picture, blocking the point at which the road disappears over the horizon. Head in the sky, feet on the ground.

There's something French about the depiction of the figure and the vegetation: a Millet worker, drab but dignified, walking to work, perhaps. But the scene is too realistically portrayed for that. The picture could be pre- Millet and pre-industrial. But I assume it's a contemporary painting by Peter Joseph.

Why do I like it so much? On the one hand, the figure could be walking anywhere in Northern Europe in the last 300 years. On the other, something else to do with time ... The man has been walking long enough to leave the troubles of the day behind him, but not for long enough to become tired. Suddenly he's aware of the ground underneath him and the sky all around. Suddenly - it comes to him as one foot lands and the other lifts - he's aware that he's in the middle of his life, and what a miracle that is. To be walking along a country road, a healthy, happy human in the midst of life ... What do the other paintings in the show depict? I really must go along to the Lisson.

I sit down on a step in the spacious and light-filled gallery, wrong- footed and confused. Each painting is abstract: a rectangle of colour within which is a rectangle of a second colour. A green patch within blue, for example. Acrylic has been applied to cotton duck. The colours - both the inner and the outer - have the tone and texture of stonewashed jeans. Darkness comes and goes within the colour fields, seductively. My eye begins to make diagonal lines between the corners of the canvas and the corners of the inner rectangle. And if these lines were to continue they'd meet in a point in the centre of the picture ... But I'm not really on for being seduced by this work. I still want to know about the other image.

At reception I ask about the ad in frieze. Apparently, it is a photograph of Peter Joseph taken by a friend of the artist. "Oh, right," I say, sheepishly accepting a press release: "Peter Joseph has been working progressively in a self-imposed state of solitude and comparative silence for more than 30 years ... He has lived for the last 12 years in an isolated hamlet in Gloucestershire with the conditions of contemplation and focus that he has increasingly sought as a background to making his remarkable work ..."

A visitor to the show sidles up to the desk and asks the prices of the paintings. "Sixteen thousand each, except the two smaller pictures in the ground-floor front room which are pounds 15,000," is the discreetly spoken answer. The list of works confirms that most of the paintings are 141.7 x 150.8cm, whereas the two in portrait format are 141.5 x 132.7cm. It surprises me that such paintings are sold by the yard, since materials are a relatively small cost and they don't take long to produce (nine of the 13 pictures were painted in the last three months), and the collector is surely buying the distilled wisdom and vision of 30 years of mental discipline. But no matter. On the back of the private-view card is a letter written in 1989 by the artist from his cottage in Gloucestershire to a couple in France. The letter is about his work and concludes, "This ultimately is reality to me, a single moment understood that is free from time."

A figure walking along a country lane. The man has been walking long enough to forget about the large cheque in his pocket, but not for long enough to worry about where the next one is coming from. Suddenly he's aware of the ground underneath and the sky all around. Suddenly - it comes to him between one foot alighting and the other lifting - he's aware that he's entering a late stage of life, but is still very much alive. To be walking along a country road, still very much alive! He bends down and kisses the earth.

Peter Joseph: Lisson Gallery, NW1 (0171 724 2739), to 17 October.

'Personal Delivery', Duncan McLaren's book on contemporary art, is out now from Quartet (pounds 12).

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