Sandwich board

VISUAL ARTS Patrick Caulfield Waddington Galleries, London
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The Independent Culture
Some years ago, the purchasing committee of the Government Art Collection bought a still life by Patrick Caulfield and sent it to be hung in the British Embassy in Riyadh. Soon afterwards, the ambassador's wife rang up to complain about this apparently innocuous little picture. The problem, she explained in a polite but steely tone of voice, lay in the sandwich placed so prominently on the plate in the middle of the painting. The problem, to be absolutely precise, lay inside the sandwich. The meat which it contained was evidently ham. Was no one in London aware that Islamic law prohibited the eating of pork? What possessed them to send such a picture to Saudi Arabia? Did they have any idea of the offence that it might cause? Needless to say, the ambassador's wife could not think of having it on the Embassy wall.

The telephone call produced some consternation in London. A still-life painting had never caused a diplomatic incident before, and there were no existing protocols for dealing with such a situation. The title of the picture in question did not specify the type of sandwich depicted therein. A telephone call was made to the artist himself. He pointed out that given the illusory nature of the sandwich in question, it was rather difficult for him to be precise - but, were he forced to give his opinion, the visible sliver of meat protruding from the bread resembled beef, not ham. For the sake of a quiet life he was even prepared to state categorically that it was, indeed, a beef sandwich. Consternation gave way to relief. A telephone call was made to Riyadh.

However, the ambassador's wife was still not appeased. As far as she was concerned the sandwich at issue still looked like a ham sandwich, no matter what the artist said. The picture would have to be returned to London, to be exchanged or altered. Might the artist consider, perhaps, painting the meat out altogether? A painting of a tomato sandwich - now that would be perfectly acceptable. London, sighing, made another call to the artist. But no, as London suspected, repainting the ham (or should that have been beef?) as tomato was not on. The artist declined to doctor his work, and that is why the designated spot on the designated wall in the British Ambassador's residence in Saudi Arabia remains empty to this day.

The story tells us as much, perhaps, about Patrick Caulfield as it does about the sensitivities of the Islamic world or the ways of Englishwomen formidable enough to marry into the Foreign Office. Those of us (and we are a growing band) who consider him to be one of the finest painters at work in the world today will always feel, even if we have never seen it, that there must have been something else about that painting - some other subtle quality, within it, of things gone awry - that so disturbed the ambassador's wife that she felt impelled to reject it.

There is no ham and there are no sandwiches in any of Patrick Caulfield's new paintings, currently on display at Waddington Galleries. But there are three splendid and unmistakably beefy beefsteaks, painted with irreproachable fidelity, which preside over the enigmatic and somehow chapel-like interior he calls Hedone's: a veritable Trinity of choice cuts, veined with fat, decorated with parsley and smelling strongly of mortality. There is plenty of other evidence here, besides, of Caulfield's continuing gift, aged 61, to unsettle the eye and mind.

His favoured milieu is the interior, but nothing too stylish: ordinary offices, cheapish restaurants, hotel lobbies; and no one has ever painted the English pub as he has done - with the same dedication and the same ineluctable sense of how mysterious ordinary things, seen in a certain light, can appear, that the Cubists brought to the painting of the Parisian cafe. Drink is plainly a preoccupation. The wine glass seen dead centre of Happy Hour contains a whole world of promise and peculiarity. Occupying an impossible interior otherwise painted in the schematic register of cartoon or diagram, it alone has been painted as faithfully as the mirror in Van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding, and, like that mirror, it contains in microcosm the tantalising convex reflection of what cannot be in the painting itself because (logically speaking) it ought to be behind you. But the effect is made odder than ever in Caulfield's picture because nothing except the wine glass is painted in a remotely illusionistic manner, so the illusion within its tiny bowl is both doubly remote and doubly enticing.

Caulfield was once asked why he adopted such tactics, why he took such pleasure in frustrating and baffling his audience. His reply was magnificent in its terseness: "Because life is like that." He is a slower painter than ever (the half dozen or so paintings now on display in Cork Street took him the best part of four years to complete) but the standards he has set himself are exacting and he has compensated for his slowness this time by presenting us with nothing but masterpieces. There is a powerful morbidity at work in these paintings as well as a sense of flourish (it might be happy hour, but there's a sign marked "Exit" on the wall). They are like curtain calls, in that respect. As Marco Livingstone writes, of the picture Rust Never Sleeps, in the excellent catalogue to the exhibition: "Objects seem to disappear into the shadows, swallowed up into the darkness; a single table leg steps gingerly into the red spotlight like a reluctant chorus girl nervous about revealing her age." One day (and let us hope it is sooner rather than later) Patrick Caulfield will be recognised as one of the very few indubitably great painters of the late 20th century.

Waddington Galleries, London W1 (0171-437 8611) to 26 Apr