VISUAL ARTS: Darkness visible

John Virtue Jason & Rhodes, London
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The Independent Culture
John Virtue, whose "New Paintings" are on show at Jason & Rhodes in London, is what they call a painter's painter: a man of integrity whose long commitment to a singular way of working has earned the respect of his peers. According to the Jason & Rhodes visitors' book, both Frank Auerbach and Euan Uglow had been through the door shortly before my visit

He's an old friend of Auerbach's and one can see the connections - the search for an image in the paint - and, like Auerbach's, the results are often hard to read. They are pictures that reveal themselves at a distance, but slowly.

Looking at a Virtue landscape (he is exclusively a landscape painter) is a bit like waking up in the dark. At a glance one sees very little, but gradually the eye becomes accustomed to the blackness and forms appear - a bank of trees in the half-light, a church tower and the hump of a hill. They are pictures which shift and change: no two people will see them quite the same. It is a powerful, compelling quality.

He limits his palette to black and white with occasional smatterings of brown dirt, a limitation which contributes to the nocturnal air, yet they are not quite night pictures. They can't be pinned down so easily. Nor can one specify the weather, which is odd as it feels like a palpable part of the image - the illusion of snow one minute, and baked earth the next. The experience of the whole makes more sense than the sum of the parts.

For the last 10 years, he has worked exclusively at South Tawnton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, but although his subject and his colours are always the same, the results are very different. Until recently he worked by laying his unprimed canvas down in the field and attacking it with brushes, knives and garden sprays loaded with paint. The results are more black than white: dark, but not depressing, there's too much life in them for that and there's a sense of involvement that brings us closer to the business of picture-making than with any other artist that I can think of.

The most recent of these new paintings are more formal than in the past. Walking and drawing and the direct experience of landscape are still central to his way of working, but now the canvas is stretched and painted back in the studio. The mud has gone, as have his foot prints amid the paint, but the end results are as vigorous as ever.

Last March, Virtue moved his studio to Exeter and, with this exhibition, the South Tawnton series has finally come to an end. His pictures are deeply rooted in the place where they are made, and yet there is a sense in which that place could be anywhere; as he puts it, "You deal with the landscape in which you find yourself." We wait to see where the future takes him.

To 1 July. Jason & Rhodes, 4 New Burlington Place, London W1 (O171-434 1768)

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