Visual Arts: Fragments of time, preserved as if in amber

The works of Charles Christopher Hill, painstakingly built up over many months, have a unique, shimmering playfulness.
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"TOUCH THE paintings," urges Charles Christopher Hill. "Use the palm of your hand," he says, sweeping his own across a canvas. The surface is super smooth, the result of more than a hundred layers of acrylic paint and varnish, and undulates over the build-up of paint. "I can wash them," he reassures, "and the varnish is so hard you can run your fingernails over it."

The painting in question is Claudio (1999) a huge black spiral that pulls you into its centre, set against the creamy white of the multi-layered varnish. With five to 10 layers of varnish between each coloured spiral - roughly painted one on top of the other - the eye is drawn in ever deeper; the painting's murky history there for all to see.

Hill, 51, took his inspiration for this work and his other spirals from Claude Mellan's portrait The Sudarium, a 17th-century engraving made up of one continual spiral which works its way out from the end of Christ's nose. But don't bother searching for any facial features here - Hill's spirals are not actual portraits, but are simply named on the day of their signing after friends, acquaintances and sometimes television personalities.

Stripes are another favourite of Hill's. Groups of vertical or horizontal lines that positively dance across the canvas, Bridget Riley style. Blink all you like, the stripes will not stay still - the rough edges of the many visible layers only adding to the sense of movement. These hark back to Marcel Duchamp's 3 Stoppages Etalon, where three threads were dropped from a height on to canvas and then attached where they fell. The optical effect was an unexpected extra that Hill says he is now trying to get away from by spacing his lines further apart.

All these works are deceptively simple at first glance. But the strong, satisfyingly balanced compositions draw you in close, revealing the waxen surface, the soothing, dreamy depth of the varnish and the flecks of colours left over from the underlying layers.

"I have used the same palette, but on different paintings it looks completely different, which must be something to do with the way the colour is refracted and reflected with the varnish."

California-based Hill has always worked with layers. His early works consisted of patchworks of coloured paper, newsprint, and cloth all sewn together one on top of the other. These he buried under a pile of compost for that authentic distressed look, the final works resembling exquisite, faded abstract tapestries. An exhibition of African textiles at the Dapper Museum in Paris, led Hill to include the strong, black bands of Kuba cloth from Zaire - a form that he has progressively reduced to produce today's stripes.

Hill is not only fascinated with layers, but also with the time that such a technique necessitates. Paintings can take up to 14 months to complete, as each layer has to be left to dry before work can carry on. "It only takes half an hour to varnish," says Hill, "so I work on about eight large and four small canvases at a time."

The result of this long gestation, he explains, is that each painting has "a sort of story".

"Every painting has its own history. It's my diary. If I lean over and lose an eyelash, I will find it later. It's like amber."

Charles Christopher Hill, the Rocket Gallery, 13 Old Burlington Street, London W1 (0171 434 3043), until 30 October