Visual Arts; In the beginning was the word

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

TOKO SHINODA is an 85-year-old abstract painter, very famous at home in Japan, well enough known in America, but almost completely unheard of here. It is a travesty which the Annely Juda are seeking to put right with a first ever British exhibition of her work. She was born in North- east China in 1913, moved to Tokyo a year later and began to study the ancient art of calligraphy at the age of five.

By the time she was 40, Shinoda was renowned as one of the country's finest calligraphers but soon began to turn her attention to the broader brush of abstract art.

To a western eye, the shapes and patterns of Japanese calligraphy are not so far removed from the gestural marks of abstract painting, and so Shinoda's shift from one to the other is easy to understand.

It was a transition cemented in the mid 1950s when she lived, briefly, in New York and in the 1960s when she showed her work at the Betty Parsons Gallery - hotbed of American abstraction and home to the likes of Reinhardt, Pollock and Newman.

Not that Shinoda ever abandoned calligraphy entirely; she still works with brush and ink in a minimal palette of black and red (the colours ground from sumi and cinnabar), with white and silver, and sometimes her marks take the shape of a written character.

Most of her pictures, however, are made of formal, well organised blocks of colour tied seemingly to an eastern meditative tradition, but also to a world of real things: her lines recalling the shape of reeds blown in the wind or Shinto ribbons on an altar table. It's a beautiful exhibition: elegant, contemplative and very, very composed - clear evidence that Shinoda is one of the world's most senior abstract artists.

Downstairs in the same gallery there's another show of work by an elderly female painter who deserves to be better known. Prunella Clough is familiar enough in Britain, but she has never quite found the reputation that she deserves further afield. The reasons are simple enough - she has always refused to play the art world's games of self advancement, resisting retrospective exhibitions, preferring instead to concentrate on recent work. Also, she has always insisted that dealers keep her work affordable, so while the price of early works creeps ever upward at auction, the new work is still remarkably cheap. This ought to make her more widely collected and so better known but, sadly, in this society the reverse seems to be true.

This show of works on paper from 1946 to the present day is probably as close to a retrospective as we'll get while Clough is alive, and it makes a neat pairing with the Shinoda exhibition. It is not, though, a show to establish Clough's wider reputation. The standard is patchy and much of what's there looks scrappy, hung cheek-by-jowl like the pickings from a raided studio.

That said, there are a few gems such as Unforeseen Event - a collage made from bookbinder's end paper. There are also signs of the consistency and continuity that makes her such an admirable artist. The earliest work here, a little chalk drawing, Breakwater from 1946, hangs happily next to an Industrial Study from the 1970s. It's hard to believe that she's been making work of this quality for over 50 years.