Visual Arts: The trouble with keeping it in the family

The new season at the St Ives Tate highlights the work of the local artists' colony. But does it stand up to scrutiny?

THE MILLIONTH visitor will soon walk through the front entrance of the St Ives Tate Gallery, which opened in 1993. The portals gape like the jaw of a white whale stranded on the diminutive seaside town's dreary, western spa front. Many love the experience within, but plenty find it disappointing. It's easy to sympathise.

For the next six months, the spaces are mostly devoted to the theme, "Partnerships and Practice", and especially to accounts of the connections the St Ives artists' colony had with Dartington Hall, and Corsham Court, near Bath. So we have Bernard Leach pots and nearby, Cecil Collins paintings, the latter visionary and mystical, a touch of Graham Sutherland here and of Chagall there, and much-loved by their smallish band of devotees.

And then, bringing the theme up to date, there are - risibly - some halves of some sort of prickly fruit executed in black rubber by Veronica Ryan who has had a summer residence at St Ives and rests her pieces on indentations she has carved in marble left in her studio by Barbara Hepworth.

Rachel Nicholson is Hepworth's daughter by perhaps the most important St Ives "modern", Ben Nicholson, and is exhibiting some quite pretty paintings of views from the gallery's cafe. They are, unfortunately, so derivative of her father's work that this looks like an eerily constrained family business. It's also best to pass over "English Roots", the pieces by Eric Cameron, such as a cooked lobster coated in 3,000 layers of paint applied over many years. Mayonnaise would have made more sense.

I can never see in Leach's pottery anything better than the duller stuff in John Lewis's kitchen department. There seems something absurd about revering so slight a creative enterprise. There is nothing, for instance, of the excitement and charm of the Picasso plates and pots at the Royal Academy in London. Leach cannot begin to fill the big corridor-gallery he's given; Picasso can dominate room after room.

There are some lovely things in the St Ives Tate, and it is true that the spell Cornwall casts is reflected and reinforced by the best of the work it inspired and inspires. The vast Patrick Heron window which dominates a foyer is, if possible, more silly than the multi-storey windbreak in London's Victoria, run up to a design of his. But upstairs, he has a lovely painting which makes up for it all. Terry Frost, a current and long-standing St Ives figure who taught at Corsham, is at least vigorously vibrant. His slightly younger colleague there, Trevor Bell, achieves rather more by working less hard.

But it's still a relief to return to the gallery which links the artists' colony of the 1880s with that of the 1930s and after, say in the muscular and luminous work of John Park (1880-1962), or of Alfred Wallis (1855- 1942), one of a handful of genuinely local men who painted, and whose work is "primitive" but creative and visionary, too. To do so reminds one that this is a building which doesn't deliver the great and grand offerings it seems to advertise, but has plenty of charming and refreshing things for all that.

`Partnerships and Practice', Tate Gallery, St Ives, Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, until 11 April 1999 (01736 796543). `Picasso: Painter and Sculptor in Clay', Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London, until 16 December, 0171-439 4996

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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