Reviews: Joy of the new

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Indy Lifestyle Online
John McLean; Sarah Medway

Francis Graham Dixon Gallery; Lamont Gallery

The British seem to distrust abstract art. It can't be that we're still reeling from the shock of the new - the first experiments in abstraction were made nearly 90 years ago. It's probably because when we ask the question "what's it all about (Alfie)?" there's no easy answer in terms of subject matter. A good literary nation, as we're often told: we see with our ears. But abstract art, like any other, will communicate (if it's any good) to anyone who takes the risk of opening themselves to it. Try it: there are two excellent one-person shows on currently in London; one of work by John McLean work, the other of work by Sarah Medway.

McLean is a modernist of some standing, whose new work has both zest and a gentle grandeur. Because it is essential to protect works on paper like these, the images are glazed, and the various contrasts of texture between, for instance, shiny and matt, thick and thin, are slightly less evident than they might be. This may sound a small thing, but it is through such fine-tunings that these pictures operate. Vivacious yet calm, McLean's deliberately inexact quasi-geometric shapes have a rich organic presence. A triangle abuts an egg, a stylised sunburst contains a heart of darkness, things hover against one another. (A spiral, a chevron, a boomerang, a circle.) If you study the edges of the paper carefully, you'll get some idea of how this man works - what layers of colour are buried (the archaeology of the picture) beneath the surface you see. The result is seemingly effortless and supremely simple.

Perhaps some of us shy from abstraction because it acts like a mirror and throws us back upon ourselves, on our own responses, rather than diverting us with another human story. But then art should challenge; art, if it's worth anything, is difficult. It is, as Anthony Burgess once put it, "a static shimmer". Sarah Medway tries to paint that. In her latest pictures there is an evident leap of accomplishment. Within two years she has managed to make something which might have devolved into formula, instead into a surging resonant harmony. She works with shapes that trickle and deliquesce. Yet beneath the gorgeous and luxuriant foliage, there is a musical rigour.

In this show,a group of naturalistic drawings of olive trees - which are also symbolic of the human form - demonstrate how carefully she uses her eyes. She builds a painting upon a structure that may appear chancy, but which always has its own pictorial logic. If there's a touch of Klimt in these recent pictures, there's also something else that is new and entirely hers. Two paintings stand out: High Yellow Note, which is a curtain of pulsing gold reflecting perhaps a sun-bride of the utmost delicacy, and Duet, which streams laterally into the ether with pure optimism. At this rate, it'll be a good New Year.

`John McLean: New Work On Paper' is at the Francis Graham-Dixon Gallery, London EC1 until 17 January; `Sarah Medway: A Broken Music - New Paintings' is at the Lamont Gallery, 67 Roman Road, London E2 until 31 January.