Visual Arts: Now you see them - soon you probably won't
With Prince Charles and Brian Sewell as guest curators, The Mall Galleries can hardly have been aiming for another `Sensation'. And no, there isn't a YBA in sight. Nor, Andrew Lambirth regrets, much else to tease `The Discerning Eye'.
Tuesday 25 November 1997
The problem with all large mixed exhibitions is the muddle. Perhaps the visitor gravitates to the selector whose name he knows best or whose work he most sympathises with, or perhaps admires. This might be Prince Charles or Brian Sewell. Again, it might not. The selector best off in this show is the painter Michael Reynolds. Not only is his own work substantially represented in Brian Sewell's selection, but he has a separate room in which to hang his choice. To find it, enter the Mall Galleries by the front door, and go down the stairs to the right. There you will find the likes of Leonard McComb depicting a group of green and orange ridgy tomatoes; or George Rowlett lovingly lashing on the impasto to capture the East Kent countryside; or Jenny Durrant weaving inventive patterns of rich colour.
Continuing at sub-ground level, the visitor may pass through into the main gallery. There he or she will encounter the other artist-selector, Ray Richardson. This body of work is altogether more tricksy and sophisticated, wreathed in modernist references and knowing allusions. Note the faux- naivete of Simon Laurie, aping the real naivety of Alfred Wallis. Or the Bill Jacklin crowd-scene take-offs by Jonathan Huxley. Veteran abstract painter Bert Irvin contributes two works that look as fresh and joyful as ever.
Further along, the collector AN Solomons reasserts traditional painterly portraits, still-lives and landscapes that are competent but largely uninspired. The exception is a bright interior landscape by Gus Cummins, a table-top strewn with things: a reel, a cylinder, cubes - all sharp colour-accents and mysterious long shadows.
The other collector is HRH the Prince of Wales, whose choice inclines rather towards the quirky than the controversial. Light-filled landscapes are evidently a favourite, such as Norman Sayle's brisk water-colour of a house in Menorca. A more evanescent mood is caught by Sarah Armstrong Jones, cousin to the Prince, and a watercolourist of quiet but authoritative atmospheres. By contrast, three brightly-patterned, almost Islamic, paintings by Kate Montgomery stand out on this predominantly well-behaved and low- key wall.
From there to the critic Susan Moore's choice. Harriet Mena Hill, one of our better younger painters, is well-represented with three paintings. Two feature evocative cell-like structures resembling the pattern of dry- stone walls and fields seen from the air, all dark and bright. The third is of a triple archway with diamond-patterned floor and holy water stoup. Among Moore's choices are also old favourites such as Leonard Rosoman and Norman Blamey, and the hallucinatory realism of Alan Robb's painting, Auchmithie stones and bladderwrack.
If you follow this route through the exhibition, it ends with a bang - Brian Sewell's choice. Typically, Sewell flouts the rules and has invited six artists to submit. A group of works by each of them is hung with other individual items taken from the public send-in. Thus there are 10 dark Goya-esque paintings by Ansel Krut, and a dozen orangey-brown mythic nudes by Igor Kufayev, in which Frank Dobson meets Maillol. The sculpture dotted throughout the exhibition is generally appalling, and Sewell's choice is no exception. The best things in this section are undoubtedly the dozen paintings by Peter Spens - landscapes of real accomplishment.
Prince Charles himself has said he found fascinating the fact that so many of the artists he'd chosen had never been heard of, nor even been to art school. While not for a moment wishing to deprive them of their 15 minutes of glory, the reason that so many are - and will remain - obscure, is that they will never produce anything to change the course of art. However charming, these exhibits could scarcely be called earth-shattering. Nor inventive. Nor challenging. They are in fact far too easy on the eye.
At The Mall Galleries, London SW1, to 30 Nov
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