When the figures don't quite add up


Tim Hilton
Saturday 06 September 1997 23:02

Flowers East is showing more than

50 leading lights of `British Figurative

Painting'. Odd, then, that the best

work on view is more like abstraction

Flowers East represents more artists than any other British gallery and its director, Matthew Flowers, is on good terms with other dealers. So he regularly borrows their artists for his interesting group exhibitions. One would expect the new Flowers show, "British Figurative Painting", to be wide-ranging - which it is, for it includes the work of more than 50 painters. That's fine. But we might also hope that the show would be original, which on the whole it is not.

The exhibition confirms that current abstract painting is more inventive than work from the figure, especially among artists from older generations. There are plenty of established painters in the show, most of whom are wedded to their early styles. Perhaps that's not so surprising. More puzzling is the mood of the show. So many of the artists seem sad, as though they had looked upon the world and found it a baffling and melancholy place. Of course we must all be saddened by the sight of Carel Weight's picture, for he died three weeks ago and did not see this exhibition, his last contribution to a group show. His painting is a characteristic work, a spooky and inexplicable scene in a south London garden. It was painted in 1963 but still looks quite fresh. How well Weight managed his talents and for so long ... He kept to the same themes and the same manner, yet still produced pictures of a newly minted appearance.

In Weight's case, repetition did not necessarily dull his vision. I suppose he owed a lot to Stanley Spencer, another artist with the knack of spying madness in suburbia. Weight would have realised that Spencer could help him at some time in the late 1930s. Curious that Spencer's influence still won't go away. One could easily devise an exhibition of present-day artists who are in his debt. One of them is Anthony Green, who continues the saga of his domestic life with a picture called Anxiety - The Two Bedrooms at Embassy Lodge. If only Green wouldn't chop his canvases into quite so many unrelated pieces (this one comes in nine sections). His pictures would be even zanier if they were contained within a rectangle, and also perhaps more moving.

Quite apart from the Spencer legacy, it's odd that so many of the painters reproduce the look of 1930s illustration. Steven Campbell is of this sort. So is Laetitia Yhap. So are Ishbel Myerscough, Victor Newsome and Humphrey Ocean. Most prominently, Stephen Conroy's Something Special For Tea gives us this sort of retro flavour. Is there something in the contemporary air that accounts for such a phenomenon? Or is it perhaps the more banal influence of, for instance, the covers of the Virago Modern Classics? How odd it is that these figurative artists, who so often claim to be more in touch with reality than their abstract cousins, never actually represent the world as it is today. Only Boyd & Evans's Toll Bridge looks at present-day fact. The paradox is that their brand of photo-realism now looks a rather dated style.

Another group is formed by the winsome and wistful sentimentalists, headed as usual by Adrian Wiszniewski. He contributes a picture of a melancholy- looking young man with a couple of sea birds. A knife is on the table, so we guess that they are going to get the chop. Wiszniewski swirls his paint around in an expert, mannered fashion that is now familiar. He ought to do something else with his brush and rid himself of the pathetic fantasies of his subject matter. Other people from the sentimental school are Henry Kondracki (whose picture includes Thomas the Tank Engine), Timothy Hyman and John Bellany. Jock McFadyen resembles Bellany but is a more gifted artist. He too should turn his work to different purposes. At the moment none of these painters seems fully adult.

Jeffery Camp, the founder of this hand-to-hand crocodile of sentimentalists, shows a picture of naked youths floating over the Thames. Parts of his composition are taken from Blake. I wish that Camp, together with nearly everyone else in this show, would be more contemporary. The most modern of the veteran artists at Flowers East is Josef Herman, who in his old age is painting as convincingly as at any time in his career; I prefer his more recent work. John Keane's Struggle with Truth is a picture of Gandhi, who seems to be writing a letter to Hitler. The imaginative theme makes one think that such a correspondence might have been possible, at least in chronological terms (Gandhi was born in 1869, Hitler in 1889).

Tony Bevan's The Room, Man with Arm Extended is surely about the experience of being a black youth in Mrs Thatcher's Britain. It was painted in 1985, so predates the softer work with which Bevan made his reputation around 1990. Here is one of the few occasions when Ron Kitaj's manner helped another artist. Kitaj's own painting is neither pleasant nor accomplished. The picture I most like in the Flowers East show is Stephen Chambers's quite large Twins (in Rain) (1997). The two girls do different things with their arms, the rain falls on them in different ways, and within the rest of the canvas Chambers explores the weather of God-knows-what. I know what he's looking for. Liberty in the world. For at heart Chambers is an abstract artist.

`British Figurative Painting': Flowers East, E8 (0181 985 3333), to 21 Sept. Tues-Sun 10am-6pm; admission free.

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