Jane Joseph: Drawn in Place (Morley Gallery, till 27 November)
Matthew Radford: New Paintings (Todd Gallery, till 29 November)
Shades of grey and urban life
Buddleia, 1995, by Jane Joseph The Morley Gallery, attached to Mor- ley College in Westminster Bridge Road, is one of those exhibiting spaces just off the beaten track of gallery-goers, and as such is undeservedly neglected. Its exhibition pro- gramme is richly varied (a recent show of the paintings of Nan Youngman [1906-95] was especially welcome) and focuses useful attention on the less well-known. The cur- rent show is a survey of two decades of drawing and printmaking by that exemplary draughtsman Jane Joseph (born 1942). The earliest work is a large charcoal of a garden dating from 1980, full of energetic, almost riotous, movement. A group of drawings from the same period depicts rehearsals in a circus, in the ring and on the high wire.
This balancing act is an apt metaphor for the process of painting or drawing, and in these pictures Joseph subtly parades her substantial technical accomplishments.
If the atmosphere of the drawings assumes a more sombre note over the years, a kind of muted stylishness as the compositions become less crowded, then it must be observed that Joseph's oeuvre illustrates well a long-established dialogue between the romantic and the classic. (This might be exemplified by her acknowledged debts to two very different teachers - Robert Medley and Euan Uglow.) The sub- dued romanticism, so evident in her 1983 quarry drawings for example, will always be held in check by an innate austerity. Joseph's impressive sense of structure is the outcome of her inclination towards a more classical and ordered approach to picture-making.
This exhibition is a vivid demonstration of her particular skills and strengths as a printmaker. Joseph only began to experi- ment with etching in 1979, but she has brought to the medium an acuity of tech- nique and a willingness to experiment which have stood her in excellent stead. Her prints tend to be more detailed and busy than her drawings, with the notable exception of the 1995 series 'Edinburgh Plants'. These seven dry-points, depicting buddleia and willow-herb among others, display a typically rigorous understanding of plant structure, balanced against a romantic intensity of character. Their resplendent simplicity is utterly compelling.
With regard to subject, Joseph is drawn to London's river, whether to the formal symmetries of Hammersmith Bridge or to more lonely stretches where solitary posts protrude from the river-bed, or an island huddles in a rising tide. It might be the des- olate appeal of Rainham Marshes or a more genial depiction of the Thames at Brentford. In a particularly successful pen- cil drawing (No. 71 in this exhibition), Joseph shows her unrivalled ability in the mapping of essentials, with a sureness and a delicacy of touch rare in contemporary art.
Her other subjects include the section of road called the Westway, and the interior of her studio. Travelling abroad throws up new motifs: for instance, a series of five studies of Castelporziano in Italy, done in ink and pencil, the ink used with consider- able dexterity in washes like watercolour.
In the drawings, particularly those done in charcoal, the chalky or erased areas paradoxically stand out: Joseph is very good on shades of grey. Sometimes the effect is almost ghostly, allusive. Joseph suggests parts of things, rather than the whole of them. There is a viewing-case of sketchbooks to confirm Joseph's habit of on-site observation, collecting information which is later expanded in her studio. (She does, however, sometimes draw straight on to the etching plate.) Does she damp herself down too much? The formal constraints of her drawing tech- nique perhaps indicate a parallel and delib- erate emotional restraint. Yet her work is not simply descriptive, it is filled with dark passions and presences. The two lithographs and single painting in the exhi- bition make one curious to know how Joseph would develop as an artist through an increased use of colour. Would it confer greater freedoms? Jane Joseph has carved out an empire in black and white; is it time now to ride the rainbow?
At the other end of town, in Needham Road off Westbourne Grove, stands the elegant Todd Gallery. Until 29 November the gallery is occupied by Houldsworth Fine Art in order to present an exhibition of new paintings by Matthew Radford (born 1953). The pictures are predomi- nantly of urban life, of pullulating crowds in featureless boulevards. Radford paints with a sort of up-to-the-minute Impression- ism crossed with the conceptual framework of that highly influential German artist, Gerhard Richter. He depicts the city in the livery of action. Our hurried pace of life only permits glancing views: blurred, par- tial, fragmentary. Radford paints the blur and the telling detail. Out of the crowd come faces, or shoulders. Energetic and convincing surface marks jut at odd piquant angles like elbows. The colours are mostly grey-blues, pinks, here an accent of yellow, or more blue. There is a great deal of white drawing: bright surface marks like petals constituting a veritable archipelago of floating shapes.
`Ozone' is the most impressive painting in the show. It's the only picture in which the colour patches, the bands and swathes and drags, include green among their toxic hues. Perhaps this is meant to indicate a respite from tarmac: the park on the street corner where we breathe more freely, the green belt which forms the lungs of our environment. But dirty washes sweep over this green hope, threatening our existence with yet more pollution. These potently layered pictures are like diagrams of our stained atmosphere. The paint surface is far more complex than appears in repro- duction. Buttery impastoed paint alternates with thin dry scraped-back areas. The hieroglyphs which indicate people are densely evocative brushstrokes. The under- lying structure is adumbrated by a diago- nal squaring-up, vaguely to be seen here and there through the paint. Thus Radford maps the terrain of his pictures so that he knows precisely where he is. These are powerful paintings about the contemporary predicament of urban life, about the rela- tions between man and machine, and between individual and community. They are paintings to enjoy which also require you to think.