16 APRIL 1988, Page 51


Gwen Hardie (Paton Gallery, till 7 May)

Vision and illusion

Alistair Hicks

The imaginative landscape has proved one of the most dangerous minefields for 20th-century British artists. Linked histor- ically to the Romantic tradition, it has many champions. Indeed this brand of imaginative work has been promoted as the one important contribution of the British to the history of art. The new and young Richard Pomeroy Gallery (Mill Street, SE1) could never hope seriously to investigate these lofty claims, but behind the hotchpotch of sculpture and paintings there are hints of intriguing questions.

Pomeroy has demonstrated his ability to borrow works from important artists repre- sented by major galleries. There is Cecil Estelle Thompson's 'Green Landscape' Collins from the D'Offay, Ken Kiff from Fischer and Therese Oulton from the Marlborough. Ironically the latter two have suffered heavily from being typecast in the idiosyncratic British mould. Their work is constantly being misinterpreted or at least read in ways not intended by the artist.

Ken Kiff has been accused of painting self-indulgent fantasies. The instant appeal of his vivid small figures and animals in wild country was explained away by an affinity to fairy tales. There is no denying that Kiff is a visionary, nor that he has touched some British nerve-end, but his immediate antecedents can be found on the Continent rather than here. Compari- sons to Minton, Vaughan, Ayreton and Sutherland are fruitless. He has more in common with mediaeval sculptors of all descriptions. His images may at first appear fragmented, torn whole and screaming from the mind, but they are part of a cohesive whole. He is more in the line of Braque, Miro and what he has described as the 'Mozart-like grids by Klee' than with any recent British artists.

Therese Oulton refused Turner's mantle when it was offered among all the early palms laid at her feet. Though elements of landscape are still in her vocabulary, though she is capable of conjuring up the boldest trumpet blasts of Wagnerian con- ceits in paint, her emphasis has always been on doubt. Her technique is fluent. She is a mistress of illusion, yet she devotes all her talents to questioning the role of painting. She is effectively putting a full stop on the imaginative landscape.

The exhibition opens with a large canvas by Estelle Thompson. Upstairs she has a row of five jewels masquerading as land- scapes. She immediately invites compari- son to Hodgkin, but the similarities cease with the size, colour and the fact that they bestride the abstract figurative divide. Her works have a classical simplicity, as though she had found the ideal space-scape, which is revealed in a disturbing uniformity.

To be cruel, for it is April, Gwen Hardie's current work at the Paton Gallery (2 Langley Court, WC2) is a mirror reflec- tion of her circumstances. Born in Fife in 1962, she was an instant success at Edin- burgh College of Art. Finishing her post- graduate year in 1984, she went on to Berlin and the powerful influence of Base- litz. She has not been swept away by the wildest spirits in Germany's hothouse. Rather than resorting to neat angst, she has remained true to a native frustration with imagery.

Hardie's venture into sculpture is not a wholehearted success. 'Fragile Encounter' has a certain poetic promise, but the two other pieces are unconvincing. They are origami versions of unfinished Flanagans. They have no substance. Some of her paintings wander aimlessly down similar paths, paying occasional homage to such masters as Penck, Cucchi and Chia, and even nodding to a transatlantic input from Guston and Rothenberg. Over the last few years she has been gradually separating line from form. 'Enclosure' takes this a stage further. She makes a horseshoe with one thick line of dark oozing paint on a white background. Inside this hoop there are a few black marks. It could be inter- preted as a belated political statement on landowner's encroachments, but this is highly unlikely as she rarely strays from the highly personal. Bodies, whether dismem- bered or whole, have supplied her subject matter in the past.

In Gwen Hardie's Fruitmarket exhibi- tion last year, the female body was opened up. It was as though Matisse had been asked for biological diagrams. Now she is covering her tracks. She is still looking for the same simplicity of line, but in 'Brew' she has found a new way of giving full vent to her fluent use of paint. With one sweeping line she has enclosed her vehe- ment paintwork in a wine-skin. One hopes the constructions are only a short diver- sion, for Gwen Hardie can be an extremely forceful painter.

Giles Auty is on holiday.