The newly renovated and extended Whitechapel offers a trio of new shows: one of sculpture and two of painting. How refreshing to find such a bold showcase of contemporary painting in this citadel of fashionable art. The East End Academy: the Painting Edition (until 30 August) is a triennial exhibition open to all artists living or working east of Aldgate Pump, and this year a dozen painters have been selected from over 600 submissions. The range and quality of work on display offer much hope for the future of painting. The rich and ancient art of painting is as relevant, subtle and multifarious today as it’s always been. It just takes a bit of independent thought to recognise the fact.
Geometric angularity is one of the themes of this show — for instance, in the intriguing Cullinan Richards exhibit — and is continued in a more simplified form by Robert Holyhead, with ‘Untitled (shaped)’. It just goes to show that people have bothered to go to all those recent museum exhibitions of early Modernist abstraction (or at least looked at the catalogues), as Russian Suprematism et alia undergo a chic retread. Hanging opposite is something quite different: a painterly image by Bruno Pacheco of a balloon man on a bicycle, rendered in acrylic on paper, the rider obscured by a mass of softly coloured shapes.
Dominating the downstairs gallery is a large painting by Andy Harper, who used to paint leaves of grass with eye-boggling intensity, but has now moved on to something nastier. This picture is called ‘Feast of Skulls’, though it looks more like an innocent autumnal spread of fruits and berries. In stark contrast are Guy Allott’s Magrittian trees, vast Redwoods with holes through their trunks framing landscape vistas beyond. I felt these needed to be more unobtrusively painted (occasionally the clumsiness of application intruded) to make their point with greater aplomb. Lara Viana’s paint is deliciously feathery but a little too uncertain of its direction, while Emily Wolfe’s seems slightly too tyrannised by the subject.
The best work here is by Zara Matthews, who takes photographs that haven’t quite worked and turns them into surprisingly beautiful and resonant paintings. Matthews has always been a talented painter (I’ve been watching her work with interest for 20 years or more), but rarely has she found such a rewarding match between subject and technique. Her ten paintings of interior and exterior details, bleached or out-of-focus, contrive a haunting presence, collectively and individually, as colour glows out of the gloom and confers warmth and definition. Impressive. I also liked Varda Calvano’s work — strange abstracts a little like landscapes, brushy and full of life yet carefully orchestrated as well. It’s good to see such a lively exhibition of youngish painters, but a mistake to let them write about what they think they do in the catalogue. The cult of the artist’s statement has a lot to answer for.
Upstairs in the main gallery is Live Forever: Elizabeth Peyton (until 20 September). This American figurative painter (born 1965) has a rather annoying installation of 60 small paintings and drawings, with labels at knee-height. The style is bright, facile, instant. Once seen, they annihilate the desire to see them again. The colour is tawdry, the drawing has a meaningless angularity, and the subjects are drenched in nostalgia. For some reason, Peyton is billed as a painter of modern life, though easily the best things here are the historical portraits, the sepia paintings of Delacroix, Elizabeth Arden and Georgia O’Keeffe in 1936, or the nude torso of the ever-iconic Frieda Kahlo.
Better to move swiftly on to British Council Collection: The Third Dimension (until 20 September), the latest selection from the Council’s collections, which concentrates on sculpture. Bruce McLean pretending to be a Henry Moore sculpture is far funnier. And it’s good to see one of Julian Opie’s 1980s painted metal pieces again, together with a Bill Woodrow car bonnet, Barry Flanagan’s celebrated pile of blankets and some ghastly lino given the transformational treatment by Richard Deacon.