Andrew Lambirth

Artistic sustenance

Andrew Lambirth finds much to enjoy on his gallery trawl round London

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By no means all commercial galleries run their Christmas exhibitions on into the New Year, but several that are doing so happen to be showing some of the most interesting work that has been around in months. However, if you are venturing out in search of artistic sustenance, do check gallery opening times to avoid disappointment. A glorious show of new work (until 14 January) at Timothy Taylor Gallery, 24 Dering Street, W1 (020 7409 3344), proclaims that Craigie Aitchison (born 1926) has lost none of his magic. The familiar subjects are once more in evidence, but given imaginative new treatment. A landscape is for the first time ever over-arched by a rainbow, reindeer crop the turf, and cypress trees feature in a big way. (Aitchison often makes them light-emerald against a darker sky, thus effectively reversing the traditional representation of a cypress as a dark writhing thing, as in Van Gogh’s paintings.) There are two rare pictures of buildings — ‘Chapel, near Montecastelli’ being particularly serene — and a dolphin makes its debut. The portmanteau painting ‘Crucifixion, bird table, Montecastelli’, in which a number of the artist’s favourite motifs are effectively brought together, is another recent development.

The works are strikingly hung against dark, blue-black walls (known, I’m reliably informed, as ‘Pinstripe’ in the Dulux range), and vary in size from the single hand-span to the monumental. The delicacy of mark is not lost in the larger paintings, even though a looser brushstroke may be discerned at work. (Look, for example, at the painting of the pink hull and chimney of the boat in ‘Goatfell, Isle of Arran’; broadly applied, but no less precise in effect.) Aitchison is always prepared to take risks with large expanses of saturated colour; what is remarkable is how he makes them sing.

Refreshed from the signal honour of a Royal Academy retrospective last year, and burnished by his current achievement, the star in Aitchison’s firmament is certainly riding high.

At the Redfern Gallery, 20 Cork Street, W1 (020 7734 1732), are two shows well worth seeing (until 27 January) — An Imaginative Playfulness, paintings and works on paper by the distinguished English Surrealist Eileen Agar (1899–1991), and Paper Relief Works by Janet Boulton. I am impossibly biased in favour of Eileen Agar because I knew her well in the last years of her life and helped to write her autobiography. Let me just say that there are very good examples from all periods gathered here — lyrical works from the 1930s such as ‘The Lovers’ and ‘Legend’, an unusual geometric composition from the 1950s, ‘Dragon Fly’, and some of the richly decorative paintings from the 1980s, such as ‘Pemberton’ and ‘Cityscape’. Agar was extraordinarily experimental with materials — here are things in oil on copper, plaster, collage (a favourite medium), watercolour, acrylic, pastel and ink, letraset and felt tip. A rare and inventive imagination.

Janet Boulton, perhaps best-known as a watercolour painter of gardens and still-life, has been making reliefs from paper pulp for nearly 20 years. The images are moulded, then sized and painted when dry. Boulton has produced some impressive extended pieces, long shelves of bottles and pots tinged with pink and green and blue, witty homages to the horizontal. These, together with a sequence inspired by Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden ‘Little Sparta’, depicting a single swift or a paper boat, are for me the most telling. In too many of the others the interest of the technique is rather overshadowed by an application of colour which seems almost haphazard. Boulton’s strength has always been as a tonal painter, not a colourist, and I would like to see her explore those skills further in her paper reliefs.

Colour in bold sweeps and vibrant punchballs is to be found in Bert Irvin’s latest paintings at Gimpel Fils, 30 Davies Street, W1 (020 7493 2488), until 8 January. His brand of expressive abstraction, full of zippy reds, oranges and yellows overlaying the bass notes of deep blue and green, is familiar and joyful. The new work introduces a round-topped window motif along with the rough diagonals and check-work. A painter at the height of his powers.

Wayne Thiebaud (born 1920) is an American legend, hardly known here except for his work as a Pop artist. At Faggionato Fine Arts, 49 Albemarle Street, W1 (020 7409 7979), an exhibition of just six of his paintings is on view until 28 January. It comprises three pairs of pictures, a smaller and a larger, dealing with three subjects: a river delta, a townscape, stuffed toys. In some cases, the smaller is the more luscious, as in the delta pictures, yet the larger of the townscapes is easily the more considerable. Thiebaud returns to the same subject because of the formal, visual problems it poses, and makes something new each time. Unmissable.

Yolanda Sonnabend is one of our best theatre designers, an accomplished portraitist and an imaginative painter par excellence. A selection of her work, including original costume drawings for theatre and ballet, is at The Chambers Gallery, 23 Long Lane, EC1 (020 7606 1300), until 15 January. At the Prince’s Drawing School, 19–22 Charlotte Road, EC2 (www.princesdrawingschool.org), is an exhibition of work by one of the school’s tutors, Daniel Miller, which I look forward to seeing. A realistic painter with a strong feeling for the fantasy life of the capital, his exhibition (till 14 January) is entitled From Dalston to the Sea, and should provide a few surprises for those who think that traditional drawing methods must be stultifying.

A museum show that is worth going out of your way for is A Juxtaposition 2004, at the Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, until 5 March. It showcases 1950s works by Peter Coker from the museum’s permanent collection with drawings and paintings made in 2002 on the subject of Paris. This fascinating exhibition acts as a fitting tribute to the range, from tough realism to tender lyricism, of the artist, whose death at the age of 78 has just been announced.