Andrew Lambirth

Unexpected structures

There are only eight single paintings in the current show of early work by Gillian Ayres (born 1930) — eight paintings and the four panels of a mural created for the dining room of Hampstead High School for Girls. The mural is over seven feet high and 27 feet wide, and its scale and achievement are remarkable for a young painter. (Ayres was 27 when she painted it.) But it is less original than the paintings it prepared the way for, and which now hang in the Foreshore Gallery of the Jerwood Foundation’s splendid new space in Hastings. The mural has an undeniably decorative impulse and looks very much of its time, but the paintings have moved beyond period confines and peer expectations. They are wonderfully fresh and full of energy, and explore an abstract language that touches easily upon the elemental without being in any way descriptive.

The viewer may be tempted to discern landscape or weather in these images, boulders or sunspots, tide-wrack or a mountain-top view under mist, but these are paintings about paint more than anything else. They do not convey their secrets in reproduction, but must be experienced directly to appreciate the huge range of mark and gesture, surface ripple and texture — a panoply of what paint can do when directed by urgent imperatives. If that makes the paintings sound chaotic, then I’ve given the wrong impression. They could be all over the place, but as you look at them, the guiding intelligence emerges, evident in unexpected structures and rhythms, and resulting in a marvellous lucidity and coherence.

Not everyone will enjoy this show: there are still too many even of the gallery-going public whose minds are closed to abstract art, either out of timidity (not daring to trust their own feelings and judgments) or entrenched ignorance (what’s it supposed to be? It doesn’t mean anything).

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