Complementary sides of a character

 

Visual Arts: ReviewedBridget Flannery, Cross Gallery until February 26th (01-4738978)Sarah Longley, Peppercanister Gallery until March 1st (01-6611279)Sarah Spackman, Solomon Gallery until March 2nd (01-6794237)

Bridget Flannery is a long-established painter whose work tends toward abstraction. That is, she could at various stages have been described as an abstract painter without inviting contradiction, but at the same time what she's done has always been receptive to influences from without. She never sought to isolate herself within a formalist framework. The impact and influence of landscape, and even more, the sea, have been the most conspicuous presences in this regard, but other things too, including currents of feeling, the flavour and structure of such artistic forms as poetry and music, have surely informed her painting.

All this holds true of her recent work at the Cross Gallery, which aptly exemplifies the two, complementary sides of her artistic character.

On the one hand there is a lavishing, a generosity, an urge to put in everything that is interesting and valuable and cherished, and perhaps everything ominous and anxious as well.

The painting is the space which can accommodate all of it, positive and negative. On the other hand, though, the process of painting exercises its own demands. The urge to include is tempered by the need to exclude. The list of what must be left out grows as the painting develops.

In one sense only the eventual conclusions are there in the finished image, but the duration and fallibility of the process are evident in the residual traces of making. These are not incidental, but are integral to the finished work, embodying its history and conceptual density.

The rhythmic vertical and horizontal emphasis provides her with a structural anchor, and allows her to introduce colour expanses that open up or modulate the feeling of any particular piece. Her new paintings bring us from the bright, hard, cold light of a winter series, with a muted, watery green as the strongest colour accent, to intensely hot reds in a series of Interludes.

They are among her most accomplished to date. The aptly titled Silence Stands, for example, is a quiet but powerful piece of work.

Sarah Longley's show at the Peppercanister is dominated by two ambitious figure paintings, both nudes. They are big paintings, in both cases cropped close to the model, who is depicted larger-than-life sized. One of them is very successful, the other perhaps less so, though it is striking. In the better of the two, Nude Wearing Blue Beads, we look down on a naked female figure, facing away from us, stretched out on a small couch that is liberally draped with strongly coloured pieces of cloth. Her knees are raised, one arm lies across her stomach, the other is thrown back behind her head.

From the triangular block of her foot to her extended index finger, she is a solid, almost architectonic presence, a robust physical form. But Longley also accentuates the fragility of flesh in the way she portrays her skin as a fine membrane, whether stretched and taut or looser and relaxed. The pale skin is a sensitive, curvaceous surface that reflects every ambient colour, notably the vivid red that is prominent on the right of the composition.

She is in fact a kind of mirror of her surroundings. While she is exposed to the viewer's gaze, she is also curiously immune or removed from it, turned away, languid, lost in her own thoughts. In this, she has something in common with the artist herself in her several self-portraits, and with her other portrait sitters, all quietly observed rather than actively characterised.

There is, as well, a claustrophobic feeling in much of the work, as though we are looking into a tight, hermetically sealed, self-contained world.

Longley packs many of her images with props and details, including rows of boldly coloured dresses on clothes hangers, draped cloths, vases, dolls, flowers, a profusion of pattern, on fabric, wickerwork plants and even the waves of thick, curly hair. All of which can engender a sense of a crowded, enclosed space.

This density is heightened by the busyness of the picture surfaces.

They are busy in the way that Bonnard's or Vuillard's are busy, heavily worked, built up incrementally through the exhaustive accumulation of myriad individual marks. But apparently quite slowly, patiently, directed towards a meditative stasis. Picasso's exasperated dismissal of Bonnard's paintings as "a pot pourri of indecision" could be applied to Longley. It's not that Bonnard is bad, incidentally, it's just that Picasso, incisive and decisive, couldn't relate to his way of seeing.

There is a lot of colour in Longley's work, and this, together with her concentration on nudes and flowers, two staples of easel painting, might suggest Matisse's art of cheerful and cheering beauty, but that is not what she's about. For all the extravagance of her floral displays, they have an excessive, overripe quality, as though they have turned and are on the verge of decay.

Of course that is exactly the function of flowers in still life, to indicate transience and mortality. But Longley's Miss Havisham interiors have an air of stifled domesticity that reinforces the aura of incipient decay of her bouquets. Something about it all brings to mind the morbid sensuality of the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau.

The upshot is that Longley is really a darker artist, literally and figuratively, than first impressions might suggest.

Sarah Spackman has built up a creditable body of work as a representational painter in the tradition of the Euston Road School or indeed the Camberwell School of Art, where she in fact studied. Her approach recalls the meticulous measurement and precisely regulated tonal and colour values found in the work of William Coldstream or Euan Uglow, though in the past it seemed as if Cezanne was also looking over her shoulder.

In her current show she has narrowed down her subject matter somewhat. Previously she has concentrated on the figure, still life and a very promising foray into landscape. This time there are no landscapes, and the figure, apart from a couple of works, has been banished to the gallery's back room, which houses a group of watercolours that find Spackman a little ill-at-ease. In any case her main efforts are devoted to studies of draped cloth in a series of formalised still lifes. Walnuts, fruits, pots and flowering plants act as hooks, so to speak, on which she drapes voluminous folds of fabric.

She never paints less than well, and she is good with pale, creamy tones, but several paintings look distinctly understated, as though they lack a vital spark. Not, oddly enough, those featuring fabric to the virtual exclusion of everything else. Striped Folds, Enfolded Walnut and comparable works are very much alive and engaged. The Morandi-ish arrangements of pots and the single stems in vases are less convincing. One of the best pictures is of a sleeping figure largely concealed beneath the swelling folds of a sheet.