Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Freedom Days

It's been open for ten years, but today was the first time I visited the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City of London. It's small but full of interest - surely the only art gallery that incorporates the remains of a Roman amphitheatre (though there's not a great deal of it). The core collection is heavy on official portraits, ceremonial pictures, views of London and battle scenes, but it also includes a fine full-size Constable sketch of Salisbury cathedral from the meadows (similar to the one in Tate Britain) and some Victorian gems, including Millais's Lorenzo and Isabella and The Woodman's Daughter (not to mention Her First Sermon and Her Second Sermon). There are also works by Rossetti, Alma-Tadema, Albert Moore, Tissot etc, and some knock-em-dead virtuoso history paintings, among them Poynter's huge Israel In Egypt, and an even huger extravaganza titled A Pythagorean School Invaded by Sybarites, by one Michele Tedesco (that one has to be seen to be believed). But I was in the gallery chiefly to see Transfiguration, a small exhibition (barely 20 works) by two young artists, Dan Llywelyn Hall and Raphael Pepper. The exhibition began life at the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, and in this London incarnation the focus is on pictures inspired by the impact of the impending London Olympics on the chosen site. Dan works in oils, Raphael in coloured pencil, with which he achieves quite extraordinary effects. Dan's landscapes range from the near-apocalyptic - the superb Dreams of Steel and Concrete and Vision of Gold - through the more straightforward but beautifully accomplished Lea Valley Wilderness, to the piognant, roughly painted genre scene, The Last Crop (presumably on an allotment garden now devoured by the Olympic behemoth). These are serious (but never solemn), vivid, engaged, painterly paintings, blurring the line between figurative and abstract, full of the life and energy of pigment. They are authentically modern landscapes, as are those of Raphael Pepper, who is represented not only by pictures from the Olympics site - the glorious green-and gold Canal Life my favourite among them - but a flaming sunset scene of Cardiff Docks, all scumbled and scored with those flying coloured pencils to the point that the paper is blistered and cracked. Other pictures are more relaxed, even ethereal, with shapes suggested by skeins of pencilling - but Pepper's tour de force is a picture quite unlike all the others, called Loss,Time, Love. This is huge - 10ft by 5ft - and divided into two great blocks of colour, both shading gradually (and to different degrees) from dark blues into purple and near-red. Between them glimmers a thin horizon of blank paper, shining like intense light from under clouds. It has the impact and contemplative force of a Rothko - and the entire thing was done painstakingly, stroke by stroke, with coloured pencils. A quite extraordinary work, which on its own is worth the trip (the exhibition closes, by the way, on Sunday). Pepper seems to me underpriced - if I'd had £500 to spare, I would certainly have bought a glorious sunny little blue and gold landscape called Freedom Days... Pepper says: 'I am simply not driven to create by philosophy, reason or ideas. There is no attempt to find any meaning in the use of subject, motif, approach or content. There is a quite deliberate avoidance of any political or historical reference; in fact nothing is put into the work other than drawing.' Here are two young artists who (in refreshing contrast to the rapidly aging YBAs and their imitators) are all about painting and drawing - and who, between them, show a new way of engaging with landscape. New and of course, like all truly new things, deeply embedded in the tradition.

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