Page 9, 19th February 1999

19th February 1999
Page 9
Page 9, 19th February 1999 — Proof of the power of really good painting

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Proof of the power of really good painting

Visual Arts Patrick Reyntiens

THE EXHIBITION of Patrick Caulfield's paintings in the Hayward Gallery (until 1 lth April) merits a detour as the Michelin Guide says. There is an atmosphere of French self-assurance and style about this large retrospective. Caulfield fills the alien spaces of the Hayward with authority, demonstrating that he is one of the best painters of modern England — that is to say, the world.

Patrick Caulfield has long been the recipient of equivocal notices in the British press. His reputation has soared and flagged over the course of the last 35 years. This exhibition will end the underestimation of his worth. He started as a bright and noticed student at the Royal College of Art, having been refused entry into the Slade as a first choice and having had preliminary training at the Chelsea School of Art.

Caulfield came from an Irish Catholic background in the Midlands, and his was a pretty culturally impoverished beginning. "I find religious painting depressing, perhaps because I was brought up as a Catholic and I went to church every Sunday. I wasn't against religious art per se, so much as flamboyant, expensive-looking golddecked art."

The complete lack of knowledge of art and artists up to the age of 20 or so seems in the case of Caulfield to have been a positive advantage. Even within the purlieus of the Royal College his idiom seems to have been definitely formed. By the time he graduated from the college the ability to produce minimal, dead-pan and referential images, not without shock and a sly sense of humour, relating to particular recognisable phenomena in our world, was ineradicable. The idiom was in part that of "Pop" with a sideways glance at the American paintings of the time, particularly those of Roy Lichtenstein. But to suggest that Caulfield's art is derivative from American sources is highly misleading.

The greatest merit of Patrick Caulfield's painting is that it is classical. I do not mean by that that the vocabulary is Greco-Roman and of classical times. I mean that the knowledge of being able precisely to place line, emphasis, chiaroscuro, black shadow (a favourite device), areas of vivid, flat colour, often in heraldic contrast, and individual objects of interest in a harmonious relationship of stability and lucidity is the ability of a great classical artist.

The contrast of idiom within the confines of every picture is of secondary importance when compared with being able to judge pictorial placement to a hair'sbreadth. Placement and proportion are crucial to Caulfield's art. But what of the idiom? The employment of two or three different visual conventions in one picture seems if not perverse, at least odd, highly challenging — even arch. But it works. Hardly one painting by Caulfield is a failure. If there were a weakness it is to be seen in the smaller paintings of the extreme upper gallery (43, 44, 45). These do not carry the authority and conviction of the larger, and very large, pictures at the beginning of the exhibition.

What are the conventions that have been intermingled? Can we separate them? The first and most obvious is the impassive, dead-regular blackline definition of scrupulously even thickness which the artist applies to everything, outlining foreground, background, interior landscapes, stilllife objects and sometime encapsulating the most significant details. But this almost sullen linear convention, on whose placement the whole classical structure of interval in picture depends, is interpolated with other idioms serving as nodal points and anchors, investing areas which seem to engage our eyes sometimes in a hypnotic control. They are the astonishing super-reality passages usually of items of still-life or flowers, a self-portrait reflected in a wine glass, a kitsch Bavarian stein (30, 38, 36, 54, 49, 52, 55). There are passages of landscape, too, which are extremely disturbing, such as in "After Lunch" (21). Midway between this hyper-realism and the structure of black lines, Caulfield introduces passages of intense pattern and repetitive design. These seem originally to have been inspired by his noticing wallpaper (29, 30, 35, 37) and decorations (20) but the idiom can extend to a symbolic conventional rendering of the outside, natural world, as in one of the most satisfying and witty of the paintings (29) "Town and Country", where the confused, rusticated convention of leaf and branch in the background, ostensibly but visually obtrusive into the foreground of our apprehensions (with a neat rectangular coda in the top right-hand corner of the picture), contrasts with the brilliantly differentiated idioms of wallpaper, carpet and ceiling — the latter including an electric clockface. An earlier and more understandable picture of great power is (22), "Forecourt" of 1975. The placement of the vertical lines in the architecture, and the balanced dynamism of diagonals of the tapering mast with its supporting struts makes this one of the great pictures of the show.

Viewing the exhibition as a whole it is almost as though the freshness of idiom associated with French painting in the first 25 years of the century is represented after some 50 years. Yet here there is no sense of pastiche or dija-vu; the paintings are entirely original. It is proof of their authenticity and their authority that, collectively, they open our eyes to the things we continually observe. In viewing Caulfield's paintings we are renewed in our relationship to phenomena surrounding us, and this unfamiliar experience of the familiar is intensely vivifying. This is the proof of the power of really good painting.

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