Cancel the marching band, British painting is having a quiet moment. All five artists here – four women, one man, in their mid-thirties to mid-forties – came of creative age in the mid-1990s (post-YBA hustle, pre-art market overdrive) and their work shares a sense of introspection that has a lot do with that decade’s focus on painting’s death in the wake of pickled sharks and unmade beds.
Mostly modest in scale, these unassuming canvases draw you into quiet debates about reality and artifice. Here, painting’s vitality comes not from bravura technique or blustering ego but questions about how we view, filter and engage with the world.
Mind you, it says a lot about how far contemporary art has come that painting from life, outdoors, is now considered a conceptual approach. But that’s the unconventional (in contemporary art circles at least) and probably chilly position adopted by Simon Ling. Setting up canvas near his East End studio, Ling – the Edward Hopper of Old Street – focuses on anonymous shopfronts and doorways that, strangely cropped and oddly lit, feel heightened, artificial – almost chemically altered.
Tomma Abts’s abstractions are similarly atmospheric. Abts, who won the Turner Prize in 2006, paints simple arrangements of triangles, stripes, arcs and chevrons that, through endless revision, become spatially complex – full of beguiling shadows. It’s as if she was stubbornly defying the challenges thrown down more than a century ago, retrofitting abstraction with the kind of illusionism that modernism sought to banish for ever.
Catherine Story presents a complex ‘chicken and egg’ situation in which sculptures, paintings and drawings seem to refer to one another. But, since they all appear to be at various stages of incompletion, you may give up trying to fathom which came first. Lucy Mckenzie gets more creative mileage out of her ‘real’ environment (inspired by a modernist interior by architect Adolf Loos) of ‘fake’ elements (blocks covered with canvas painted using decorator’s marbling techniques). Seeing and believing is a theme picked up in Gillian Carnegie’s lugubrious painting of fancy, mock Tudor mansion blocks painted so that their plain, modern rear elevations are in view.
Most group shows are put together along ‘something for everyone’ lines. Painting Now sustains its mood of seriousness from start to finish. It’s sometimes aloof but not without emotion. An awkward peck on the cheek of an exhibition – very British.