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How art brings a touch of magic to the business of representation

When he was very young, one of my sons, having watched a tractor pulling a plough in a neighbouring field, opined that the purpose of the operation was to turn up worms for the seagulls that were squabbling over the newly turned furrows. I thought then, and I still think, that this explains 99 per cent of the observable facts about ploughing while still being totally wrong. But in this it is not alone. Sooner or later all our observations have to be filtered through insider knowledge.

Take the relationship between art and architecture. Not the collaborative relationship that produces computer-generated visuals to wow the planning officer, but the painstaking representational work of those artists whose subject is architecture.To be more specific, take the work of Ben Johnson, 'the preeminent architectural painter' - as he is described in the catalogue to Exactitude, an exhibition containing four of his works running at the Plus One and Plus Two Galleries.

In this show, curated by Clive Head, who also includes his own work as well as that of several younger painters, Johnson plays the part of the Old Master of the axial view and the magnified single element. The others, by and large, could be grouped under the flag of Photorealism which, in turn, turns out to be Post-realism, an entity that is either chained to the radiator of participatory urban design, or seen to be coming round again in the guise of Magic Realism.This last means realistically populated street scenes illustrating the 'vibrant' theory of urban life, as well as monster panoramic canvases showing what look like bits of Manchester in the dawn's early light.

What Johnson is doing in such company is difficult to understand. His canvases, some of them borrowed in from collectors, range from Double Doors, France (1979), to In Marble Halls (1994), and two later works dated 2001, Light Paths and A Place of Reflection. Doors and Marble Halls are broadly speaking Classical Revival pieces.

In Marble Halls describes itself adequately, while the tall 1979 Doors has such depth and succulence as an image that it might have served as the inspiration for a Colefax Fowler antiques advertisement in Country Life, comparison with which is meant as sincere praise.

What happens to art when Photorealism becomes Post-realism becomes Magic Realism? Presumably the same sort of thing that began to happen in 2001 when the Turner Prize was awarded to Martin Creed for his empty room and blinking light. An evolutionary process, albeit not necessarily a quick one, will take place and at the end of it these pictures will be seen quite differently.

Will they be regarded as no more than minor skirmishes in the mopping up operation being conducted across the image field by digital photography? Or will there be another long technological pause during which representational art will re-establish itself?

In all such discussions it is worth remembering that nearly a century separated the invention of photography from the advent of cheap colour processing, during which time painting more than held its own. At Exactitude only Johnson's paintings, with their minimalist precision and disciplined use of colour, bear witness to this earlier period.The other 'urban design'pictures, notably the populated canvases of David Finnigan and Clive Head's own huge city scene, concede defeat to photography only on depth of field.Given another 100 years, Magic Realism may be able to lick that one too.

Exactitude, curated by Clive Head, is at the Plus One Plus Two galleries, 161/163 Seymour Place, London W1, until 12 April.

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