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Deceptive simplicity

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Alan Charlton At Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, until 28 July

It was the American painter Ad Reinhardt who coined the phrase 'One surface, one colour', brilliantly encapsulating the purist, reductionist tendencies established by the Russian avant-gardists Aleksandr Rodchenko and Kasimir Malevich in the years following the October Revolution of 1917.

Establishing these figures as artistic ancestors of Alan Charlton is not to imply that his work is entirely explained by aspects of 20thcentury art history, but it cannot be divorced from this context.

Charlton's work maintains the Modernist aesthetic tradition of attempting to express the absolute through the minimal. Since 1969, his works have been constructed using standard 4.5cm-width stretchers and each canvas is painted a uniform grey. The tone varies between works but not within a single canvas, each being painted with mechanistic precision which denies mark-making as a form of implied expression.

Many of Charlton's works consist of a number of parts, characteristically all exactly the same size and hung without frames exactly 4.5cm apart, extending the use of the dimension established by the stretcherwidth. They are arguably relief-sculptures as much as they are paintings.

On one level they might be seen as fetishising their physical parts: stretcher, canvas, paint - the same ingredients in endless, different configurations but always with certain unvarying, fixed characteristics.

Their precision and repetition seem to imply that they are building-blocks to provide a bulwark against uncertainty.

Charlton works six days a week with the regular habits of a salary-man.

But enough reading around the edges.

This is one of those rare exhibitions which shows how paintings and architecture can have a genuinely symbiotic existence. Disposed in the wonderfully chaste spaces of the downstairs gallery of Inverleith House, one of the most inspirational settings for contemporary art in Scotland, Charlton's works create a quiet but insistent dialogue with their surroundings.

It is not just a question of his use of the essential forms of architectural trabeation.

His resolutely vertical and horizontal forms, in their various rectangular configurations, make you look anew at the details of their present lodgings. And it is not simply the obvious elements - doors and windows - but the fielded panels of the shutters, the empty parts of the walls, the clash of wall and cornice. Charlton's paintings manage both to create and to fill in the blanks.

They also work on an almost decorative level, acting as different types of formal weighting in rooms otherwise defined by proportion, detail and what is visible through the windows. It is not to diminish them to say that some could form the backdrop to a smart Milanese interior in Domus c.1972.

The consistency of Charlton's work over the past three decades adds much to its power - nowadays we are far too obsessed with the idea that artists should always be in stages of flux rather than stasis. As in the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, there is still a definite sense in Charlton's work of that peculiarly 1970s asceticism which subverts everything that decade was supposed to stand for. Musical or notational analogies also connect closely with another distinguished British abstract painter of the same generation, James Hugonin, currently showing in Edinburgh at the Ingleby Gallery.

Some observers might well be underwhelmed by the apparent simplicity of Charlton's work. But if you think of the individual canvases not simply as providing the parameters of the work, but take them as one constituent along with the rooms they inhabit and the light that fills the spaces around them, you realise that they perform intriguingly contradictory roles. Charlton's paintings manage both to mollify and to interrogate their surroundings. They are - to borrow a phrase from the military - force-multipliers.

Neil Cameron writes on art and architecture.

Alan Charlton also has a work on display at Sleeper, 6 Darnaway Street, Edinburgh, until 26 July (tel 0131 225 8444)

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