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EXHIBITION

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REVIEW

Ian Stephenson At the New Art Centre, Roche Court, East Winterslow, Salisbury, until 13 November

When Antonioni made his classic 1960s film Blow Up, he cast the young David Hemmings as a David Bailey character, but also gave a prominent role to the paintings of Ian Stephenson. In many ways that film is now a period piece, its decor and trappings as dated as a kipper tie. Not Stephenson's paintings, though, which are among the subtlest and most timeless of the decade.

Stephenson went on to have a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1977 but rather fell from view after that.

He died in 2000. This substantial show should find him a new audience. The paintings are hung in both of Munkenbeck + Marshall's buildings at Roche Court - the gallery that links the house and orangery and the self-contained Artist's House.

Together, they provide a range of settings for art, allowing works both big and small to appear at their best.

To get an idea of a typical mature Stephenson painting, think of Seurat's pointillism - all those tiny dots of colour - freed from the task of depicting a specific scene to become, instead, an ambiguous abstraction. Spanning the period 1959-74, the works on display at Roche Court show clearly how Stephenson arrived at this solution.

Some of the early paintings are shallow reliefs in which pointillist areas coexist with actual objects (a palette, a set square) and their imprints. In others there are ghostly organic shapes and straight or looping lines. In Early Diorama (1962), arresting though it is, there is almost too much going on.

It seems that Stephenson must have thought so too, because he began to eliminate inessentials and let the pointillism take over.

The canvases teem with spots of paint, sometimes applied with the tip of a brush as a tangible surface, at other times flicked or sprayed and more blurred and atmospheric.

Though one colour, perhaps orange or plum, may dominate part of the painting, there are always specks of other colours interspersed with it.

A microphysicist would have one take on these works, an astronomer another; the lay person might think vaguely of nebulas or molecules, of mysteries of space and matter.

But when you emerge from the gallery, you find the paintings have sensitised you to minutiae.

Looking at the weathered stone on the front of Roche Court, with its powdery and encrusted lichens, you discover a world of small differences.

In a vivid contribution to the catalogue (£5), the distinguished artist Sean Scully, who was taught by Stephenson, recalls that the word he most used to express appreciation of a painting was 'beautiful'.

The first impression most people will have when entering the gallery at Roche Court is that Stephenson's works are indeed beautiful, but that impression intensifies the more they disclose their detail and expand in the mind. Though they comprise just flecks of paint on canvas, their beauty is not skin deep.

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