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Pretexts for painting

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Alison Turnbull: Houses into Flats At Milton Keynes Gallery, 900 Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes until 8 October; and at Cube, Manchester, from 18 October to 22 January 2001

'Houses into Flats' is a series of 28 paintings that Alison Turnbull has completed over the past three years, 21 of which are now at the Milton Keynes Gallery. They are inspired by architectural plans, sections and elevations, but in most instances only minimal information has been transferred to the canvas, delineating walls and spaces in the simplest of layouts on a monochrome ground.

For each painting Turnbull has selected a single building or structure and they are titled as such - school, bridge, bank - suggesting a kind of community or city. The works are relatively modest in size and arranged in a single regimented line around the 'white cube' of the gallery.While each painting could easily stand alone, they are clearly in serial relationship with one another. The titles appear important to the artist and more than just a mechanism of indexing, for they are boldly signwritten directly onto the wall below each canvas.

Turnbull's relationship with architecture is by no means casual. Her first site-specific commission was completed in 1989, while in 1996 she designed a permanent lighting installation for the stairwells of a new public housing project in Glasgow (AJ 31.10.96). She has also made a large wall drawing in the foyer of the Milton Keynes Theatre, next door to the gallery.

To a large extent, however, the 'architecture'in Turnbull's paintings is circumstantial - it is not what makes them interesting. For this reason, the way her titles emphasise architectural specificity is the one problematic aspect of this exhibition.

They imply an authority the paintings do not necessarily possess or, more importantly, require. It is in the handling of each canvas that Turnbull's paintings take off.

While there is a sense of repetition among the works, the manner in which the individual paintings are executed is subtle and, on close examination, surprisingly diverse. Although most of the works are characterised by the layering and abrading of paint, there is no consistency in the use of canvas support or the relationship between image and ground. Colours are tonally muted but chromatically various. There is enough in each image to indicate that a building is being referenced but (title aside) we are not quite sure what it is.

Turnbull continues a long tradition of Modernist painting in Britain. But where painting is now discussed in terms of neo-conceptualism, she is much more mindful of the reductivism that characterised so much work in Britain and the US between the 1950s and 70s.

As is often the case with artists in this tradition, for instance, Peter Kinley, who taught Turnbull at Bath in the early 1980s, the critical emphasis is not so much upon the removal or reduction of reference. Rather, the concern is: what, when beginning with a blank canvas, is the minimum required to constitute a painting of a given subject?

For Kinley that subject might have been an aeroplane, for Turnbull it is architecture - but for both the painting is the point.

Andrew Cross is a photographer and exhibition curator

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