Left: Jim Lambie (b.1964), Erotic Discount, 2002. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
Jon Pratty lets the train take the strain to Tate St. Ives to see painting that isn't painting.This is London calling; Brian Sewell, weapons of mass destruction, congestion charges, ricin threats on the underground. Where would you rather be?
Get the train the great way west to Cornwall. Wake up next morning to a view of the harbour at St. Ives. Squares of sea and harbour wall, some blue, some grey and pink as well. Oblongs with slate, some blue sky, lots of fog.
Right: Julie Roberts (b.1963), Hepworth Wallpaper, 2003. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
Let's restart this story with Tate St.Ives' exhibition title, Painting Not Painting. Does the idea of looking at painting turn you off? Berets, smocks, easels, palettes and bohemians? Fifties drab abstraction, the Festival of Britain, or derivative francophile daubing in the footsteps of the greats, Monet, Manet, Matisse, Gauguin?
OK then, let's treat painting with disdain. Oddly enough, curator and Tate St.Ives director Susan Daniel-McElroy has risked this, but with a purpose. She's put a show together of some of the best painting around, at the centre of which is Terry Frost, still beating together vibrant colours and shapes in his Eighties.
Daniel-McElroy has curated and contrasted this painting with 'non-painting' - Jim Lambies' environmental installations; Julie Roberts' witty interventions, Richard Slee's cartoon icon ceramics.
Left: Richard Slee (b.1946), Appropriated Rabbit, 2003. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
Nestling into galleries within this substantial exhibition of Frost's work Daniel-McElroy has thrust artists who disrupt, contrast and confound the traditional activity of painting - a bold move, which works to produce a show worth seeing.
Back to Frost. The exhibition examines a lesser-known period in the development of the major painter we know today. In the 1950's Frost was a Gregory Fellow at Leeds University, and the work is a striking contrast to the St.Ives canvases that precede the Leeds sojourn.
Right: Terry Frost (b.1915) Yellow Triptych (1957-9)
Painting Not Painting also puts Frost in a context - presenting here key pictures by artists who inspired him, such as Sonia Delaunay and Malevich. This is especially rewarding, if you feel all at sea when confronted by some of Frost's grimey and grey Leeds work.
These canvases are not that accessible. Taken in the context of the Delaunay and Malevich, however, things in the show start to assume a narrative context.
Left: Terry Frost (b.1915) Installation - Contrasts in Red, Black and White (2002) Tate St.Ives. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
But a quick glance at Tate's text, Black, White And Red, which accompanies the show, and things unfold. Moving on from the Leeds work, Frost's major piece in this rewarding exhibition is called Installation - Contrasts in Red Black and White.
Right: Terry Frost (b.1915) Installation - Contrasts in Red, Black and White (2002) Tate St.Ives. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
Made specially for this show, the work consists of at least 28 interlocking square stretchers, each with a strong image. The work occupies one whole room at Tate St.Ives, and one is left reeling by the sheer vigour of the piece. All the more impressive is the fact that the artist is in his 'eighties, and currently rather unwell in hospital.
Tracing the germination of the idea is interesting - certain marks and colours can be seen in the accompanying Delaunay, and more still is revealed by close study of the Malevich on show. In front of the work, intruding into the floor space, are red and black cubic shapes, painted ply on timber frames.
Look in Tate's Black, White and Red text, and there's a key El Lissitzky graphic work which seems to be a plan view of the arrangement of the cubes.
There's a certain forensic pleasure in discovering these connections, references and inspirations - this is sensual work, conceptually compelling and intellectually challenging as well.
Left: Victoria Morton (b.1971), Everyday Friction, 2000.
Backing up the gritty aspect of Frosts 'fifties work are paintings by Glasgow's rising star Victoria Morton. Morton follows in the footsteps of the St.Ives greats, working with rock hard conviction and sincerity about her big and small figurative abstractions.
Right: Victoria Morton (b.1971) Sedate, Saturate, 2002. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
There is talk in metropolitan critical circles of a revival of interest in painting. The truth is, it's never gone away. What is really exciting is that younger artists like Morton can talk with energy and enthusiasm about the challenges of filling large canvases with colours and marks that work together; making paintings that have realistic spatial relationships between forms.
Left: Jim Lambie (b.1964), installation at Tate St.Ives, 2003 Photo © 24 Hour Museum.
Rhetorically speaking, if this is 'Painting,' where's the 'not Painting' bit? With the 'not Painting' Susan Daniel-McElroy has thrown a curatorial spanner in the works. The show is about 'disruption and imposition' as well as paint - but it does work as a narrative device and it puts things in perspective from a viewer's point of view.
Right: Jim Lambie (b.1964) Zobop (1998) coloured vinyl. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
Moments after the gritty convention of Frosts' Leeds work, we can see rainbow-hued installations/constructions by DJ and former painter Jim Lambie, a contemporary of Morton and Roberts at Glasgow School of Art.
The most immersive piece here by Lambie is Zobop, an extraordinary geometric striped interaction with the interior architecture of the gallery space. A team of gallery staff spent days sticking precisely coloured and carefully aligned stripes along one mezzanine floor and the steps at either end. It's become a signature piece for Lambie, and works well here in this curved gallery space.
Left: Julie Roberts (b.1963) Hepworth Wallpaper, 2003. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
Another contrast with the painting of Frost and Morton comes from the work of Julie Roberts. There's masses of humour here including a fearless attempt to impose a wallpaper printed motif of Barbara Hepworth on an entire gallery space containing the Pier Art Centre's St.Ives collection. Sacrilege to some, but an interesting subversion to others.
In another smaller space at Tate St.Ives Roberts has made a formal connection with conventional art practice - she's re-interpeted Victorian scene of the crime pictures of Jack The Ripper's dead victims in precise pencil drawings.
Right: Julie Roberts (b.1963) Hepworth Wallpaper, 2003. In foreground, Barbara Hepworth, Group III (evocation) (1952) marble. Pier Arts Centre Collection. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
It sounds bizarre, but these quiet, unsensational renderings convey something very strange about the Ripper legend. Roberts has echoed her other Hepworth wallpaper imagery by freely painting onto the gallery walls, around the tidily framed pencil drawings, a faux Victorian drawing room wallpaper pattern. The effect, though very subtle, is eery; rather like a ghostly vision of a half-forgotten space.
Left: Richard Slee (b.1946), from Panorama, 2002. Glazed ceramic. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
Jerwood Prize winner Richard Slee has drawn possibly the shortest straw in the Cornish Tate. His work 'Panorama' navigates a path through a difficult, curved glass display space, hemmed in by the zany stripes of Lambie and bordered to the seaward side by Frost's orthodox wall show.
Slee has filled the glass case with a wierd narrative ensemble of 80 found objects, recast, rescaled and re-imagined. Anyone can find objects. Slee doesn't just appropriate stuff, he transforms found objects with immense wit and skill and then adds a glaze of cheek to the process: amazingly it doesn't burnt off in the kiln.
Right: Richard Slee (b.1946), from Panorama, 2002. Glazed ceramic. Photo © 24 Hour Museum
27,000 people were drawn to the last Tate St.Ives show, Real Life, a survey of film and video art from the 'seventies to the present day. This show is also a winner, but in a different way.
It contrasts effectively with the preceding exhibition; but also within itself it highlights in a thought-provoking way the modern realities of making art using either paint and brushes, or mixed media, or the oldest scupltural medium of all, clay.