Peter Howson, Flowers East
Many of the most successful modern British figurative painters take a dark view of the world. Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville, for example, make violent equations between the materiality of paint and flesh in their investigations of the human body. Scottish painter Peter Howson is similarly attracted to the dark but his style of expression is different, being graphic, bordering on the style of comic-strip art. For Howson, Hell is more visible in crowd scenes than in studies of individuals.
The highlights of this latest show are two large, bold can-vases in which misshapen, grasping human forms fight for attention. In Acheron, an over-loaded boat attempts to cross one of the rivers of the Underworld while lost souls reach out from the water for salvation. In Legion, a contorted, possessed man is held down, surrounded by a crowd, some watching, while others, including a Christ-like figure, are praying. On the right, in the foreground, the glow of the fires of Hell rises up from a drain.
The major question about Howson’s work is whether his distinctive style is effective in conveying these grand themes. In a curious way, however, the artist has little choice. To paint in a more realistic manner would be seen as a poor attempt to emulate the old masters. Such explicitly religious subject matter sticks out like a sore thumb in the art world and accounts for the lack of official attention afforded him.
Despite significant commercial success, which has earned him the honour of being a target for forgers who recently tried to offload some fakes at auction, Howson is largely ignored by the Establishment. The continuing strength of his work marks such an attitude as unwarranted prejudice.
Until 15 January. Information: 020 7920 7777