Nick Hackworth

Raoul de Keyser/Edge of the Real, Whitechapel Art Gallery

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

There is a coherent and poetic vision that drives the work ofBelgian artist Raoul de Keyser. For more than 40 years he has painted pieces that sit on the borderline between abstraction and figuration. He didn’t achieve serious international recognition until the Nineties, and remains practically unknown in Britain.

Somehow the slow ascent of his reputation is fitting, for his work is an attempt to manifest a quiet, patient, Zen-like understanding of the world in paint, taking as his subject only everyday sights — the corner of a room, the form of Venetian blinds, the bark of a tree, birds in flight, or the branches of a monkey puzzle tree.

He aims to encapsulate purity rather than beauty — and occasionally succeeds. On the flat, grey background of Untitled (Bern-Berlin Sst.), sit a number of regular white stripes, easily read as clouds, and upon the surface swarm rough blue marks and points that evoke the movement of a flock of birds in flight.

Untitled (Suggestion), meanwhile, is just that: two vertical, stripes of muted pinky- brown of varying intensity, in a sea of light blue-grey, perhaps legs in water, though it doesn’t actually matter.

But like haikus that try to capture the simplicity and purity of fleeting moments, most of these works teeter on the edge of banality and, alas, fall in. And when your faith in de Keyser’s ability to execute his own vision fails, all is lost, for few of the canvases here are redeemed by their aesthetic qualities. Like most contemporary painters, de Keyser loathes “prettiness” and make it hard for the viewer by employing the crudest of forms and using colours that epitomise dullness.

The painting is far more desperate in the accompanying exhibition, Edge of the Real, taking up one of the Whitechapel’s small upstairs galleries. Modishly gritty and distinctly average figurative styles inform most of these visions of the here and now from 15 British artists. A few rise above, such as Callum Innes’s quite abstraction and Nigel Cooke’s flash of luminosity in a wasteland. Mostly, though, this lot contrasts unfavourably with some of the young international painters recently seen at Hoxton’s Victoria Miro Gallery. Leading that altogether brighter pack are the lyrically imaginative Raqib Shaw and Suling Wang, neither of whom sit anywhere near the edge of the real but are firmly encamped in the realms of visual fantasy, and all the better for it.

Until 23 May. Information: 020 7522 7888.