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Kiff's good humor

WE haven't got many giants about in Somerset, I hear, but we have one down at Dunster. Ah! Come up from Cornwall, he did, and he didn't like staying in Devon, 'cos his cousins there were a bit rough like. . . .'' So begins the story of ``The Giant of Grabbist.'' It's an old English folk tale, and, as Ken Kiff's dramatic and humorous illustration shows, its hero -- an oversize figment of the peasant imagination -- turns out to be as amiable and benevolent as he is large. The locals ``got quite fond of him,'' says the storyteller, clearly making it all up as he or she goes along, but clearly in the know : Many of these old tales have a wonderful way of suspending disbelief but still allowing the cosy feeling that everyone involved, teller and listener alike, really knows the whole thing is a repetitive fiction, the grasping of a narrative out of the thin air of tradition and collective memory.

``And then the farmers' wives they began to put their heads together. `What did the poor great fellow feed on?' ''

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They needn't have worried. The giant liked fish, and he ``did wade out down channel right out to sea'' to scoop up all he needed. The fishermen followed him to share the takings. ``. . . 'twas a wonderful time for the fishing boats.''

And then, just to prove what a thoroughly decent sort of giant he was, the teller explains what happened to ``old Elijah Crowcombe'' when he got caught in a sudden storm in his leaky old boat Dorcas Jane : ``Well, they thought they were a-going down, when through the storm the giant comes astriding, and he picks up Dorcas Jane, and afore they could say Thank you, he puts her down quiet and safelike in Watchet harbour.''

This charming story, which goes on to describe more of its fantastic protagonist's weighty benevolence, is included in ``Folk Tales of the British Isles,'' edited by Michael Foss. Out of print now, this modest book was published in 1977, though only in a small edition. It might have sunk without trace, except that in the last few years the reputation of its illustrator, Ken Kiff, has grown enormously in the art world.

Kiff's work, a somewhat primeval and often brutally direct expression of anxious dreams, has been suddenly seen to fit in with current preoccupations in painting. At present, his paintings of the last 20 years are being shown in a major retrospective at London's Serpentine Gallery (through Feb. 23). And his London dealer, Nicola Jacobs Gallery, has staged a show of his original illustrations for ``Folk Tales of the British Isles.''

These illustrations were commissioned. In some of the recent writing about Kiff's art there is more than a hint that, perhaps because they were commissioned, these paintings and charcoal drawings for the book are slightly tame compared with the no-holds-barred forcefulness of his self-generated vision -- as though they may not be his best work.

On the other hand, and in line with the folk tales themselves, his illustrations touch on a wide range of feelings, mischievous as well as awestruck, gentle as well as savage, and might be seen, in some fruitful way, to be less egocentric than his uncommissioned works. He does not illustrate merely the fearsomeness of superstition and primitive ignorance, which are undoubtedly a factor of the folk tales, but also their rough wit; their mixture of the sudden, unexpected twist of events with the inevitability of narrative; their nature-inspired vigor; their personifications, impressive or horrific, but always teetering on the edge of funniness; their broad human comedy -- all these surface in Kiff's visual response to them.

Common to both his illustrations and his independent paintings, however, and lurking below their rumbustious surface, is a sympathy for the vulnerability of the ordinary human being, the innocent-as-victim, the possible predicament of the small subjected to the whims of the large. In his folk tale illustrations he captures some of the resilience of humanity in the face of such apparently powerful forces, as well as its willy-nilly subjection to them. There is a canny cheerfulness, even a kind of ignorant good humor, about his ``ordinary man'' which possibly tells the viewer as much about the artist's dream-vision as it does about the particular folk tale. In spite of all eventualities, the ordinary person often comes out of things pretty well: This is the frequent message of the folk stories, and Ken Kiff's drawings and paintings seem to stem, with a certain eccentric individuality and a very sure and simple command of his means, from a similar root.

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