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One in a Pack of Ruralist Loners

As a group, the Ruralists commanded more attention than they would have done separately. They exhibited extensively - anywhere `from a barn to a barn to a major gallery' writes Ann Arnold.

OCCASIONALLY, British artists have converged into groups to share some commonly perceived purpose, but on the whole they tend to be lone wolves. This could be partly the result of a widely held conviction in the art community that Britain is a country inhabited mainly by the visually illiterate, or at least by people indifferent to the visual arts.

Probably this is something of a myth, given the surprising number of painters and sculptors and craftsmen who do work in this country. They exhibit, sell, and achieve sizable reputations at home and abroad. But it is true that there is something about being an artist here that almost seems to require a sense of isolation rather than camaraderie, as if an individual's particular vision must be held sacrosanct, secret, protected from the gaze of the insensitive. If this sounds rather paranoid, perhaps it i s.

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The paintings of Graham Arnold - the three shown here were included in a recent 60th-birthday exhibition at the Tabernacle Cultural Centre in Machynlleth, Wales - are of a character that might reasonably lead one to assume he is one of these loners. His themes are often obsessional in their intensity, depicted with meticulous, even exquisite, nicety.

His air of strangeness, though presented in a crisp, crystalline light that suggests an almost relentless self-exposure, can border sometimes on the esoteric. And he displays an individualistic liking for subtle anachronisms, as when a definitely contemporary young woman in a Laura Ashley dress (which has an aura of old-fashionedness) poses with her back to us in a room that might belong more in the 15th than the 20th century. This is a picture called "The Room," which has much in common with the paintin g illustrated here, "The Study" of 1989.

Arnold's world is one of acutely aware dreams, for the most part benign in feeling, but deliberately and consciously invested with timelessness. His love of ephemera is paradoxical in the way it cuts across this timelessness. Sometimes he treats a subject - like "The Annunciation," which is hardly common in 20th-century art - and it is certain that the past is as vivid a part of his present as the present is.

Things Victorian seem to hold a particularly intense fascination for Arnold. But he argues that he is not at all dealing in nostalgia. He once observed: "You can only be affected by the past because you are living in the present. You don't copy the past."

To him, nostalgia sounds like "looking over our shoulder at something that has gone by, longingly wishing it to return. It is that kind of flavor that that word gives." But he says his work has much more to do with "the spirit of being alive at this particular moment."

However, it would be hard, somehow, to argue convincingly that Graham Arnold's paintings are consciously "modern." Some certainly have a compartmented arrangement of different objects and scenes, surrealistically bringing into the canvas's rectangle memories and visions that only connect because they reside in Arnold's mind. Such arrangements have traits in common with collage (a 20th-century technique) or with works constructed of boxes or pigeonholes: with the work of American artist Joseph Cornell, fo r example.

Cornell, too, might be accused of nostalgia; yet both artists, extremely unlike each other in every other way, perceived the potency of memory as a particularly communicative preoccupation of a visual artist.

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Cornell really was something of a loner, certainly in his art, though he had a circle of highly appreciative artist friends. Arnold is not nearly as alone as one might imagine from his work.

He was, in fact, one of the founder members of a loose-knit group of English painters formed in 1975 that called itself - after some initial distaste for the last word in their name - the "Brotherhood of Ruralists." They didn't think the first part of the name was altogether appropriate either, since women were members and one of the ideas the group shared was that a greater balance was needed in the world of art between masculine and feminine.

"The Ruralists," writes Arnold's wife, Ann, (and she is still one of them) were a "small group." It "helped to heal the sore of loneliness and isolation of the individual (artist) without feeling overwhelmed by society at large." They agreed on the word "ruralists" when they found a definition meaning "a city dweller who moves to the country," as Peter Blake, certainly the best-known member, explained it.

Blake had been prominent in the 1960s as a Pop artist, though his work had always been far more concerned with a kind of schoolboy-memorabilia view of things than with the cool modern commercialism more central to Pop Art.

When Blake went back to London from Somerset in 1979, he wrote that "by definition [he] could no longer be a Ruralist." Of the original seven members, only four today call themselves members, the Arnolds and another husband and wife, Graham and Annie Ovenden.

The Ruralists were reacting against polarities they felt unfortunate - antagonism between concepts like city and country, male and female, national and international. They also felt that certain aspects of English art - as well as certain English artists, like Stanley Spencer - were being unjustly overlooked as waves of international modernism swept the museum and gallery world. (This, possibly due in part to their protest, has altered now to a considerable degree. The Tate Gallery, the national collecti on of British art, now gives Spencer much more prominence.)

As a group, the Ruralists commanded more attention than they would have separately. They exhibited extensively - anywhere "from a barn to a major gallery," writes Ann Arnold.

However, although the Ruralists have given each other strength and encouragement, British writers on art regard them as peripheral to the mainstream. The group (and Arnold has been described as "the most ruralist of the Ruralists") has been subjected to caustic criticism, accused of sentimentality and nostalgia.

They have not always done themselves credit by their tendency to bite the biters in a kind of siege mentality. In the catalog for the Arnold show, fellow Ruralist Graham Ovenden fumes with high scorn: "It need hardly be said that abstractions which are mere picture making (and the New York School, despite its apologists and the vast sums of promotional monies involved, falls into this category) remain at best decorative and at worst little different from ... neurotic daubings... ."

He then launches into extravagant praise for his friend Arnold who he apparently feels epitomizes just about everything the New York School and others lack. Now that's a heavy burden to place on the back of an artist like Arnold. He is not a "neurotic dauber," it is true. Nor is he an abstractionist, though at his best he is clearly aware that the abstract is an integral part of painting.

Arnold's work is sensitive at heart and brittle of surface. (I don't mean technically, but psychologically so, as if it were made of thoughts so fine and fragile that a sustained high note on a violin might shatter them.) It is tense. And he paints as if he were frightened of understatement, of that breath of air that allows the imagination of others some free play.

But all of this contributes to his extraordinariness, and there is no reason to assume that his paintings will not find their distinctive place in the history of 20th-century painting in Britain. In some respects, his work is a descendant of early Italian Renaissance art no less than of some 19th-century idiosyncratic painters, like Richard Dadd, or certain members of that other artist group, the Pre-Raphaelites. But that group was less at odds with the spirit of their time than the Ruralists have been w ith ours.

For example, they loved Victorian children's book illustrations. "Alice Through the Looking-Glass" is not the first interest one might expect a serious artist of the later 20th century to have, and yet not only Arnold, but Ovenden and Blake, in his Ruralist period, were much intrigued by this enigmatic child of the Victorian imagination.

Arnold's "The Dream Child," who looks very like Alice, and "The Study," with their symbolic mysteries and percipient investigation of femininity and childhood, have all the ingredients of a fierce fantasy suspended in the refined ether of a highly exacting will-to-evoke; and this results in something quite definitely indelible.

* Some of the works in Graham Arnold's recent exhibition remain on view for the foreseeable future at Tabernacle Cultural Centre in Machynlleth, Wales.

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