Adrian Wiszniewski: New Paintings & Peter Thomson: New Paintings
Until June 20; Open Eye, Edinburgh

If paintings were animals, Adrian Wiszniewski’s latest offering at the Open Eye gallery would be big, bounding shaggy dogs. Though the majority of them are lumbering mutts, there does lurk the odd pedigree surprise. Across the hall, the work of fellow-Glasgow painter, Peter Thomson, is more like a menagerie of exotic insects, each specimen stock-still, spell-binding, and creepy.

Though both men attended Glasgow School of Art in the early 1980s, Wiszniewski is by far the better known of the two, having ridden the boom and bust wave of enthusiasm for big, brash figurative paintings. Now the work of neither man is exactly fashionable, but if prices are anything to go by, there’s still a bit of surf left for Wiszniewski.

There are essentially three types of painting in Wiszniewski’s show: ambitious figure scenes on a grand scale; simpler, bolder portraits of medium size; and a series of small sketched faces with standard classical features.

The large compositions just don’t pull it off. The skimpy brushwork and incoherent arrangements suggest an artist in a rush, hoping to hit on something if he just keeps going. The chalky, dirty paint is deadened by its handling, in contrast with some of Wiszniewski’s best work, which is rich and thickly luminous. But there are hints of something better – glimpsed in the view through a window, or a door, or in the pinned up pictures within a picture of Cornwall Clue.

These are simple, bold flights of fancy: billowing clouds and plasticine trees, cartoon environments much more compelling than the numb characters in the picture’s main space. They show Wiszniewski at his best: exuberant and yet controlled within a tight, self-contained structure.

Too liable to get tangled up in the tuberous complexity of his large canvasses, Wiszniewski makes his best work at more modest dimensions. Artists Signature and The Man Who Made Money stand out from the rest: each features just one character, anchored against a strong, vivid background. The brushwork is hatched and stippled, sculpting the forms instead of skating impatiently over the picture surface.

In the latter painting, the sinuous curves of the man’s lapels continue unbroken through his interlocked fingers, echoed on the left by the large dollar sign. Colour and harmony are locked into place, perhaps not in the most earth-shattering visual statement, but in one which compels you to look.

Next door, Peter Thomson’s paintings don’t shout half as loud; in fact they lurk like hidden scorpions waiting for their prey. 17th Century Dutch painter Gerard Dou was known to sit motionless in his studio for hours, waiting for the dust to settle before he took up his tiny brushes; Thomson’s gleaming panels recall the minute detail and polished surfaces of Dou and his band of fijnschilders (fine painters).

Thomson’s shining gems are peopled with the sick, emaciated characters of Eastern European theatre, frozen in time as if for a split second and an eternity. They inhabit grey galleries, luxurious interiors, bleak forests and plush cinemas, all settings oozing with atmosphere. The characters, with their pink-rimmed eyes, look like the living dead, and sometimes just like the dead.

The flat precision of Thomson’s environments – particularly his dark, neatly arranged winter woods – owes much to 15th century Florentine painter Paolo Uccello. But while the medieval painter’s famous Hunt In The Forest featured vigorous hunters in a blossoming forest, Thomson’s trees, like his humans, might equally be dead or alive.

Whether a whisper in the background, or a growl in the foreground, there is one force latent in all these paintings: a sense of the watcher being watched. In Projections, it takes time to realise that we have become the projected image in a gallery viewed by a lone spectator. In Spectators, a sweeping cinema auditorium is filled with serried ranks of death-white faces, staring numbly at the screen before them. The whiteness of their faces is a reflection of that screen, on which hundreds of motionless faces stare back.

Thomson’s paintings slowly uncurl before you, revealing hidden mysteries, but holding back on more. They suck you into their silent worlds, while Wiszniewski’s declare themselves like a trumpet fanfare, with a few flat notes along the way.

Catrìona Black, Sunday Herald 10.06.07