“Sex, drugs and alcohol on tap, never treading on a piece of grass, an endless waking nightmare of sirens and screams”: that was Bow, east London, when Dale Lewis was finishing his 36-metre-long painting of exuberant, dysfunctional, urban life “The Great Day” during lockdown. It wraps around the walls of Edel Assanti Gallery and beams on to the Fitzrovia street, a grotesque parade: a stream-of-conscious, saturated colour overload of tattooed flesh, protruding tongues, bodies eviscerated into x-ray innards, heads swirling in junk washing machines, a Covid-masked worker in fluorescent vest, Lidl bags, women in hijabs nudging a wolf with bare human breasts puffing on a cigarette and rolling along in a wheelchair.
London’s commercial galleries are reopening, and rich, strange fruits are emerging from the past silent months. Figurative painters, highly responsive to zeitgeist shifts, have pushed to a new pitch of intensity and ambition, and the galleries displaying them are the star turns in town.
Lewis, 40, is notable for the peculiar phantasmagorical social realism of his sprawling tableaux, but “The Great Day” expands his scope and depth. The raucous composition unfolds with the control of a Renaissance mural. Figures cross cartoon elongation with real pathos of detail. There is a sense of nature reclaiming human wastelands that feels palpably current — fat, luscious bats, birds, mice sneaking up on a plate of fried eggs, hybrid creatures spilling out of pockets and mouths, dangling from denuded trees.
Lewis has an unusual pedigree: working in an English comic social tradition that stretches from Hogarth to Grayson Perry, he honed his skills in Damien Hirst’s studio, then as assistant to Raqib Shaw — both artists of glittery excess. Lewis has transferred vestiges of the extravagant ornamental manner to shape his quotidian east London. “The Great Day” follows his walk to his studio, via Wetherspoons pubs, bus stops, graffitied walls; a distinctive expression of city claustrophobia.
Shaw also spent lockdown in London — in his Peckham studio with its lavish garden — and the results could not be more different. His engrossing and intricate large octagonal work signed “The Harp still sings of eternal Spring in my heart, Lockdown period 2020” is framed by a blossoming cherry tree hung with a string-of-pearls swing. A bird-headed acrobat with an orange parasol swoops down from the swing towards a peacock harpist, joyously camp in gilded cloak, gold-turquoise leggings and painted toenails.
“The Harp still sings” is the rococo seduction at Thaddaeus Ropac’s sumptuous Ely House, where the group show Art Basel Highlights stages what would have been the gallery’s presentation at the fair. It is a happy opportunity for Londoners. Shaw’s inspiration was a line written by Victor Hugo: “Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart”. “For me”, Shaw says, “as for many others I am sure, lockdown 2020 was a period of somewhat welcomed isolation, self-reflection, grief and misfortune. I distracted myself with poetry, music, gardening and found solace in the beauty of spring”. He tried “to capture that moment of poise between melancholia and optimism — also, a moment of contemplation between the beauty and renewability of the season as well as the fleeting nature of life. I welcomed the looming, numinous presence of nature.”
“If anyone is around to look back at art made during this time, I guess they’ll look for poetry,” says Tom Anholt. “They’ll want to know how it felt.” The nocturne of a solitary figure against a translucent pink tree on a rocky island outcrop greets you on entering Anholt’s exhibition Notes on Everything at Josh Lilley gallery. Titled “Self Isolation”, the work marks a new level of achievement for this 33-year-old painter of tight formal structures with elusive narratives. The wavy dark sea where every streaking mark animates yet stylises the water recalls Matisse (“black with ultramarine has the heat of tropical nights”). A light-dotted shoreline gleams through a screen of leaves, unreachable beneath red-purple bands of sky — an uncertain, enchanted atmosphere. Anholt seems to have been set free imaginatively by lockdown: “The Screenwriter” unites unicorn, laptop, village house, nude and a winding road whilst a figure in striped pyjamas lies across the foreground of “Time Apart”.
It is brave, especially for smaller spaces, to reopen with the expense of a new exhibition. Most global dealers — Hauser, Zwirner, White Cube — have merely extended their London spring shows. Nevertheless, not everyone wants to visit a gallery masked, sanitised, often still by appointment. It is a compromised experience, for the joy of discovering new painting is to stop in your tracks spontaneously, leisurely.
That pleasure can still happen online. In Michael Armitage: Another’s Tongue, an exhibition launched this week at White Cube’s online viewing room, it is interesting to encounter new brown ink studies — “Hyenas Attacking Old Leopard”, “Street Performers, Musicians” — by a painter celebrated as an opulent colourist. Here he is shown to also be a distinctive draughtsman, laconic yet fierce. In an edition sold entirely to benefit Nairobi charities, the British-Kenyan artist, 36, has also produced a lithograph “Dream and Refuge” (2020). A sleeping homeless woman is surrounded by sumptuous images representing her potent, even optimistic interior reveries — the lucky star from the prow of a sailing dhow, the bright red hornbill on the printed cloth enveloping her.
For digital flâneurs, the London Collective (42 galleries) of the new extended reality app for the art world, Vortic, is transformative. Online offerings until now have been dreary — interminable “my lockdown experience” chatter a particular low — but Vortic hosts some outstanding exhibitions, including the revelatory Celia Paul: My Studio at Victoria Miro, which remains physically closed for now. It displays Paul’s most mature, transcendent paintings yet: not the customary freighted depictions of herself and her sisters, but luminous, airy vistas, architectonic, dramas of tremulous memory and yearning, made during lockdown from her top-floor flat and studio opposite the British Museum.
The figures on the frieze of the museum pediment are here, as well as the spire of St George’s Church, Bloomsbury over the rooftops. Best of all, in crusty layers of spring greens, lemons, sky blues, velvet blacks, is the BT Tower seen night and day through the spreading tree outside Paul’s window. It is a totem of hope throughout “BT Tower and Plane Tree”, “BT Tower, Museum, Stars” and “Tower, Tree, Museum”. Paul lives alone, depending on phone and Skype, and says “the BT Tower is a lifeline”. How curious that in lockdown this inward-gazing painter looked outward to supreme effect; how magnificent that she celebrates in the physicality of paint a symbol of the virtual connections which kept us united. Her towers stand as lyrical odes to lockdown London.
‘The Great Day’ at Edel Assanti, edelassanti.com, July 17-September 19; ‘Art Basel Highlights’ at Thaddaeus Ropac, London, ropac.net, to July 31; ‘Notes on Everything’ at Josh Lilley, joshlilley.com, to August 1; ‘Michael Armitage: Another’s Tongue’, White Cube, whitecube.com, to August 16; ‘Celia Paul: My Studio’ at Victoria Miro via Vortic, celiapaul.victoria-miro.com, to July 25
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