Catalogue note for Jason & Rhodes exhibition

Unlike many artists who gradually settle into the complacent reiteration of a well-worn formula, Paul Huxley keeps on the move. Now in his sixtieth year he paints like a young man intoxicated by the prospect of pushing his work towards ever greater audacity. The impact of his new canvases is ebullient, and thrives on risk-taking. He sets up oppositions between elements so startlingly contrasted that they ought to be incompatible. But somehow, against all odds, the outcome is stimulating rather than discordant. We find ourselves drawn into a dialogue between curvilinear exuberance and geometric order. The tension between them is engrossing, and Huxley ensures that it remains impossible to resolve.

He prepares himself for each painting with absolute precision. The large table in his studio is strewn with small, terse ink drawings. Some concentrate on form alone, experimenting in black and white with a host of permutations. Others bristle with measurements, testifying to the rigour involved in calculating how these modest beginnings can best be enlarged and given monumental life on canvases of imposing proportions. Compasses, rulers and protractors lie among the studies, confirming Huxley's passion for exactitude. But there is nothing rigid about his working methods. He remains committed to searching, and the paintings on paper pinned up together elsewhere in the studio show just how supple his explorations can be.

Here, in the visual equivalent of chamber music, Huxley is free to test out all the diverse elements that give the final canvases their vivacity. Colour comes fully into play, and so does the complex relationship between the two sections of each painting. To begin with, the right half is restricted to a single hue. But Huxley would never be prepared to leave it in such a minimal state. This first colour is regarded as a ground, upon which he proceeds to add further segments of rectilinear form. It looks like an additive process involving separate pieces, whereas the whirling configuration in the left half is treated as a single entity from the outset.

Working on this scale enables Huxley to reduce improvisation to a minimum once work starts on the grand scale canvases. He has developed as swift and economical a modus operandi as possible in terms of their execution, these big paintings are the very opposite of battlegrounds. They bear no scars of incessant, agitated revisions. Immaculate in handling, they stand as the refined product of all the complex decisions taken at earlier stages in their gestation.

But that does not impair their freshness. The left half of each painting is carried out with conspicuous élan. Huxley allows himself to deploy more outspoken mark- making than in previous series of paintings, making us keenly conscious of his brush's mobility. The paint gains in sensuousness, and accentuates the difference between the impetuous curvilinear form and the more measured disposition of rectangles, squares and oblongs in the other half of the picture. They are treated as flat surfaces, and no individual brush marks can be detected within them. Everything depends, here, on the colour of the geometrical elements and their interrelationship.

Cubism and Surrealism are recognised by Huxley as the two cardinal movements of twentieth-century art, and he makes continual reference to them in his own work. These twin loyalties help to explain his persistent preoccupation with duality. Attracted by logical procedures and irrationality in equal measure, he dramatizes the division between them by splitting each canvas into halves. The two opposed parts seem to embody a recognisable human state of tension, and Huxley makes no attempt to hide their differences. On the contrary, he offers us an invitation to become involved with the perpetual dialogue between labyrinthine restlessness on the one hand and calm, calculated harmony on the other.

This is where the central challenge of his work resides. Our eyes are continually being pulled from one section of a painting over to its neighbour. The rumbustiousness of the form on the left probably means that it arrests our initial attention. Fizzing like a firework, it travels up the canvas in a sequence of fiercely interlocked semi-circles and diagonal thrusts. Huxley is still an abstract painter but he is not dogmatic enough to rule out references to visible appearances in his art. A lifelong Londoner he has nothing in common with the landscape-based abstraction that flourished in St. Ives. His whirling forms evoke urban dynamism - its snake like motorways, flashing lights and other even more hectic complications. Hints of Delaunay and Leger, who both celebrated the vitality of the machine age earlier in the present century, can be detected in these excitable configurations. They are often so effervescent that their edges jut into the other section of the canvas, flouting the vertical division with unashamed relish.

But the forms within the right half of each canvas refuse to be discomfited by such territorial incursions. They remain poised. Sometimes their corners impinge on each other either slicing into a border or overlapping in a more comprehensive manner. Their separate identities are never in doubt, though. Unlike the serpentine convolutions on their left, they do not seem embroiled or ensnared. Their predominant mood is playful. They indulge in perceptual games, teasing us with hints of perspectival recession. They hint at architectural references, often conjuring the image of a luminous window. And they delight in performing acrobatic feats, balancing one element on top of another in a precarious yet cunningly balanced upright progression.

For all the manifest differences between the two sides in each painting, they do share a preoccupation with standing forms. On the right, they look as paper-thin and agile as in a late Matisse cut-out. But on the left, their restless rhythms and rough striations are more allied with African sculpture. Huxley feels a special kinship with the harsh, mesmeric figures Picasso drew and painted when preparing himself for Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Tribal carvings guard the stairs outside the artist's recently converted Hammersmith studio, and a sturdy fragment from an old olive press in the kitchen is inescapably reminiscent of Brancusi at his most totemic.

In the last analysis, though, Huxley's work refuses to be restricted to one overriding source of inspiration. He has constructed his own world, and its fundamental meaning cannot be found in either of its two, vividly distinctive parts. Rather does the significance lie in the inexhaustible interaction between them, reverberating inside the viewer's head long after the paintings themselves have been scrutinised with the care they deserve.

© Richard Cork  1998