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Paul Signac: Travels in France

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Brush Power

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Rebel behind the American movement

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Brush Power

The short-list for this year's Turner Prize, one of Britain's most prestigious art awards, features four artists who work in film and video. The captains of the art industry don't seem interested in "traditional" techniques such as oil painting or etching.

But it can be argued that many artists working in these media are more forward-looking than the trend-setters and are producing things of far greater merit.

Quite a few of London's small independent galleries refuse to go along with the dogmas of the Tate's "corporate" art selectors. Some of the most exciting new work is not at the Tate Gallery or Cork Street, but in modest new spaces at Putney Bridge, Clapham Common and Knightsbridge.

Artists such as Su Ling Wang, Marie G, Nicol Rodriguez and Ray Malone reject the glib trends of the contemporary art market. They make beautifully composed and crafted, many-layered structures on canvas or paper, with a stunning visual impact.

The artist's personality emerges through the paint, which is explored, stretched, and taken through its paces with abstract but evocative shapes and a fearless application of colour. They have taken the American and European abstract movement of the 1950s to new levels of complexity and expressive power.

Su Ling Wang, who is presently studying in London, is one of a number of highly-talented Taiwanese women artists. Paintings and china sculptures by a group of her contemporaries were recently shown at the Proud Gallery just off the Strand. She fuses subtlety of colour and delicate calligraphy with witty images of tiny flying birds.

Her first one-woman show was at the Clapham Art Gallery, an exciting new venture run by Aniko Paal and Zavier Ellis. Their postage-stamp space continues to surprise by the high quality of their artists.

Wang has made a powerful range of work over the last months. Untitled 1999, for example, uses a pure turquoise base. The background is highly spatial, with a curve of diaphanous white sweeping through it. We penetrate depth, but are brought back abruptly by splashes of orange, delicately dripped down the canvas.

Jane Watt, of JAG Contemporary Art, has brought together an intriguing mix of artists under the theme Philosophy of Inner Space. Ray Malone, Nicol Rodriguez and Roy Ray specialise in complex textures and a thoughtful evocation of pictorial space.

Rodriguez, who was born in the south of France but now lives in the Hague, completed a degree in philosophy before turning to art. Her "art language", she says, "gives new forms to ideas, concepts and symbols, and represents a powerful projection of unconsciousness a futuristic prospect of the universe."

In an abrupt career move she left France in 1978. "My choice of abstract art,'" she says, "came like a revelation, an explosion that blew up all of a sudden in the routine of everyday life, opening a window to new worlds of communication via different time-spaces. I will never forget that day."

Rodriguez' Mediterranean background emerges through intense terracottas, oranges and sulphur yellows. She has pioneered a new technique of printmaking combined with chine colleé. By applying several impressions and using glued paper, she creates the illusion of depth. All this floats through deep areas of black, white and pink. Her ethereal spaces and open rectangles are reminiscent of Rothko.

The word "print" gives a notion of flatness, but Rodriguez' etchings combine painting and etching with a freedom of colour and drawing that is totally unique.

Marie G seeks to express a particular vision of nature, drawn from her native Sweden. Her paintings have been on view at Montpelier Sandelson in a two-person show curated by James Colman Fine Art.

"Human beings are part of nature," she says. "We are made of water, arising from the soil, moving through air and space. The flow of natural life runs through history, but it is threatened now."

During the 1970s and 1980s, the artist focused on the threat to human life from nuclear power and its waste. She made a locally commissioned mural on the end of a terrace of houses in Gothenburg, where she began her training as an artist. All that remains now is a photograph, since the terraced houses were demolished, but other big murals she made can still be seen on public sites in the town.

Marie G has moved on to a more abstract and lyrical use of oil, but still integrating many of her early themes and pre-occupations. The human figure is present, but it is integrated into the surrounding space, and must be located and her symbolism deciphered.

By the Edge, for example, is a large work from 1997-1998. Two large pink bodies confront us from a bright turquoise background.

The bodies are hazy, with white, skeletal brushstrokes peering through. Marie G's strident use of turquoise, combined with "unnatural" pink, yellow and lime green, evoke a surprisingly sharp sense of mortality and decay, reminiscent of the Belgian painter Ensor.

She is deeply rooted, though not in a derivative way, in Scandinavian myth and painterly tradition.

Munch's themes and Strindberg's extraordinary abstract style from around 1900 come to mind in Mother and Child (1994). Here two figures confront each other, but we have to locate them in the interwoven drips and striations of moss greens, oranges, flesh pinks and deep blues. A flow of water rhymes with the coursing paint strokes.

Water, the sea, waves, the journey into the unknown all these are present in major works such as The First Boat Journey (1996) and Where Rainbows Grow (1998).

In The First Boat Journey the forms are not immediately apparent. The movement of the sea, the deep green of Sweden's dark waters gradually emerge, along with the shapes of a mother and father with a child. Her range of colour, sometimes earthy, sometimes iridescent in deeply ploughed layering and symbolic form make Marie G an outstanding practitioner in oil. The emotional immersion in high colour and the flow of paint is tempered by the use of myth and metaphor.

Like Nicol Rodriguez, she does not shirk from presenting the big questions of life.

This review first appeared in Socialist Future