Art: The picture of health?

    Waldemar Januszczak finds two female painters thriving — though their celebrity subjects are anything but

    There has never been a time on these islands when someone, somewhere, has not been producing worthwhile paintings. But, these days, painting is just one way of making art, not the only way. For the past two generations or so, other ways of making art — sculpture, installation, video, photography, conceptual manoeuvring — have interested our best young artists more than painting. However, painting appears to have discovered fresh energy recently. It is, therefore, an area of art worth paying extra attention to just now. That’s how it is. It may sound dull, but those are the facts.

    So, your dutiful reporter has duly been trudging around the painting shows this week, weighing up their real worth. I’ve focused on two women painters of the same generation, both born in 1969, both old enough, therefore, not to be trying it on, yet both at the point, just past their mid-thirties, where their lives will be feeling critical: the perfect time for a visit.

    I started with Stella Vine, because she has the strongest Saatchi connection. You may recall a media stormette erupting around her last year because she was an ex-stripper, self-taught, who did paintings of Princess Diana and that unfortunate heroin addict, Rachel Whitear, whose notorious final photograph, crouched pathetically on her living-room floor, made such a distressing frontispiece to our morning papers. Saatchi bought these paintings and put them in a show called New Blood; and, although I didn’t much want to like Vine’s contribution, I found I did. It had something.

    What happened to Vine after that, I didn’t know. So the news that a fresh cluster of her paintings has gone on view at a place called Hiscox Art Projects, in EC3, tempted me into the East End, where I expected to find one of those feral art spaces — a run-down warehouse or converted meat-packing plant — in which so much of the real action of the London art scene unfolds. Boy, was I wrong. Hiscox turns out to be a giant insurance setup in the City, and its art space is a glassed-in trophy foyer at the bottom of a multistorey corporate HQ, surrounded by banks, opposite Norman Foster’s gherkin. Stella Vine, on this evidence, has become a blue-chip City investment.

    The paintings in the flashy corporate foyer, however, tackle an unlikely subject for an insurance HQ: they are ruminations on celebrity and the weird wounds it inflicts. A couple of portraits show the post-lapsarian Kate Moss, looking wide-eyed and anxious; there’s a hilarious scene of frantically waving detox patients trapped inside the Priory; and a charmingly skinny group portrait of the Rolling Stones, taken from one of their early album covers, when they really were snake-hipped and sexy.

    All this has been painted with a drippy directness and not much in the way of picture-making subtlety. Moss has been enlarged from a photo, the smudgy eyeliner around her eyes heaped on with a trowel and the words “Holy water cannot help you now” scrawled next to her, a tad creepily. Is this empathy or accusation? The gesticulating female celebs, trapped like Rapunzels on the upper floors of the Priory, consist of a few blobs of colour squeezed straight from the tube, while the glaring white castle in which they have been incarcerated has been shaped with a palette knife, as if the Priory were a huge iced cake.

    It’s all done pretty crudely. There’s not much give in Vine’s fingers. Her emotional range covers a narrow band on the Bridget Jones spectrum. She copies her images from existing sources. Her colours are a cake-maker’s — girlie pinks, Alice-band blues — and the way she writes on her pictures has been learnt from a bakery. But there’s something there, nevertheless: a combination of empathy and cynicism that can be startling.

    After much energetic googling, I tracked down the quotation about the holy water to a song by PJ Harvey about vulnerable beauty trapped in The Desperate Kingdom of Love. “Your mysterious eyes cannot help you/Selling your reason will not bring you through,” continues the melancholy lament. Thus, Vine presents Moss as an Ophelia figure, Princess Diana Mark II, a breakable victim of love whom the thuggish forces of modern life are out to crush. It’s an unexpectedly snippy and independent characterisation, fuelled, I fancy, by lots of fierce transference. Vine, you feel, learnt all she needed to learn about blokes during her stripping days.

    The sweet-shop colour schemes lend an unhealthy toxicity that suits the subject matter. And the emblematic bits of cake-writing offer helpful clues to each picture’s emotional pitch. In the case of the Priory painting, the telephone number of the clean-up castle has been cheekily included, as well as the price of a night’s stay, including Vat. Thus, any toxic celebs owning this painting need only look at their wall to find the daily rate of salvation and the number to ring. Vine ’s sympathy has turned to scorn.

    Chantal Joffe is the same age as Vine, copies her images from photos too, and is just as interested in models and beautiful people, but her paintings have none of that alarming sense of personal involvement that yanks your attention in Vine’s direction. Her new paintings, are elegant, co-ordinated, beautifully made and subtly noirish.

    I remember she used to make small paintings with lots of hot coupling in them: porn mags were a favourite source. In her new show, however, the porn action has been replaced by scenes from a fashion shoot; and when you walk into the Victoria Miro gallery, you find yourself ringed by a set of giant Audrey Hepburns, 7ft tall, big-eyed, beautiful brunettes in Chanel cuts, who train a particularly elegant loneliness on you, as if Bergman were directing a spread in Vogue.

    There’s something Picasso-like, as well, about these curious paintings: the two-tone heads, the Africanised expressions, the totem-pole formats. But where Picasso brought a sense of voodoo to his female idols, Joffe maintains an emotional coolness that is most unsettling. I’ll be back for a second look, and may need a third. Something has hooked me.