PAUL REID PAINTINGS AND DRAWINGS **** PERTH MUSEUM AND ART GALLERY
OVID'S Metamorphoses have inspired and delighted throughout the two millennia that have elapsed since he composed them. Never more so than in the Renaissance, when they provided the inspiration for some of the greatest images in Western art. Titian especially was inspired by Ovid to paint some of his most profound and beautiful pictures. Paul Reid is a painter who has set out to rediscover what it was that stimulated such great art.
He is conscious of the enduring fascination of the stories Ovid tells and of others like them which offer continuity with our remotest past. He is conscious, too, that for the first time in those two millennia we are forgetting these things, and so has set out to paint them again and make them relevant once more. His art illustrates Ovid and other stories from the myths and legends of Greece and Rome just as ancient and also once as universally familiar.
Reid comes from Perth and so the Perth Museum, honouring its own, is showing a group of his ambitious narrative paintings as the main exhibition for the Perth Festival. Reid paints Pan and Apollo: the musical contest when King Midas grew asses' ears because he favoured Pan's rustic pipes over Apollo's classic lyre. He paints the death of King Pentheus, killed by the Bacchae for refusing to join the worship of Dionysus (aka Bacchus). In his picture of the Heliades he paints the moment of metamorphosis when the daughters of the sun god Helios – or Apollo – lamenting the death of their brother, Phaeton, are turned into weeping poplar trees. Phaeton had come to grief as, disastrously, he tried to drive his father's chariot, the chariot of the sun. In Reid's picture two naked girls and a third, partly clothed, have poplar leaves growing from arms and feet.
The stories Ovid wove into his poetry were already very ancient when he wrote them down. Their origins lie in a time before history. The feature they share that is identified in their title is metamorphosis: one thing turning into another. Daphne turned into a laurel bush when she was chased by Apollo, for instance. Daphne is laurel in Greek.
Syrinx turned into a bank of reeds when she was chased by Pan. Syrinx is a reed and so she gave us Pan's pipes. Arachne was turned into a spider and so we have arachnids. But that very fluidity, that sense of the universal interchangeability of life in which the gods joined in enthusiastically, reflects a primieval vision of unity, of how everything is interdependent. It is a world view very different from our own.
Ours has been shaped by Christianity and is posited on the separation of humanity from nature and their opposition, upon duality, therefore, not on unity. It is a dualism that has proved disastrous as it has encouraged us to treat the word around us as other, as different from us, with the ecological consequences we are now seeing. Reid is right, therefore. Ovid should be topical.
It was perhaps an intuitive sense of this alternative vision that the great painters found in Ovid. Certainly Titian's two greatest mythologies, Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, both in the National Gallery of Scotland, are pictures in which that interchangeability is palpable and in which nature is indifferent to any hum-an claim to be above and apart from other living things. Reid acknowledges Titian and indeed quotes from him.
His stiffly posed figures are closest to Poussin, but it was Poussin's contemporary, Claude, who, after Titian, captured best the poetry of Ovid and the myths. He conjures a sense of the time when these stories were new, and yet sees them, not in the remote past, but in a magical, continuous present. Reid's rather banal landscape settings don't quite manage that kind of poetry.
Nevertheless, these are old-fashioned pictures – narrative compositions based on the figure studied from life – and there are examples of Reid's studies and working drawings on view to show you his method. He claims to use the painting techniques of the old masters too, but though the pictures are elaborately painted, they don't have a very beautiful surface, so he has had mixed success there. In the academic manner, he has used models and posed them in what he thinks are suitable postures. It is not clear whether they are chosen to carry the narrative or just because they are interesting poses. The girl on the right of the Heliades, naked and seen in profile, one arm raised above her head is borrowed from Titian's Diana and Callisto. In Titian's picture her raised arm has a purpose. Here, it doesn't seem to. It is the old academic trick of choosing a pose and trying to make it fit, rather than using observation and invention to create a pose to illustrate an action dramatically. The same is true of the Death of Pentheus. Three women gather around the fallen king, threatening him with unconvincing gestures of violence. These are borrowed from Elsheimer's Stoning of St Stephen, but instead of stones, the women are using knives and fists. They are not very threatening however, not like the screaming Bacchae who tear Pentheus limb from limb in Euripides's play. Here he could easily stand up and shake them off.
While in his pictures pose and gesture only loosely fit the narrative, if at all, Reid has leant the other way in describing the individuals he paints. His models are still themselves. They are too graphically real. Pentheus has a hairy chest. In Diana and Endymion, the goddess hovers over the sleeping shepherd to whom she had taken a fancy. (He had to be asleep to preserve her chastity.) She may be a goddess, nevertheless, she is showing a hint of cellulite.
This attempt to be real is a mistake the Victorians made. Closer in time it is why Brad Pitt was so laughable as Achilles in Troy, the recent Hollywood epic that tried to bring Homer to the big screen and failed dismally. Reid falls back towards this Hollywood approach.
Greek actors wore masks to perform plays on themes like this for good reason. It is an axiom of classical art theory that you can't reach the universal if you are tied too closely to the individual. On the other hand, the idea of the primacy of the individual is central to our world view. The classical ideal won't do. It is a dilemma. Much effort was expended in trying to resolve it and make the ideal fit the modern world, but it ended up as at best blandly academic, at worst banal.
Picasso and Matisse had to turn to African masks to break open the smooth and glassy surface of academic art and find beneath the kind of truth that Titian reached, but in a form suited to the modern world.
Perhaps Reid's pictures are deliberately stagey, however. The postmodern painter has to nudge us in the ribs to reassure us he is self-aware enough, that he does not lack irony and is not really being serious. Or maybe it is worse than that and he is not even postmodern. The catalogue for the exhibition has a foreword by Prince Charles. So you would be forgiven for thinking that Reid is providing the painted equivalent of Poundbury, Prince Charles's model village that turns its back on the modern world. The prince clearly thinks he is. Nevertheless, these pictures are more interesting than that. Even if they fail, the attempt to reconnect with Ovid and all he stands for is worthwhile even if only to show us how impossible it is.
• Until 5 July