Art review: Joan Mitchell | Moyna Flannigan | Julie Roberts

IF THE National Galleries are bursting with the colour and flamboyance of Impressionist Gardens this month, Inverleith House at the Royal Botanic Garden is showcasing an underrated figure who was an unlikely heir to those French garden traditions.

Joan Mitchell, who died in 1992, was a second generation abstract expressionist, too late to be a pioneer, too female to fit in, no matter how respected by her peers. She decamped from New York to France in 1959, developing a painting career that in many ways picked up where the 19th and early 20th century landscape painting currently wooing the crowds on The Mound left off.

The truism about her art might be that she is a missing link in an American chain between the blood, sweat and tears generation of Jackson Pollock, and the Arcadian sophistication of an artist like Cy Twombly. Certainly like Twombly she is an artist with a painterly language built from European sources and American methods, but her art has a definite awkwardness, a defiant streak alongside its certain radiance.

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The day I visited this first UK solo show, Mitchell's status was being probed thoughtfully by a bunch of contemporary painters and art curators in conversation. Was she a minor figure, or a major figure we just hadn't yet placed in history, someone we haven't quite got the language to talk about?

I think it might be the latter, but some colleagues were ambivalent, I think in part because though there are some great works here, this is an oddly ambivalent show more like one of those tasting menus than a well-structured meal. It's a good start though and the major museum exhibition it will undoubtedly prompt will get to the bottom of the question.

Despite their reckless blaze of surface colour and texture there is a coherent structure, a grid or engineered torso, to many of Mitchell's paintings. Her simple inspirations were drawn not from nature but the memory of nature, a bunch of flowers in a vase, the dazzling sight of a field of sunflowers, or line of cypress trees viewed from a yacht, dark sentinels on a shore of illness or foreboding, like the foreshadowing of danger present in even the sunniest early painting of Van Gogh.

There are moments of pure joy, but these are often not very happy paintings. The work First Cypress looms in the very first gallery of the show, like an unanticipated glimpse of the abyss.

Dominated by a green-black bulk in the middle of the canvas, like much of Mitchell's work it packs an astonishing variety of mark-making into a single drawn-out punch: fine washes, calligraphic scribbles and casual sprays, the bold brush, the splat and scrape of the palette knife. If one side of the work seems to indicate a kind of outward natural energy of tumbrels and tendrils, the central mass hangs as malignant as a tumour. It doesn't cast a shadow so much as exercise a fatal, centrifugal force.

There is a similar sense of fatality over at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, where the contemporary painter Moyna Flannigan helps celebrate the gallery's 50th anniversary by turning her attention and her brushes towards some of the collection's key and darkest works.

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The gallery is famous for its surrealism collection and for its alliance with German art of the 1980s. Flannigan harvests these works by simultaneously embracing and undermining their values.

Georg Baselitz's monumental sculpture Untitled (Figure With Raised Arm) is evoked in a pair of glamorous female figures, each a monumental and sinisterly vampish colossus astride coastal landscapes that meld the blasted surface of Mars with the east Lothian shore where Flannigan has her studio. These are statues not of liberty but figures of imprisonment or enchantment, their long mechanistic arms turning into access ladders which suggest their armoured bodies may in fact be Trojan Horses.

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Better still are three small canvases referencing one of the gallery's greatest and most horrible treasures. Woman With Her Throat Cut, Alberto Giacometti's 1932 bronze, is a worrying human-insect hybrid, a splayed, disembowelled figure part praying mantis, part crime victim.

Flannigan turns up the volume of Giacometti's angst-ridden attitude to the female form; her own painted figures echo his sculpture's splayed structure, but are defiantly, terrifyingly alive, with their blood red lips and stiletto heels.

Up at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Julie Roberts' unmissable exhibition Child is a superb display of meticulous control, both manually and intellectually. Roberts' current idiosyncratic painting style is immensely ordered; her palette of sanitised pinks and greens reeks of the nursery and the institution, the strange shorthand and anomalous markings she makes on the surfaces of her paintings creating a graphic of the tension between the painted and the real.

Roberts' subject is childhood in some of its more complex and saddest moments, images of children adrift in the care system, estranged from parents through evacuation or conflict. These are not sentimental images; they are coolly detached, but still urgent. Historical antecedents abound; Meat And Two Veg, her picture of three little boys eating a formal meal in a children's home, is Van Gogh's famous Potato Eaters redrawn for our own times.

It would be foolish to draw unnecessary parallels between these artists, just because they are all women and all painters, but Roberts and Flannigan, both trained in Glasgow, are long-time friends and close peers. All three might be seen, in one light, as oddly off-kilter for the art of their time and all the better for it.

All seem somehow to struggle with the constraints and limits placed on the female body in the male-shaped art world: Mitchell by a kind of denial and subterfuge, a weaving between the positive and the negative, Roberts by a deadpan and cold confrontation and Flannigan a camp flamboyance that is both comically dark and deadly serious. v

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Joan Mitchell is at Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden, until 3 October, Moyna Flannigan is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until 17 October. Julie Roberts is at The Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, until 25 September.


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