Adrian Wiszniewski is famous for two things - on paper that is. That he’s famous on canvas, as one of our foremost contemporary painters, is simply a matter of fact. But on paper, he is famous, firstly, as one of the New Glasgow Boys, those Glasgow School of Art graduates, including Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Steven Campbell, who in the 1980s were credited with bringing figurative painting back into the mainstream.
And secondly, he is famous for having proclaimed, in 1999, that “painting is dead”, consequently dumping his paintbrush for flings with the sweet, more marketable seductions of other media - from tapestry to script-writing - or so it was painted. Even artists are entitled to a mid-life crisis, one might conclude.
But Wiszniewski has always had a mischievous side, alongside a voracious appetite for exploring other forms of expression, and his best work comes when that is visible in the content of his work.
These latest paintings, commissioned by the Open Eye Gallery In Edinburgh and displayed there until June 20, are full of the joys of paint. They are assured and cocky, with the best displaying that spontaneity that he claims is the anchor of his process, with concomitant depth.
These are bright, vast oils, filled with exotic colours and creatures, from peacocks to lush plants and thick-haired women. The effect is part Japanese wallpaper gone mad, part Jack and the Beanstalk, part allegory. It is work that excites the visual and the mental faculties. This is art to pull up a chair to. Wiszniewski has toyed with such Brothers Grimm-style fantasy in the recent past - his first play, GBH (The Girl, the Boy and the Hag), at Glasgow’s Oran Mor in February, came over as part Hansel and Gretel, part Greek myth.
Certainly the beanstalk pops up again and again in Wiszniewski’s new work, notably in The Green Shadow, in which a woman clasps a vast stalk snaking to the sky, backed by a yellow pyramid with aforementioned shadow.
In the first painting of the exhibition, Wiszniewski’s red-dressed woman - a real Eve - does not so much take a bite from the lauded apple as crack open the egg of sexual awareness - quite literally, for the broken shell is scattered at her feet.
The picture resonates with fertility and dark sexual lure, from the snake in the water (feel the symbolism!) to the brilliant lascivious blooms that seem to eye the viewer up, demanding mental self-examination of a more intimate nature.
To say that these canvases are fantastical perhaps takes it too far, although Wiszniewski certainly dabbles in painterly Creationism, because these paintings are too rooted in the display of a symbolist narrative to convey a fantastical world.
There is always something missing from these large-scale narratives - the picture is never quite complete, whether it’s the flurry of realist symbols and signs building to an indistinct whole in Cornwall Clue, or the more surreal Blue Butterfly.
Tuber Babes is a darker, more disturbing vision altogether, an odd concatenation of a picture, featuring a baby whose umbilical cord stems from a plant which seems to be growing organ-like offspring, all amid a warm family scene. Outside an old village, with two incongruent tower blocks inserted on the periphery, the scene is backed by an angry red cloud, as if pointing to man’s mindless destructiveness, both of nature and his fellow man.
There are echoes in this small, and suddenly rather political scenario of both the Twin Towers in New York and climate meltdown from man’s lust for building and commercialism. And at the same time this image of abundant, perhaps blind nature indoors. It’s not Wiszniewski’s most successful picture in the exhibition, perhaps, but it’s darkly provocative.
But perhaps most fascinating in this tangle of man and nature are Wiszniewski’s plants. Wild Flowers of the Night is a deeply evocative piece, of fleshy blooms flowering against the darkness. There is something alien in these night-flowering plants, their star-fish-like shapes, their sexualised blooms exuding a heady fragrance. They writhe with gaudy romanticised exoticism - these are the Gildas of the flower world, their first flush fast and brief, before age withers them.
Of course, you could extrapolate some sort of obsession with youth, or a certain nostalgia - and there has always been this element to Wiszniewski’s work. But there is also something very Blake-like in his wranglings with Innocence and Experience.
His stylised human subjects, portraits and characters all snapped in a budding youth, big-eyed, rosy-lipped, pregnant with promise, also resonate with a dark side, as if the idealised army of some fascist dictatorship. And yet, as with all idealistic visions, the reality is more diverse. Nature will out. And in these fertile, plump, youthful representations, Adrian Wiszniewski finds almost infinite expressive variety. His trademark style of rather 1940s-ish heads and figures clad in simple block coloured clothes are vivified by their gaze. The eyes, quite literally, have it, whether it’s the placid sense of inquiry behind his small-scale, mixed-media The Student or the dark-shadowed innocence that seems to emanate from his Blonde Boy. Wiszniewski’s next stop is sculpture - after he’s finished the French murder mystery novel he’s working on. “I can only do one thing at a time. I finished the paintings at 6 o’clock on Tuesday. Now I have three weeks to finish my novel, and then I will start on the sculptures,” he says with the natural enthusiasm of a man standing in the midst of a brim-full private view of his latest collection.
“I’m always changing, I’m interested in everything.”