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Plymouth maverick still has the power to astound; Terry Grimley previews a major retrospective by controversial Plymouth artist Robert Lenkiewicz.

Four years ago 35,000 people were attracted to an exhibition by Plymouth artist Robert Lenkiewicz at Birmingham's International Convention Centre.

Now here is another major Lenkiewicz exhibition, first shown at Plymouth City Art Gallery and now visiting the West Midlands gallery most strongly associated with contemporary figurative painting.

A notice warns visitors that some of the images are sexually explicit but, despite a flutter of alarm on local radio last week, no complaints have been received by the gallery and a school party was making an unscandalised progress round the exhibition w hen I arrived.

Lenkiewicz has always attracted controversy for his uncoventional lifestyle, with the extended family of female companions and down-and-outs who appear in his paintings.

The striking difference between this show and the one at the ICC is the down-playing of the pictures of women which have done most to establish his politically incorrect credentials.

Lenkiewicz prefers to exhibit his work in a series of themed "projects" rather than chronologically, which frustrates any attempt to trace artistic development - particularly as he is prone to switching styles according to the subject at hand.

The exception is in a group of early works from the 1950s, which show him as a precociously gifted teenager who, had he played his cards differently, might perhaps have become a painter like Frank Auerbach, revered within the official art world.

His drawing of an old woman dying in the hotel for Jewish refugees run by his parents, done at the age of 14, is also precocious in the steely gaze with which it views its subject.

Arguably his best paintings are of the vagabonds with whom he initially surrounded himself in London in the 1960s - provoking, according to an interview in the accompanying catalogue, physical threats from the police which led to his move to the West Cou ntry in 1964.

These paintings became the first of his designated "projects". Others undertaken since then have ranged in subject from sexual jealousy to old age, the education system to obsessive behaviour.

Clearly a man of wide intellectual curiosity, Lenkiewicz is also a dedicated outsider.

The lumbering egotism which leads him to put his paintings in the anachronistic gilt frames of the kind used for the old masters he borrows from is as alienating as his glib technique and tending-towards-kitsch colour.

On the other hand, the Vagrancy Project in particular is a remarkable feat of documentation, and Lenkiewicz can be an exceptional portraitist, as some of his studies of old age, in particular, demonstrate.

He seems destined to remain a maverick figure whose vast seleferential output will continue to divide opinion.

However, the fact that he has been give this retrospective by Plymouth City Art Gallery, with whom he has enjoyed an edgy relationship in the past, may at least suggest a degree of reconciliation with the art establishment.

n Robert Lenkiewicz: a retrospective is at Wolverhampton Art Gallery until June 6.
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Author:Grimley, Terry
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 28, 1998
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