A method to his strangeness

Strangeness as a quality of art can be something more positive than mere novelty or a deliberate, self-conscious disturbance of the viewer's peace of mind. It can amount to a subjective vision. John Hargrave's recent paintings are of this order. They certainly have strangeness. They have the intense ''realism'' of events in dreams. Perhaps Hargrave shares something with the Surrealists of the '20s and '30s, who activated the ''subconscious'' to make unexpected, unconventional art.

But one senses that in Hargrave's work there is a particular alertness, a knowledge even. He paints with a competence lacked by many of the Surrealists. He is also an undisguised admirer of earlier artists: He does not apparently want to dispense as radically as the Surrealists with the art of the past - although, equally, he is no traditionalist in his pictures.

The canvas becomes the mise en scene, the setting, for some human drama. In the best meaning of the word his figures are theatrical - though, of course, voiceless. They move silently through odd vegetation or pause in buildings that belong to the memory, caught in a motion that is also stillness. ''Stillness,'' he says, ''is one of the most interesting aspects of painting'' and one of the most powerful. The Alice-in-Wonderlandish figure streaming after the large butterfly in ''The Entomologist'' is a case in point. Though in vigorous pursuit - athletically dynamic - she is at the same time extraordinarily poised. She has equilibrium, as a figure would on a bicycle: the unwavering balance necessary for successful propulsion, an unmoving state in harmony with forward speed.

Another of his recent paintings shows a small girl on a bicycle. She is tranquil in a way that puts one in mind of the paintings of Piero della Francesca, that 15th-century Italian master of living calm, of ordered yet active human dramas.

John Hargrave's awareness includes encounter with more than one ''old master'': Before he turned to painting full-time, he was a picture restorer, one of the elite in that profession, working in London's National Gallery from 1955 to 1969. Although that career is now behind him (he has moved home as well, to the valley of the Lot River in southwestern France), it seems inevitable that his experience in detailed, slow exploration of earlier paintings has influenced his own vision - and even his procedures. His oil paintings are built without haste. The quick impact alone, which results from a spontaneous application of paint, does not interest him. He has looked recently at some of the young artists emerging in the so-called ''post-modernist'' phase of painting - painters of narrative, of events almost Expressionist in vigor, largeness, and immediacy. ''The Entomologist'' may not be uninfluenced by this kind of painting. But his aim, it would seem, is mainly a kind of permanence.

If his paintings are strange, it is not the strangeness of a shock, which is soon over. It is the surprise that continues to be a surprise after long looking , the exceptional atmosphere that might arguably be claimed as an ingredient of any lasting work of art. In Hargrave's paintings there are qualities which, in today's image-swamped world, rather scrupulously belong to painting. They could not be found or expressed easily, or at all, in film, photography, video, or television.

And his pictures are original, in the genuine sense that they make no secret of the artistic influences in their make up. The female figures of Balthus (Hargrave mentions being impressed by the recent exhibition of this artist's work in Paris), strange in the use of careful observation of the model to support fantasy, join forces with Tenniel's memorable illustrations to Alice and de Chirico's timeless architectural stage settings. Piero della Francesca finds himself in company with the Douanier Rousseau. Possibly it is no coincidence that superb examples of work by these two painters, so utterly different from each other - Piero's ''Baptism'' and ''Nativity,'' and Rousseau's ''Tropical Storm With a Tiger'' - are in the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square. To Hargrave belongs the capacity of unifying such disparate strands in the history of art into the variety and vision of his own new art.

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