ON the table in Stephen Conroy's painting ``Something Special for Tea'' (1988) - along with the shop-bought cakes, the apple, the empty cup, the teapot without its lid, and what looks more like a small rounded stone than a roll - lie two books. The man in the foreground, seen from above and behind, appears to be the one expecting ``something special for tea,'' though he grasps, like an overgrown child, a quite inappropriate spoon. He, no less than the other two figures only partially shown, is in a state of suspended animation. Nothing much is happening.
What appears at first sight to be a rather ordinary domestic scene turns out, on investigation, to be a pictorial composition full of small enigmas, unanswerable questions, odd relationships. Is the artist playing some sort of game with the viewer, surrealistically juxtaposing objects and people, deliberately depositing clues? And what about those two books?
It happens that Conroy - a Scottish artist - has, in the three years since he graduated from Glasgow Art School, been the subject of considerable publicity. A legal tangle with agents, now resolved, was followed by his first one-man exhibition last summer in the prestigious Marlborough Fine Art gallery in London. It sold extremely well. His paintings had already made an impact two years ago in a show of Scottish art during the Edinburgh Festival. And they were included in a show that toured the States last year called ``The New British Painting.'' The Metropolitan Museum in New York has bought one of his paintings. All this has brought him extraordinary attention from the media at an early stage in his career.
In London he has been seen as the latest in a line of young Glasgow artists who have emerged dramatically into the limelight of the international art world over the last few years. Admiration for his undoubted, if ``precocious,'' ability as a painter (though precocity is relative: he is 25, not 12!) has been somewhat detrimentally tempered by various kinds of out-and-out critical attack on him and his art.
Such criticism hasn't always clearly drawn a line between the critics' dislike of the art-world's hype and their doubts about the achievements of Conroy's art. His pictures have become expensive and ``highly desirable'' commodities almost overnight. It is, however, unjust to automatically hold the pictures, or the artist, culpable for their commercialization.
Some critics of Conroy have cried ``premature exposure!'' Apparently Conroy had, innocently enough, hoped to circumvent the commercial art world. The critics have accused him of being naive - or calculating: it seems they don't want him to win either way. The ensuing publicity, however, has certainly helped build his repute - which a number of tut-tutting critics would now, evidently, like to pull down.
In the meantime one supporter points to the obvious quality of Conroy's work, its promise, and Conroy's actual maturity in his reactions to the criticism.
Others have put Conroy's art down as little more than the production of a talented, hard-working, and ambitious art student. Some critics have suggested that deliberate mystery in a painting is a cop-out, a way of avoiding the need to express meaning. William Packer, one disapproving critic, sees him as launching, without sufficient skill, into the difficult business of painting figure compositions, and complains that he really can't draw very well. Conroy's figures, writes Packer, ``are ill-proportioned and stereotypical. What he finds difficult to draw he obscures, eyes blocked by solid pebble glasses, faces drifting into shadow, the form cut off short at the contour or silhouette.''
POSSIBLY the critics have found the hardest thing to cope with is what Conroy quite openly admits to by including the two books on the tea-table: eclecticism, admiration for past art, and determination to teach himself by studying it. The closed book with the red-brown cover is Kenneth Clark's ``Introduction to Rembrandt,'' with an etched self-portrait of Rembrandt. And the other is a notebook with a post card of a painting by the English painter Walter Sickert. Conroy does nothing to hide his admiration for both Sickert and Rembrandt.
What this young artist's old-fashioned paintings ask is why shouldn't an original artist today do what artists did until the 19th century as a matter of course - that is, learn the language and meanings of art by the study, copying, absorption, and frank admiration of selected ``old masters?'' Does an artist have to see himself inescapably as a link in some sort of chain of development from the immediate past, or can he define his own present by making a leap backwards to whatever interests him most?
It is notable that Conroy is not unconsciously an old-fashioned painter: He knows very well, and makes sure we know too, when he is quoting from the past, when he is copying, when acknowledging a debt. And he frequently lets us know these things with wit. He can't be accused - or not justifiably - of painting ``in the manner of,'' or simply of imitating, past artists. But emulation isn't necessarily an unproductive motive in an artist so long as a he isn't swamped by it.
Sickert greatly emulated Degas - and Conroy has quite openly also learned much from Degas. Conroy's highly amusing ``Che Gelida Manina'' is inconceivable without Degas' example. And Degas was an absorber of all kinds of old master art. But Degas (who rather aptly once said that ``Everyone has talent at 25. The difficulty is to have it at 50....'') was different from Conroy in one crucial respect. He was concerned to paint contemporary subjects. His figures, whatever they owed to antique or Renaissance sculpture, wore modern dress, occupied modern rooms, danced at the Opera, rode horses at Longchamp. And Sickert painted grubby little corners of domestic or caf'e life: his people belonged to his own time.
The strangeness of Conroy's evocative, mood-laden dream world is that his figures more often than not belong to a different period from our own: to the twenties, or the 1890s. They sport stiff white collars and round Lytton Strachey spectacles, their hats are bowlers or trilbies. Even when he paints people who might belong to more recent times, they may be wearing old-fashioned evening dress, white tie and tails, as in ``Che Gelida Manina'' (translated: ``Your Tiny Hand is Frozen'').
The humor of this painting is that the portly young fellow intoning the song from ``La Boheme'' could hardly look less like a romantic, 19th-century Bohemian singing to a poor seamstress in a garrett in a Puccini opera: he might be an Edinburgh lawyer. And apparently it is his ``tiny hand'' that is ``frozen'' - hidden for warmth under his tails.
Conroy's art is not only in atmosphere and feeling redolent of the old masters, it is so also in the more technical qualities of surface, of paint texture, of tone. It is deliberately old-masterly in its contrast of deep, varnished shadows with intense highlights. He paints almost as if the French Impressionists had never rebelled against the academic tradition of depicting light by chiaroscuro - by strong opposition of light and dark - introducing instead their kind of light-hued, light-imbued palette.
Conroy explores the potential of cloaking, indeterminately deep shadows: Rembrandt, Degas, Sickert all found extraordinary riches in the obscure suggestiveness of deep shadows and strong highlights. And Conroy shows an aptitude, also to be found in these three mentors, for the telling silhouette.
Put simply, Conroy is an artist today because not very many years ago he suddenly found that painting was something he could do. That same eagerness to ``do'' - and to go on learning to do - is what drives him now. The hope should be that he will still be similarly driven at 50 and beyond.
``To do'' is, after all, as sound a reason for being an artist as most, and already, out of his admiration for past art, is emerging a vision that is, in its peculiar human enigmas, its color and light, in its timelessness, uniquely his own. In 25 years' time he could be a quite different kind of painter. Already it is not hard to see that he has a strong sense of abstraction.
REMOVE the figure from ``Che Gelida Manina'' and you might have something between a Mark Rothko and a Barnett Newman. The edge of the tablecloth in ``Something Special for Tea'' is crisp and incisive in a quite unreal way: no cloth falls over a table edge with such geometric, knife-edge precision. His sense of color is also self-sufficiently abstract. His figures - though they are dream figures - are half way to being mannequins and might not be entirely at a loss on a staircase by Oskar Schlemmer or in a Giorgio de Chirico piazza. In other words he does not ignore, in his eclecticism, all art between Sickert and now, with quite the sweep his critics would like to suggest.
It's possible that this young Scottish artist is emerging into a surprising modernity, rather than being stuck in some anachronistic aesthetic from which there is to be no escape.