Last year in London Tim Stoner was awarded the Beck's Futures award for his fluent, ethereal and eerily anonymous paintings of the rituals of leisure. Stoner elevates these activities through a theatrical use of light, which throws the figures into glorious relief, their facial features impossible to decipher through the glow. Layers of thinly applied, almost flat, colour overlap as if shifting - the effect has been aptly described as that of looking at 3D imagery without the right glasses. Formally, Stoner's compositions are dramatic: they have the impact of a distant sunburst.
In this recent show, entitled 'The Power of Partnership', Stoner presented a group of works that included new pieces produced during a residency last spring in Amsterdam, where he had previously studied. The works in the show fell into two groups: images of dancing, smoking, wind-swept couples reminiscent of characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories, and the larger, perhaps more ambitious paintings of groups, which are delicately rendered yet monumental. These paintings evoke the 1973 cult film The Wicker Man, which depicts the lyricism of community life on a remote island and the pagan celebrations that take place there: a shared joy and unity that belie something sinister.
In Folk (2000) a group of dancing men and women in Sunday dress - complete with hats - dance holding hands in a broad circle beneath a string of small flags. Behind them a field of wild foliage stretches out; the roofs of modest houses are visible just beyond. The light is a twilight white and gold, which silhouettes the dancers. Beautifully rendered but faceless, they form an anonymous golden circle in a small town that seems both familiar and nameless. Similarly, Feste (2001) depicts four female dancers in broad, festive skirts and pointed hats pinned with ribbons circle-dancing while brandishing poles topped with what look like models of churches. The circle becomes aggressive with Union (2002), in which men in national or religious costume come together to cross rods crowned with sharp ornaments.
This group of paintings inspires a comparison with those of American painter John Currin in their display of sheer skill, and their combination of traditionally accepted ideas of beauty and with knowing references to more popular aesthetics. But whereas Currin's subjects are defined by the eccentricities that mark them as part of a certain social set, Stoner's subjects are stand-ins for society itself. Smoke (2002) and Ballroom (2001) stand apart as the paintings that come closest to kitsch, while remaining too breezy and hypnotic to cross that line. In Ballroom a couple in evening dress are suspended in mid-turn, dancing against canvas washed in a thin grey-blue, their brown-green silhouettes occasionally interrupted by a shower of abstract shapes resembling balloon-sized tears or petals.
Void (2002) links the near-anthropological group portraits with more urbane society couples, suggesting a bridge between sport, community identity and ritual. It is simultaneously a beautiful image and one that hints at unnerving fascist undertones. A male acrobat is spread suspended in mid-air, his female partner joined to him with her legs gracefully wrapped around his torso. Spotlights above the performers outline their bodies, arched into yet another glowing circle: another phenomenal union. This is perhaps the image most open to severe interpretation: it is both unabashedly sentimental - the couple grip each other, suspended in the 'void' of the title - and chilling in its Riefenstahl-like athleticism. But Stoner's pop-gossamer layers and gentle tone prevent the content from reading as obvious or over-simplified.
At the same time the pervasiveness of this tone was the closest to a problem to be found in the show: if every painting deals with varying degrees of ecstasy, summoning up very similar emotions, we are still left without highs and lows, only exclamation marks. Stoner is clearly not naive in his appreciation of the joys of community, and he elegantly draws a relationship between a broad range of human interactions and couplings. Still, it might be compelling if the artist were to render more explicitly the stuff that is already gnawing at the edges of these paintings.