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Neal Tait, ‘The Food Inspector’, 2006, oil on canvas

Tait’s paintings are resistant to commentary, which is why writing on his work has often showered praise on how elusive and slippery meaning tends to be in his quirky, arrested, washed-out figurative scenes. Elusive and slippery is a good game to play in painting, allowing an artist the independence to explore and experiment free of immediate explanations, but the price is open-endedness and deferral for its own sake.

Tait’s new paintings could be accused of such wilful weirdness, yet—as the Spoonerised Shakespeare of the title hints—there’s a sense of humour to this show that suggests Tait has already got this angle covered, and may have meaningful goal in sight. It’s one that won’t be revealed too quickly or too easily; one which is certainly hospitable to the circuitous logic of dreams, to uncanny processes of association, and to a legacy of surrealist image-making which Tait’s images nevertheless elude.

What, after all, does one make of ‘The Food Inspector’, 2006? Across a blank, hot red ground, a white-haired lady in (perhaps) rubber gauntlets and dungarees, a giant turnip-headed figure and an anthropomorphic tin-opener all attend with benign interest to some sort of stove, on which a long-handled pan sits. This stove or bench is hardly there at all, which allows the brushwork denoting it to shift into a flattened area of washed mud brown, where a schematic sad face emerges. A bonneted peasant woman or nun, transported perhaps from some Breughel or Ensor painting, looks away into the red. Looking out to us is a rose-cheeked, whitefaced young man, in a bulbous cap and a long coat, with a parcel or briefcase under his arm.Or how about the still life that is ‘Untitled’, 2006: a dun, unstable arrangement of leaves, buds, strawberries and a sort of trestle prop, out of scale with the rest of the elements, where cartoon faces half-appear in brief marks that don’t quite correspond with the more apparent representations? Or the hermit-like man in a robe, set in a frigid grey wilderness in another ‘Untitled’, 2006, lost in thought and oblivious to the approach of a plum-bodied muffin-head figure?

Who knows? Tait pursues a subtle game of inadequate representation that produces a multiplicity of shifting resolutions. Perhaps the content–echoes of old masters, phantasmal vegetables-becoming-human—consists of arbitrary whims. Perhaps the composition of three discs, capped by a shrouded fourth shape in ‘Cloth on the Mirror’, 2006 wants to tell us that the visible here-and-now yields no sure knowledge of reality to our insistent gaze; a Lacanian morality tale of sorts, told in painting.

Sitting on the modern grey bench that Tait has customised with rough bits of sawn tree to produce rustic armrests and backrests, I get the impression that he is searching for that twilight moment between the active, conscious present, the contemplative, immersive expanse of the subconscious and an unattainable past, where everything can be held in suspension. Painting as a sort of melancholic, amused reflection on the limits of knowledge, which we habitually exclude from the busy necessities of a working grasp of reality. Painting ideally suited for sitting and waiting, without wanting to know what happens next.

JJ Charlesworth is a critic and curator