A brush with business

EXHIBITIONS; School's out, and business is in. 1996's 'New Contemporaries' are already established artists
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The Independent Culture
The "New Contemporaries" show at the Camden Arts Centre presents, as usual, much of the brightest new work by current art students and recent graduates. The exhibition has a party atmosphere and I'm sorry for all the people who didn't have their work displayed. This year's judges (Mark Wallinger, Maria de Corral and Richard Shone) looked at the slides of 1,600 applicants. That's a remarkable figure. It shows how rich we are in highly motivated art students. Surely no other part of the educational system produces such vivid energy. 1,500 people were at the private view the other night. Can you imagine a similar celebration for, say, English Literature graduates?

I do have a criticism of the selection, which is that there's next to no sculpture in the show. James Chinneck's transparent Suitcases is an amazing idea, but it's not the real thing as sculpture. Perhaps next year's organisers will try to emphasise three-dimensional art. Meanwhile its absence points us towards other media. Not video and installation, as one might expect, but painting. Pigment on canvas or board or whatever has a more prominent role in this "New Contemporaries" than for some years past. It's not that the painters are doing anything startlingly new, but they show that their medium is capable of constant renewal.

At first sight, for instance, Sybille Berger's paintings look old-fashioned, as though they came from the late Sixties or early Seventies. A big canvas is divided into four horizontal bands of even colour. We've seen this before - so many times - but I haven't had the same feeling before other pictures with this format. Berger's paintings are confident, questioning, slightly aggressive. They depend entirely on colour. As all art teachers know, colour sense is the last thing to mature in a growing artist. Well, Berger is nearly mature. She's also ahead in professional terms, for at the moment she's also showing at the Francis Graham-Dixon Gallery.

Berger is German, was born in 1962 and came to Britain to study at Goldsmith's College in 1993. Three more exhibitors, Xenia Dieroff, Monika Oechsler and Monika Pirch, are also German. Jun Hasegawa is Japanese, Nicky Hoberman comes from South Africa and Javier Marchan is from Barcelona. That is, seven out of 33 exhibitors come from abroad. It's a new pattern, first set by foreign exchanges between art schools about a decade ago. Obviously this country's art schools are attractive to Europeans, especially if they are in London. Furthermore, some leading colleges are actively recruiting abroad, for they are eager to collect foreign students' fees for postgraduate education.

In these ways a student art show like the "New Contemporaries" has taken on an international role. The exhibits are often sharp and sophisticated, with much use of new technology. There's lots of sponsorship, a glossy catalogue and the venues are grander than in years gone by (this exhibition opened in the Tate Gallery in Liverpool). All very different from the days of the "Young Contemporaries", the exhibition that began in the 1960s and was largely organised by the students themselves, with engagingly amateur, not to say chaotic, procedures. Nowadays the show is organised by a company, complete with directors and a professional company secretary. Were it not for the fact that young artists are natural anarchists the operation would be too smooth for my liking.

Alas, the most anarchic contributors seem rather old-fashioned, and that's because they cling to the attitude of the local art school in the provinces. I'm talking about "Leeds United", two young men who don't give their real names, insist on their northern origins and love of beer, and have produced some scathing and quite funny parodies of currently talked-about metropolitan art, with Goldsmith's a favourite target. This is all likeable, and parody is of course a student speciality, but Leeds United don't quite bring it off. Part of their problem is the lack of slickness in their presentation. They want to show that they've got a rough edge, but the result looks like Goldsmith's art done on the cheap, and therefore not a parody at all.

There's a genuine roughness in the small, unframed figurative paintings by Chantal Joffe. I'm not sure of their subjects but I guess she's into some sort of whizzy feminism. Joffe would be the discovery of the show, were it not for the fact that she already has quite a track record of exhibitions. And so have many of the other contributors to this show, in fact most of them. Formerly, to get into the "Young Contemporaries" would usually mean a first appearance in public. Nowadays, lots of student artists, always from postgraduate courses, have wide experience of the art business. Perhaps that's the demerit of the "New Contemporaries" as it is now conceived. Undergraduates don't get chosen anymore. The show is for people well on the way to high status within the gallery system.

The liveliest painting is Liz Arnold's Mythic Heaven, a vision of the afterlife enjoyed by ladybirds. Other interesting painters are Ashley Elliott, Alexis Harding and the enigmatic Nicky Hoberman. Sarah Jones has an ambitious, pessimistic attitude to portrait photography and the videos by Jamie Holman and Monika Oechsler have an unsettling effect, which presumably is what they intend. Have you ever seen an arts video by someone who obviously loves life? A sense of the fun of being alive is what I want from a student show.

! Camden Arts Ctr, NW3 (0171 435 2643), to 8 Sept.

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