A little felt and lard would go a long way. So would a bit of cash

A new exhibition in Leigh on Sea (past the baker's, opposite the used car lot) investigates the life-giving power of art. Iain Gale struggles to detect a pulse

Rothko, Beuys, Long, Kapoor, Davie, Houshiary. The press release boasts an impressive list of artists, above which the exhibition title, "Paths of the Spirit - Artist as Shaman", promises as intriguing and scholarly a thesis as you might find in any glossy catalogue from the Tate. But this show has no grand prospectus. Nor is there even one of those small stapled efforts, with obligatory eulogy, supplied by the better West End galleries. All we have is this one piece of A5 paper with its list of names, a 150-word text and the address of the gallery: London Road, Leigh on Sea, Essex. The Isis Gallery occupies a converted pool- hall "just past the bakers" and opposite a used car dealer in the disarmingly normal main street of Leigh. Since the 1930s, this sleepy cockle-fishing town (now a suburb of Southend) has drawn bank holiday trippers from the East End of London, 40 minutes away by train. So what explains its apparent metamorphosis into a mecca for the devotee of modern art?

The answer lies with the gallery's two curators, husband and wife Madeleine Liverick and Neil Ward-Robinson, two RCA-trained artists in their fifties who established Isis, a registered charity, two and a half years ago. Their mission is to educate. They exist only on the proceeds of the art classes they hold in the gallery for 90 people every week. Hand in hand with these, they run a series of exhibitions fuelled by an engagingly simple concept. Once they have their theme, the couple approach leading dealers with a view to borrowing works. The response has been encouraging and among those lending to the present show (most works are for sale) are Gimpel Fils, Purdy Hicks, Rebecca Hossack, Annely Juda, Anthony d'Offay and the Lisson. Isis should be a runaway success, opening the eyes of Joe Public to the arcana of contemporary art. But there is a problem.

While the names might be impressive, the quality of the works is considerably less so. The Rothko, for example, is only a drawing, and hadn't yet arrived when I saw the show. Although by the time you read this it should be in place, it will mean little if you have never seen his finished canvases. More tellingly, one leading London gallery (no guesses), having promised to send two "works" by Joseph Beuys, produced merely two signed exhibition posters. While this might provoke wry thoughts on the power of artist / shaman Beuys to magic anything into art, and on the cynical awareness of the dealer, it does nothing for the show. Similarly, the Richard Long is a mediocre print. The single Alan Davie oil is very recent, and the three works on paper by Kapoor, although intriguing to the educated eye, intimate little of the artist's finished sculpture.

Perhaps the most powerful works here are two small Roger Ackling wood sculptures, three large paintings by Margaret Hunter and two dark, reflective paintings by Houshiary, similar to those seen at the Tate last year. Despite their sensitive hang, however, with few such exceptions, these are works of a type appreciated mostly by the cognoscenti. None will excite the curiosity of a novice.

One is left to visualise the pieces which, had they been included, would have realised the curators' thesis: a Long stone circle, a classic felt- and-lard installation by Beuys, works by Davie from the Sixties and Seventies, one of Kapoor's pigment-covered rocks, recent work by Helen Chadwick, Richard Wentworth and Anthony Gormley, works by African bushmen and Australian aborigines and, in the catalogue at least, the historical precedents of Munch, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Klee, Arp and Jackson Pollock.

Such a show, however, would require a much larger space and explanatory text, both of which cost money.

In a major public gallery, "Paths of the Spirit" could have been a blockbuster. But to suppose that today such an exhibition could only be staged in such a venue is nave.

There is really no reason, save lack of funds, why it should not happen in Leigh on Sea. The Isis building appears convincingly secure and its contents adequately insured. The curators possess the necessary skills and contacts. All they need is the money. Without that their admirable initiative will never be more than a brave gesture.

n Open Tues-Sat 9am-5pm; free. Details: 01702-480004

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