ART / Pleasant surprises off the beaten track: 'East', an annual show of new artists in Norwich, unearths feminist photography, cult humour, too many installations and no sculpture

Click to follow
AT THE Norfolk Institute of Art & Design they have an annual public exhibition called 'East'. It's put on by using all the painting studios of this large college, beautifully placed near the city centre beside the River Wensum. The show this year has a professional look and includes a number of European artists. The selectors were David Tremlett, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize last year, and Konrad Fischer, the dealer who was responsible for the German success of British conceptualism in the late Sixties. They looked at 800 sets of slides, then invited 33 artists. Inevitably there are some duds, given the method of selection, but the show contains a number of pleasant surprises.

There's much more painting in 'East' than I had anticipated, and it's far and away the liveliest part of the exhibition. Of the straight abstract painters, Alison Turnbull and Trevor Sutton are familiar. Sutton presents more of his small and perfect canvases, each composed with the simplest geometric shapes. His wall shows how he can make paintings of different character, even though his means are so spare and emblematic. Turnbull is an artist who places a long rectangle of one colour within a horizontal field of another colour. That doesn't sound much, but to make an effective painting in this way is a real task. Turnbull's canvases are now less obdurate than they have been. I doubt if she wishes them to be lyrical, but that is her present direction.

The catalogue is sparse on information, so all I know about Pete Smith is that he was born in 1955 in Buenos Aires and lives in London. Is he a late developer? His paintings feel as if he is not long out of art school; but they are original and intriguing, which is not often the case with student art. He uses long and twisted forms. They seem to be biological, and the result of some arcane study. There's a touch of Sutherland and Bacon, a reminiscence of the post-war decades. Not an explicit influence, this, more an example of the way that new painting often recycles the innovations of a couple of generations ago. Smith's repeated dots could come from Aboriginal art. They are certainly unusual. I expect that we will come to know more of his painting, and then his inspirations will become clearer. A painter to watch.

Another newcomer is Gabriel Weissmann. Born in 1944, he paints with the high spirits of an art student but with adult skill. His The Private View is a laugh and a half. The laughter comes from his clever updating of Max Beerbohm's scenarios of artistic folk. The half is Weissmann's inability, which he almost avows, to produce art that is completely his own. Perhaps I am being too serious. British art in the past 25 years has kept producing cult humorists (Gilbert and George, Bruce McLean, Glen Baxter, Steven Appleby) and Weissmann could well join their number. So could the duo of Greg Lucas and Dizzy Howard, who are as daft as dandelions. Their photographic adventures give much pleasure. At the moment they lack poise, but I'll be happy to join their cult.

These humorists tend to go in for weird body language, and we see this in other artists too. I like the paintings of Peter Oxenburgh Noble, who has the desinvolture of some inner- city skateboarder, carelessly but deftly bashing out his pictures: all in black and white, and as if he had chosen the wrong brush, with collaged bits of paper. Another odd body artist is James Rielly, whose fists, or toes, or thumbs, are represented as if seen through a mist of more sophisticated abstract painting.

Is something going on with this body art? Is it a trend? There seems to be a new kind of figurative painting around. At the Whitechapel recently we saw Tony Bevan's strange paintings of feet and anonymous backs. Jane Wheeler isn't so far from Bevan in the blunt way that she paints. She has also taken something from recent feminist photography, with its hard mockery of soft porn. Her piece is of six abutted canvases and is called Watch Your Look. It shows the artist (presumably) in different poses and states of dress, pained or come-onish, never at ease. Quite different views of the body are offered by David Oates, whose moving charcoal drawings are in memory of a deceased brother. They are an attempt to catch the breath and substance of life.

The disappointment of 'East', as in previous years, is that there is no sculpture. Kenny Hunter makes heads that are half-caricatures, half- imitations of classical busts. This is not the real thing. I want genuine modern sculpture, art in three dimensions that has shape and volume. Nothing of this sort is to be found in 'East'. It could be that the absence reflects the sculptural scene as a whole. In Norwich, though, one feels that sculpture has been banished, replaced by installations. And these do not give us enough.

Sean Taylor has a corridor in which he hangs 12 little icons of unpleasant contemporary rulers (Gaddafi, Khomeini, Reagan, Thatcher, etc), framed with flashing lights and shrine-like appendages. The sound of laughter comes from a tape. Weak though the piece is, it has the merit of being under the artist's apparent control. Not so with, for instance, Claudia Terstappen, whose evocation of archaeological exploration in the 1920s - maps, suitcases, bottles and a dozen other things - might be distributed in other ways without changing the effect of her room.

Other installations are by Charlie Holmes, Timothy Davies, Lucy Heyward and Jez Noond. For all the various bits and pieces they bring into the gallery they don't add up to much. Accretion of objects is the bane of installation art. We ought to know this by now, but installationists never learn from previous generations. They simply continue to strew things around. Only the best tighten their act - but then they risk comparison with real sculpture. The only enjoyable installation in Norwich is by Jeff Luke. The hundred or so objects on the floor of his room are almost all functional but mysterious. You can't tell what they did in the real, that is, non-art world from which they were gathered. It's like a parody of Terstappen's procedures.

Luke is close to admitting that his activity is futile, and other artists share his light and unhappy engagement with the world. The first exhibit one sees is from a Northern Irish artist, Padraig Timoney, who has placed three pieces of shrapnel on the wall, arranged like those flying ducks that are so often caricatured. Elsewhere Timoney shows a remarkable drawing in ink and pencil. It's like French or Italian work of two centuries ago, a sketch by some distinguished old master you can't quite recognise. The twist is that it's drawn on one of those cheap cardboard food trays you find in the delicatessen. A nice, harmless joke: surely, though, an artist with Timoney's talent ought to be more forthright.

Ben Cook's lackadaisical but none the less assured painting of a TV set, David Green's dogged pictures of cars, Graham Chorlton's repeated views of a block of buildings seen from above: all these canvases look as if they have been painted by people in retreat from the world.

Fischer and Tremlett, sorting through their hundreds of slides, have hit on various aspects of the present-day atmosphere, including this sort of flight from the bold statement. So their interesting exhibition lacks thrust and finality. This is perfectly OK, for they have shown us something about ourselves. If there were more open exhibitions, we would know more of the life of new art. In fact there are very few such shows these days - and, amazingly, none at all in London. So if you want to find out what's going on, my advice is to visit Norwich.

Norwich Gallery, Norfolk Institute of Art & Design (0603 610561), continues until 4 Sept.