ART / 'Ullo Ian, got an old motor?: Public galleries are in a sorry state. But thanks to private enterprise, six highly promising artists are showing in London

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ANDERSON O'DAY is one of too many galleries that have been knocked about by the recession. Staff have had to leave and at the moment it's only open from Thursdays to Saturdays. But the gallery keeps up a lively exhibitions programme, so it seems in better shape than some that began in the Portobello Road area with high hopes in the boom years of the Eighties.

At the moment there's a show of four Anderson O'Day artists in the gallery and two more in the Concourse Gallery at the Barbican. Such a mixture of private and public is now essential to avant-garde galleries, says Prue O'Day, and not just in the matter of exhibition spaces. Indeed she recently went to the Arts Council for assistance. She supports young artists, and by common consent they are some of the most interesting around. Her gallery is often packed with appreciative visitors. Yet she hardly sells any work. She can't. So what's the difference between the gallery she runs and those public galleries that do receive public funds for new cultural enterprises?

Plenty, actually, starting with the fact that public galleries have trustees who - at least in theory - have the public interest in mind. But O'Day is right to foresee more arrangements between the private and public sectors. They need each other. Arts administrators are increasingly dull people without aesthetic convictions. But avant-garde dealers do believe in their artists. And they look for opportunities, take risks, are hungry for success and know how to celebrate.

The artists in O'Day's show are part of a new young establishment that hasn't quite settled yet. The oldest is Maria Chevska. She had her first shows in the Eighties and is definitely a part of another establishment, for she is head of painting at the Ruskin in Oxford. I wish her present art showed either more attraction to painting, or less. Paint itself she seems to find disagreeable. She works without pigment, therefore without colour or individual touch. Her paintings are mostly bare. Perhaps it is wrong to call them paintings at all. She's really making half-sculptural objects that hang on the wall and refer, unlovingly, to the conventions of stretcher and canvas.

Slip, for instance, is made from a sheet of pale rubber instead of canvas. This rubber spills over the left-hand corners of the notional painting and is split open at the top. Looking into this slit we find not a stretcher, but part of a picture frame. The front of the painting has been moved to its back. Such paradoxes are no longer original and Chevska's work, confident though it is, looks derivative. Tight, made of rubber, nylon and Polaroid, reminds me of Richard Hamilton - another artist who prefers to make imitations of painting than actually to paint. The more elaborate Little Coat of Armour, in which canvas rolls from the wall to the floor, suggests that Chevska would be better employed as a sculptor. If your heart isn't in it, why do it?

Many people have noticed Jane Harris in group shows. Her canvases are quiet but insist on their own character, and here is further proof of her talent. Her ability is to give delicate, highly varied movements of the brush over surfaces that appear at first to be neutral expanses of a minimal painting. The broad outlines of her work are simple. One, two or three circular shapes with scalloped edges fill the large part of the picture area. The rest of the painting could be called the ground: but it's here that Harris most clearly displays her remarkable brushwork. When you consider the painting, its central form tends to fade away.

I say that it's minimal painting for ease of description. The rhythms and patterns of the handling are actually rather elaborate. Not showy, though, and if there is virtuosity it's natural rather than contrived. Harris's palette is not dramatic. Subdued lilacs, a light buff, thoughtful black-brown suit her best. The pictures need to be examined close up. One peers at them as though approaching a minimalist. Then they reveal different moods. Brune Brun is probably the most accomplished; but if you look at Just Dandy for a while, a wildness starts coming out. Perhaps this will be Harris's future direction.

Kate Davis, who also now teaches at the Ruskin School, has persuaded scientific colleagues to coat an open cylinder of heat-resistant glass with a membrane of aluminium. More interesting - but only in that they appeal to curiosity - are small, ground-hugging round sculptures made of two convex mirrors with a puddle of latex on the top. They are called Underneath the Pavement the Grass Grows, a slogan she has taken from 1968 Paris. Rachel Evans contributes 40 transparent glass jars filled with honey and lemon slices. Each bears the same banal, loving message on its label, but is addressed to a different, non-existent person - the 40 most common boys' names in Britain. She's 'subverting marketing techniques', O'Day explains.

Over in the Barbican Concourse Gallery, O'Day practises her own marketing techniques by presenting concert audiences with large, not terribly expensive paintings by Ian Jones and Colin Smith. I hope the music lovers like serial pictures of smashed-up motor cars. As ever, Jones paints with ludicrous, inimitable bravado and relishes the crummiest subjects he can find. Old suitcases or bottles floating in stagnant canals are now succeeded by obsessive paintings of a Ford Sierra (the artist's, we understand) in various stages of disintegration. The paintwork has peeled, rain has dripped through the windscreen, rust has crept along the panelling, there's been an accident or an explosion: next stop the scrap-yard.

Surely an unappealing subject. But Jones's fans - I am one of a growing number - will love to see this portrait of the artist as a used motor. We already knew that he can only paint autobiographically. We also know that he is relentlessly self-mocking. I think Jones the most splendid humorist in British art since - I don't know when. Comparisons with comic artists are not useful. Artists who set out to amuse don't laugh at themselves. The Barbican pictures are not there to entertain. Jones is obsessed with fine art. He is an unhappy child of his age. Extravagantly gifted as a painter, he grew up amid the Post-Modernism that scorned such gifts. He sees no way forward. All his comments on other artists - Rothko, Bernard Cohen, Joe Zucker, Therese Oulton, a dozen more - turn the joke against himself. He manages it by being so theatrical, and his grandiloquent self-ridicule is one of the best acts around.

Colin Smith's best paintings have a theatrical flavour because of his interest in costume and disguise. These are six upright pictures of a wardrobe, in which hang clothes that are not new, are asexual, may be casual, perhaps sporty, are conceivably oriental and connected with martial arts. Smith makes such suggestions with aplomb. His manner is also interesting. The style comes from a number of American demotic sources as well as Diebenkorn's realist period. He is better known in New York than London, which brings me back to British public galleries. They are failing us. We have some of the world's best artists, largely unsold and unsung. The Hayward does next to nothing for British art. Now we learn that the Whitechapel, through lack of funds, can't put on its exhibition programme this summer. Dealers, no less than artists and art-lovers, should complain.

Anderson O'Day, 255 Portobello Rd, W11 (071-221 7592), to 27 May. Barbican Concourse Gallery, EC2 (071-638 4141), to 21 May.