ART / Hi-ho, hi-ho, off to work they go: In the first of his regular reviews of contemporary art shows, Adrian Searle identifies the 'seven dwarfs' of British abstract painting

Here come the seven dwarfs of British abstract painting: Lumpy, Bumpy, Drippy, Stripey, Gooey, Baleful, and Glob, popping up in a series of exhibitions which celebrate, unabashed and unabated, the current enthusiasm for painting. The only question is, where's Snow White?

The present flurry of painting shows, in the wake of such exhibitions as last year's 'The Broken Mirror', a large survey of over 40 artists in Vienna and Hamburg, and the recent 'Unbound' at the Hayward (the latter put together by Greg Hilty and myself), might be seen as a timely reminder that, like John Major, painting is still with us. But much of what has been on view this summer belongs to the world of bright, shiny, jangly things, the immediately eye-catching stuff that attracts small children and jackdaws; painting stripped of its seriousness, presented as a chorus-line of senior figures, stalled reputations and young bloods.

The Atlantis Gallery, up five unforgiving flights in London's Brick Lane, has been turned into a Valhalla of abstract noodling. Valhalla, though, wouldn't have walls painted such a dubious shade of magnolia. The gallery houses an exhibition devoted in large part to the collection of Robert Loder, who, if not exactly Snow White, is at least a kind of fairy godfather to certain strands of British abstraction. Loder has also been involved, with Anthony Caro, in setting up annual artists' workshops in America and Africa, and in helping black artists in Zimbabwe and South Africa. We should be thankful for any well-intentioned collectors we find in this country, but if this were my collection I'd keep pretty quiet about most of it.

'Lead and Follow - the Continuity of Abstraction' traces an erratic, discontinuous lineage of British abstract paintings from the late 1950s to the present; Alan Davie, Terry Frost and Bryan Winter bring up the rear, and Callum Innes, Rosa Lee, Rebecca Fortnum and Robert Chell represent the sharp, younger end of recent painting. But to imagine that Innes, for example, is in any sense ploughing the waving acres of belated British lyrical abstraction would be a mistake.

Loder talks about the work he collects in terms of 'authority', 'integrity', 'tradition' and 'commitment'. A gloomier set of buzz words it would be hard to find. But there are some sublime, exhilarating works by John Hoyland from the late 1960s here, a great Basil Beattie (Witness II) - whom I regard as essentially a figurative artist - and some endearingly oddball and cockeyed works by Geoffrey Rigden (Basohli). His work is a melange of Cubism, Ecole de Paris and Peter Lanyon. Yet Rigden's paintings are like an impeccably dressed man who has accidentally put his shirt on inside out: their failed decorum stamps his personality on to the work and saves it from derivativeness.

There's altogether too much that's hesitant, hectoring, and badgered-about in this exhibition - signalling the extent to which ambulance chasing and uncritical borrowing goes on in British painting. The trait of making suave compromises with the extreme developments that always seem to have happened elsewhere - in Paris, New York, or Berlin - leads to the kind of painting which is as much about diplomatic liaison and politesse as it is about discovering and inventing something for itself.

Bryan Robertson, in his catalogue to the exhibition 'British Abstract Art: Painting' at Flowers East, appears to have the same thought, but recognises the traces of foreign vanguardism in British artists' work as 'variations on a theme'. This is fair enough, and Robertson has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the emergence of British art from hidebound parochialism into an international context - a painful progress in which, during the 1950s, he played the part of midwife.

The Flowers East exhibition, with its 56 artists, inevitably covers some of the same ground as Loder's collection, but with examples of Constructionism and biomorphic blobism, lyrical Pantheism and Patrick Heron, it is altogether wider-ranging. If there are examples here of previously well-regarded figures in steep decline, there's also proof that vitality is not merely the province of the young.

Bert Irvin, a painter whose works are often too formulaic for my taste, comes on like a septuagenarian raver. His Skipper is full of bounce, pep and vim, with a Summer of Love palette, caustic splats and dancing, freewheeling swerves. Irvin's is a painting entirely, unashamedly dedicated to pleasure and spectacle. Nearby hangs a shimmering work by Nicholas May, an artist 40 years younger, but no more zestful than Irvin.

The Slade professor Bernard Cohen, who, like John Hoyland, produced some of the most challenging abstract paintings made anywhere during the 1960s, is now making works crammed with dissonant overlays of churning graphic babble and techno squiggles, tiny aeroplanes and animal footprints. Cohen's current project seems to be to drive painting to the brink of sensory overload, as though he were programming pile- ups on the Information Highway.

Noel Forster's work, with its twisted grids, is more concerned with activating the painting by constantly shifting the time-signature of the repetitive, interwoven, colour-coded arcs which cover it. The space in his paintings is in constant flux, twisting, warping, stretching and folding back in on itself.

The rigorous technical method Forster employs shares something with the repetitive processes used by Ian Davenport and Callum Innes and with Jason Martin (showing at the Lisson Gallery), whose paintings are reduced to a single, continuous brushmark which almost covers the entire painting. What could merely be a technique formulated in order to generate novel patterns, is instead a search for motivation, made concrete and explicit on the painting's surface.

Part of the appeal of abstraction, to its more vapid adherents, is that it is seen as an easy way to develop a signature style based on the entirely superficial activity of mucking about with the material. The dwarfs of British abstract painting are hi-ho-ing away across the land, in the mistaken belief that work is its own virtue.

Along with this goes the embarrassing tendency to proclaim that painting is 'about whatever the viewer wants to make of it', or, worse, to get all soulful and murmur that painting is in some inherent way 'spiritual'. Rothko must take a lot of the blame for this, though not so much as all those art-school lecturers who witter on about the joys of paint. And if content eludes the painter, then maybe a portentous title will help. Phillip Diggle calls his silly, sub-Jackson Pollock Michel Foucault'. Perhaps all that red and black spattery stuff is meant to illustrate the French philosopher's wild nights in the S & M dungeons of San Francisco.

The most pressing questions for painting are questions less of appearance than of meaning, content and context. 'Britishness' is an uninspiring rubric, and abstraction means more than just paintings without people or trees in them. An exhibition of six artists at the Lisson Gallery attempts to show that painting is as much concerned with ideas as with its physical conditions, and that how these meet is all-important.

Clem Crosby shows a sequence of small, monochromatic panels painted first one colour, then another: yellow, blue, goose-turd green. As he toils away, stray thoughts crash through his mind and he writes them down amidst the painty fingerprints along the picture's edge. 'Hurry Home', he scribbles, 'Harry Dean Stanton', and 'All kinds of crazy things going on in my mind'. The all-important dates of the painting's conception and completion, the latter often crossed out and extended, also end up on this tideline at the painting's margin, along with the traces of his romanticism and his lack of faith in his initial decisions. He harbours doubts about his ability to make anything entirely new. In this matter, there would appear to be something of a crisis in painting - which is a good thing, because it gives painters something to think about. Hike over to Flowers East, or to Atlantis, and you would be forgiven for thinking that painting was free of such self-questioning.

'British Abstract Art: Painting' at Flowers East, 199-205 Richmond Road, London E8. To 11 Sept.

'Lead and Follow - the Continuity of Abstraction' at Atlantis Gallery, Brick Lane, London E1. To 11 Sept.

'Recent Paintings', Lisson Gallery, 52 Bell St, London NW1. To 3 Sept

(Photographs omitted)