Threadneedle Prize, Mall Galleries, London

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The Independent Culture

First the good news. I have often complained about these gallery spaces: in the past there has been a terrible sense of clutter here; too many exhibits clamouring for attention; too little sense that it would ever be possible to step back and contemplate what was on offer.

Now much of that has changed, and quite dramatically. The furniture that used to clog up the main gallery has been swept away. There are half the number of paintings on the wall compared to when the prize was exhibited last year. What is more, there are now benches 15 feet from the works, so that you can keep an individual painting within your sightlines and assess its worth. There is more space, calm, airiness, light.

But what of the works themselves? This is a prize for sculpture and painting. There is no stipulation that the works shall be figurative, and yet they are, almost entirely. This fact makes the show feel less venturesome than it ought to. Last year, there were not enough three-dimensional works in the show. There still feel to be too few, but several of the ones here are striking, especially this year's entry by Tim Shaw, who deservedly snatched the prize last year. He may do so again with Man on Fire, a piece fashioned from foam, black plastic and paint. It's a running figure, engulfed by fire. The man appears to be in the process of being consumed by flames. His own dissolution and the effect of the blown smoke and flames have been rendered in streaming tatters of rising, shredding plastic. He's caught in the throes of burning to death. You cannot tell where he begins and ends. All rather horribly arresting.

Others are not quite striking enough – Louise Folliott has made a zippable plastic shopping bag on a giant scale and called it Displaced. It sits on the floor, zipped up, slightly slumped. The piece is all about greed, consumerism, displacement, enclosure – add a few words of your own if you like. You recognise all this, immediately, but to blow up an object to four times its regular size is not necessarily to make a particularly interesting art object. The idea just seems a bit too obvious. The prize needs to attract more sculptors of the highest calibre; after all, the first prize is worth £25,000.

The best painting here is by Paul Cummings and it's called Road Side. This is an entirely made scene, set in motion by images culled from the web. The onlooker is put in the position of a driver in a car that is fleeting down the motorway, smoothing past the gleaming crash barrier. The scene looks soothingly poised and factitious, bathed in a stunned, chimerical, Hockney/ California light, almost as if it is a sublime fantasy of itself. Every detail – the fields, the sweep of road, the dinky little house, the barrier itself – is perfectly poised and constructed. This, like a number of other very good paintings in this show, feels both highly intelligent and up-to-the-minute, as if it is fully inhabiting the maybe-everything-goes unease of the present. That feels very refreshing. Too often this gallery has felt as if it is the last bastion of fogeydom. But there is work still to be done. Too many of these paintings use figuration like an old glove. There should be more evidence of that ongoing war between abstraction and figuration.

To 18 September (020 7930 6844; Mallgalleries.org.uk)

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