The strong, silent type

The John Moores Prize has been quietly encouraging British painting for 38 years. By Iain Gale

It's not quite the Turner Prize. There's no televised dinner and it will never make the front page of the Sun. But what the John Moores Prize lacks in razzmatazz it makes up for in art. For the past 38 years this biennial award has been quietly plodding away, doing its best to encourage British painting. The list of prize-winners, from John Bratby in 1957 through Heron, Blake, Hockney and Hodgkin, makes an impressive litany. A visit to this year's show of work by prize-winners and 60 others confirms the undimmed potential of the medium. It also offers some important lessons.

At the cutting edge of contemporary art, painting is too often neglected or maligned. The truth, though, as evinced in the best of this show, is that paint remains unique. Its very nature suggests alchemical, almost magical, properties. How can crushed stones and beetle shells be transformed into the endless variety that artists are able to call forth from pigment?

This exhibition includes some fine examples of that variety - from Expressionism to Super- realism and abstraction. Unfortunately, however, it also includes some works that would have been better forgotten. To simply daub paint on to a canvas may have satisfied a 1970s audience, desperate to reclaim the medium in the face of an apparently irresistible conceptual revolution. But 20 years on the legacy of that Expressionism has become merely an excuse for bad painting. To be effective this style must be utterly self- assured and resolved. There is too little here within the genre that displays those vital qualities. Notable exceptions are the work of Henry Kondracki, Ken Kiff and Peter Darach. What, though, are we to make of Lucy Jones's Anniversary? In her commentary, the artist evokes Giotto's sublime Meeting at the Golden Gate - but this reference is embarrassingly over-ambitious. Painting in Britain is far from finished. But if it is to develop it must do better than this.

Hope is present here in the work of the young artist James Brook, whose Road (With Raindrops, Eye) is surely a painting for our time. Seductive and enigmatic, it bridges the conceptual/ traditional divide with an ease that suggests that art might still be about something more than just winning prizes.

n John Moores exhibition, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (0151-207 0001) to 28 Jan

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