There are more ways of seeing

Jonathan Parsons's vocation is to show us what we're all missing. By Iain Gale
Appearances can be deceptive. Jonathan Parsons knows this and he wants us to share in his vision. Parsons, at the tender age of 26, is arguably the most exciting, original and intelligent new young talent on the British art scene today, quite without the nihilism or delight in perversity that characterises the work of so many of his contemporaries. Parsons, as one might expect from a graduate of Goldsmiths, sits happily in the tradition of Richard Wentworth, Julian Opie and Michael Craig-Martin. His concern is to make sense of the world about us - not least the world of signs and symbols - signifiers of human activity and intervention.

"Road signs" he says, "are aesthetically perfect" - and what better way to celebrate them than by remaking these modern-day icons as sofa cushions. Such decontextualisation is central to Parsons's art. Like Wentworth, he takes the everyday and, in his studio, transforms it into art. He does not, though, share the older artist's obsession with chance and natural ingenuity, but is more concerned with man's often unconscious ability to imbue the apparently commonplace with a personal significance. For Parsons, every tiny element of the observed world possesses the power of a narrative painting. Thus, he takes a fibreglass table top, disfigured with cigarette burns and celebrates it as a record of humanity. The fact that most of us would be unaware of this potential is implicit in his approach. We dismiss the table top as "disfigured", "imperfect" - yet, while in its pristine state it might demonstrate taste, burned and scarred it evinces the imperfection of mankind. It is also, incidentally, a not displeasing abstract image, reminiscent of Robert Ryman at his most expressive. It is this sentiment that makes Parsons unique. For all his neo-conceptual knowingness, he is essentially compassionate. Perhaps this is because - as a sufferer from ankylosing spondylitis - he is aware of the frailty of the human condition. Perhaps not. It is impossible, however, to ignore the unpretentious wit and wisdom that permeate such works as "Cuttlefish" - a large, faded Union Jack. Like all of Parsons's work, this piece operates on diverse levels. A flag, hung on a pole in an interior, might seem a metaphor for meaningless; a sad, futile declaration of pride and allegiance. Take a closer look and you will discover that this is no ordinary Union flag. It is not faded at all - but sewn together from carefully graded pieces of brown and white polyester. Whereas a faded flag would have made one point - by his intervention and his express intention to deceive - Parsons distances himself from the concept of found objects, locating himself within an older tradition of artifice. For Parsons is a consummate craftsman. Copying a graffito from a Surrey tombstone, he repeats the scrawl with subtle variations and, in so doing, declares his artistic autonomy.

That this raises complex aesthetic questions on the nature of art suggests that there is more to Parsons than we might expect from the current crop of British neo-conceptualists. He boldly declares: "The basis of my work is art history"; and, clearly, he sees himself in the context of the past. Parsons is an important link between the long-established ascendancy of the gestural abstract and a too-neglected symbolic formalism. Thus, the simple chalk "x" of his Kiss is both a question as to why a cross should represent an embrace and an examination of its power to convey such a meaning.

Parsons is at the start of what will hopefully be a long mission to debunk art - to rid it of the superfluous cultural baggage accumulated over 500 years of post-Renaissance paralysis. Looking perhaps to the tradition of such artists as the hard-edge abstractionist Elsworth Kelly, Parsons attempts to make his art as good as the original that inspired it, and, in so doing, to point up the things that we miss as we blunder from day to day - the inevitable invisibility of reality.

n Richard Salmon, Studio 4, 59 South Edwardes Square, London W8 (0171- 602 9494). To 23 July