ARTS EXHIBITIONS Full of eastern promise

Essex is not best known for its art galleries. But the Isis may put Leigh-on-Sea on the map
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WHAT SORT of a place is Leigh-on-Sea? A fishing village on the north bank of the Thames estuary, originally. The local speciality is cockles, and they still send them up to Billingsgate. Looking out over the mudflats I thought there must be finer fish to catch, but a man in the pub told me that Leigh fisherman prefer to keep close to home. The furthest they ever sailed, he said, was to Dunkirk - and then they were so disorientated they fell overboard. Perhaps they also like yarning, in Leigh.

Southend is a mile or two down river. Tilbury and Grays Thurrock are the next places on the railway to London. Cross the tracks from old Leigh and you come to the more modern part of town. It's not a resort. Neither is it quite a suburb of Southend. It doesn't look particularly prosperous (though we are in Southend West, where Conserv-ative Paul Channon has a 16,000 majority). There are more antiques emporia than house-clearance shops, but you sense it could easily be the other way round. Suburban streets go on for miles.

Just another part of contemporary England. The reason your art critic was there - apart from a liking for un-posh English places - was to look at a Mark Rothko that has been sent from New York to the Isis Gallery, a converted pool hall on the London Road. An Abstract Expressionist master in Leigh-on-Sea? Yes, and this is just one of the interesting things about the Isis Gallery.

It has good security from the pool-hall days, those iron shutters that roll down in front of shops, so the insurance isn't too bad when they show expensive work. Nothing else about the gallery's furbishments, let alone its location, quite a way from the centre of Leigh, is tip-top. It needs redecoration, new lighting, storage space and much else. But it works. The Isis Gallery has been open for two years. The first show included Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Harry Mundy, Gillian Ayres, Therese Oulton, Adrian Heath, - all distinguished artists. Next, an exhibition of sculptors' drawings featured, among others, Ken Armitage, Reg Butler, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Then Isis asked a number of artists to lend works from their own collections. So in the London Road there was a show that included Keith Vaughan, Conroy Maddox, Kathe Kollwitz and others, plus Renoir and Monet.

I asked the gallery's owners, Neil Ward-Robinson and Madeline Liverick, both in their fifties, how they managed and why they were in Leigh. The answer to the first question is that since they haven't got a penny they think big and rely on goodwill. About the choice of Leigh they are vague: "A few years ago we got washed up on Canvey Island and then came here." They have one or two small grants for exhibitions, and make their living by teaching art classes at the gallery.

Around half a million people live in south Essex in the built-up strip between Upminster and Southend. There's no art school and no museum that touches the 20th century. The Isis Gallery is the only place in the area where one can encounter living art of any quality. I don't think Liverick and Ward-Robinson have great missionary intentions. They are just artists who like putting on exhibitions. They want to get by and perhaps expand to the room above the pool hall. In having limited ambitions they are typical of many who stick up for visual art in the provinces. There's not much to hope for, and what reasonable person thinks the Lottery will give birth to cultural life in Essex?

The new Isis show demonstrates both the merits and the failings of the gallery's approach. It's called "Paths of the Spirit: Artist as Shaman" and features 13 artists who are said to possess, or to have been possessed by, the shamanic spirit. But there's no catalogue, therefore no writing to explain the works on the walls . There ought to be an intellectual argument in such a show. Secondly, reliance on goodwill doesn't always come off. The Rothko is not a painting but a drawing from the mid-1940s. Isis asked a prominent gallery for the loan of a work by Joseph Beuys. All they received was a signed poster. The Richard Long is a photo piece: it looks like a poster and might as well be one.

Anyway, one asks what this shamanism is. Happily, there's a recent book on the subject, Michael Tucker's Dreaming with Open Eyes: The Shamanic Spirit in 20th-Century Art (Aquarian, £20), a clear, generous account of a widespread phenomenon. Tucker says that a shaman, in ancient times a seer and visionary healer, had a spiritual function in society that is repeated by many modern artists. Contemporary society as a whole does not recognise such a function: none the less such spirituality is there in Gauguin, Munch, Kandinsky, Beuys, Miro and many others.

Thus Tucker. Note that he likes famous artists. I'm interested to know if you can have very minor and modest shamans in the world of modern art, for most of the artists exhibiting at Isis under the shamanic banner are in that category. Among the Isis "shamans" are Michael Taylor, Alan Davie, Anish Kapoor and Mouse Katz. I do not see how Taylor fits in. His small sculptures are simple steel assemblages painted in Pop Art colours, maquettes for a commission he has been given by Great Ormond Street Hospital. Davie is obviously sha-manic, if only because he is obsessed with the subject. He shows a nice painting and two interesting ink drawings. Kapoor, known as a sculptor, contributes large and unconvincing works on paper. Katz's picture is painted over a map of New Mexico, her home state, and has a superimposed collage of beads, coins and feathers.

Shirazeh Houshiary has two paintings rather like those we saw at the Tate last year when she was shortlisted for the Turner Prize. I like Margaret Hunter's painting but would like it more if she gave up figuration, for which she has no individual talent, and concentrated on signs within mauled and abstract oil surfaces. Madeline Liverick's pleasant gouache makes me wish to see one of her paintings.

Back to Leigh. The Isis exhibition confirms what everyone knows, that there's a bit of spirituality in most artists, as there is in practically every human being. I don't know about shamanism and distrust the idea, but most people want contact with something that's not mundane. In the pub where the man told me unbelievable stories about Dunkirk they have "clairvoyant nights" with Tarot, fortune-telling, even summoning the dead. These people desire more meaning in their lives. Whether they want meaning given to them by minor and supposedly spiritual modern art is doubtful.

8 Isis Gallery, 1149 London Road, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex (0702 480004), to 23 April.