Arts: Exhibitions - It's all gloss in the East End

This year's Whitechapel Open is full of big, sophisticated, socially uneasy photographic images. Just like the world outside its walls
Click to follow
THE WHITECHAPEL OPEN has become such a big event that it is nowadays held in other venues as wellas the Whitechapel Art Gallery itself. This year, parts of the show are at Canary Wharf (in quite a nice space above the Tesco supermarket) and on the other side of the river at The Tannery, Bermondsey Street, a former industrial building now used as artists' studios. It takes hours to travel around these three sites, and inevitably the feeling is of three different exhibitions, two of them subsidiary to the main event in the parent gallery.

The Whitechapel staff, however, have been careful in how they have distributed the strongest work. Tucked away in an unlovely corner of The Tannery is this year's most memorable painting, an untitled canvas by Andrew Mansfield. It's figurative - sort of. Here are the shapes of vegetables, a carrot and an aubergine, for instance. It's a flat picture; the paint is thin and liquid; and there's no attempt to grasp the physical nature of the vegetables. It's as though Mansfield were dreaming of their abstract nature. Limpid, beautiful and rather odd, this painting has little numbers scratched upon its surface. I don't know why they should be there, but they add to the atmosphere.

Other paintings in The Tannery include a characteristic abstract by Virginia Verran and a cityscape by Lucy Jones. This picture is less emphatic than Jones's usual work, and I think that the change of mood is to be welcomed. She has become relaxed. She asks for less attention, and thereby gives more to the viewer. Two other paintings deal with the nature of photography, Beth Harland's Lucid IX and Paul Carter's Room For Three. Carter is into technique. His two-part picture has been made from model paint on a black-and- white photograph on top of a stainless-steel support. We see dated interior

architectural spaces, with stairs and landings for public use. It's all coolly managed - with such cool, indeed, that one cannot imagine Carter using colour.

And something similar is going on in Harland's painting, whose dark blobs and squiggles seem to represent one of those photos of guns and other weapons spread out on a police table after a raid or an amnesty. So here are two painters respectful of photography, or even awed by the mundane yet omnipresent role of camerawork in our visual world. This is nothing new in painting - both Harland and Carter owe something to Richard Hamilton. But to look at the Whitechapel Open as a whole is to realise that photography has suddenly become its dominant medium.

Since photographs first appeared in the Open, now a number of years ago, their numbers have gradually increased. This year, the contributions by Kate Belton, Tom Hunter, Anna Mossman, Andrew Cross, Anne Hardy, Elizabeth Price, Annabel Frierson and Jessica Spanyol look more definite, confident and professional than the work by painters and sculptors. Perhaps this reflects the preferences of the selectors (Julian Opie, Lucia Nogueira and Felicity Nunn), but I suspect that they have found a definite trend. The Open always used to have rough edges, with unframed paintings that have come straight from the studio, junk assemblages, untrained or amateur contributions, irreverent caricatures, and so on. These aspects of the show are disappearing, even in The Tannery, and photography is responsible for a new neatness and sophistication.

Sophisticated in technique, not as yet in maturity of feeling, this photography has the signature of premature academicism. It is large, often quite as big or bigger than the paintings in the exhibition. It has carefully judged but unsubtle colour, evidently influenced by advertising; it has lots of telling detail; all its elements are carefully posed. There is a general sense of social unease. None of these photos can deal with portraiture. In all such respects, the new photography resembles our contemporary culture. It is of the present day, but is not forward-looking.

Kate Belton's Overview is a neat metaphor of the link between 1998 camerawork and the former world of East London art life. From above, she photographs things which we recognise as the detritus in one of the Hackney lofts which have so often been the homes of today's artists. Then we notice that the carrier bag, the chair and the heater are not real, but models made for the purpose of this print. Tom Hunter's Possession shows us a young woman looking at a letter demanding that she leave a squat. Such is life in the Whitechapel's catchment area. Hunter's composition mimics Vermeer, so well known as the painter of bourgeois stability. Everyone will see this point, especially since a real possession order is pinned up next to the photograph.

At the Gallery in Cabot Square West (get off the train at Canary Wharf, whose platforms are just below the exhibition space), Anne Hardy has three huge photos she calls Witness. In the first, two young, middle-class people walk through wasteland between tower blocks, looking up at something in the sky that threatens them. The (black-and-white) print recalls science- fiction movies. The other two photographs in her triptych are of a swimming pool, in which someone may be about to drown, and of a leafy place in a park: foliage conceals an abduction, rape or mugging. And Elizabeth Price has responded to her invitation to show in Canary Wharf by taking a photograph of her space with a model of a large sewer rat in it, waiting for the lift.

Now to the Whitechapel itself. All old friends of the Open will lament the absence of convincing three-dimensional art. In all, there are 100 artists in this year's show, yet none of them are really sculptors. Often, they offer no more than trivial jests. Matthew Bradshaw has extracted dog food from its tin so that the tin's contents retain the shape of the container, and this he places on a plinth. Matthew Thompson's Correction, whose image you will see on the Whitechapel's publicity material, is a bottle of Tippex done in marble. And Rachel Beckett (at The Tannery) has fashioned a little glass replica of a refrigerator ice tray.

The Whitechapel painting is much better: more personal, sensitive and thoughtful. Daniel Coombs's abstract chevron shapes, in a declarative red on a rough white ground and sprinkled with salt, announce a young artist with a vigorous talent and a certain future. Madeleine Strindberg, Tom Hammick and Stephen Chambers are as beguiling as ever they were.

No prizes were awarded this year. If they had been, the clear winner would have been Michael Griffiths, whose The Golden Apple is a little prize in itself - at first sight, so radiant and charming; but getting more and more tough and considered the more one looks at it.

There were more than 1,000 entries for the 1998 Open. You can see artists in their working spaces, those who were selected and those who weren't, by joining one of the Whitechapel's "Open Studios Bus Tours", on Sunday afternoons at 2pm; tickets from the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The tour is said to last three hours, but I bet it will be longer. Best to get the brochure first.

! Whitechapel Art Gallery, E1 (0171 522 7888); Cabot Place West, E14 (0171 418 2783); The Tannery, SE1 (0171 234 0587), to 31 May.