ARTS : The best painting in Britain?

A new show at Oxford's Museum of Modern Art claims to present the best of British painting in the Nineties. But is that what we really get?
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The Independent Culture
David Elliott, the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford for the last 20 years, is leaving to run the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. This is a serious loss to art in Britain. Over the years Elliott has steadily expanded Moma's operations. He's helped to persuade the lethargic University that modern art deserves serious study, and has been responsible for many fine shows. Elliott usually organised them himself, and did so with idealistic zeal.

I'm not sure that his farewell exhibition has the same spirit. Certainly it's not idealistic. "Absolut Vision" feels extremely commercial, and not only because a number of its contributors are influenced by advertising. Nor is it particularly original. Young though they are, all the artists are familiar, have been well-publicised for years and offer little that is genuinely new. Above all, the exhibition lacks an ideology. Its subtitle is "New British Painting in the 1990s", yet there was no chance that it could present an overall view of work on canvas in the last decade. So it should have been more personal and critical - ie, more like Elliott himself.

He does offer a view of the Nineties. Elliott claims that there are three significant areas. First, paintings that "operate as self-referential or existential fields" by Simon Callery, Callum Innes, Jane Harris et al. Then, paintings about "the fragmentation or dislocation of reality", represented by Chris Ofili, Marcus Harvey, Gary Hume and Peter Doig. Thirdly, Elliott identifies a kind of painting which "engages in a critical discourse with the parallel media of photography, film and video" (I would guess that the curator is thinking of Richard Patterson).

It all sounds quite plausible, but could you not use an identical scheme to describe new painting in the Sixties? The fact is that painting in the present decade isn't all that innovative, there are no major tendencies, few people have significant alliances and therefore the natural way to present new art is by means of an anthology. And that's what "Absolut Vision" is, an anthology: just like "New Voices", the British Council's show of many of the same artists, currently touring eastern Europe; or "Brilliant!", which toured America with some of the same artists; or "Ace!", the collection of recent Arts Council purchases at the Hayward Gallery; or of course the little show that currently introduces the Turner Prize shortlist.

Elliott's display resembles these exhibitions, apart from the fact that it's confined to painting. One has the impression of the same cards being reshuffled. This tells us something about the present scene. The "Britpack" way of exhibiting in anthologies has many advantages. It's like a party. The artists bounce off each other. You look at something, then immediately your attention is caught by someone else. This favours art that's brittle, insincere, clever, with high-pitched colour and glossy surfaces. Painting of this sort is prominent at Moma, and it's fun, nothing to do with "critical discourse" at all. Unfortunately, quieter painters get overlooked. I like the work of Jane Harris, who is not a "Britpack" artist. She makes meditative canvases, often in monochrome, with simple and repeated circular and scalloped forms. They deserve a lot of attention, but here she's simply elbowed out of the way.

These contemporary anthologies protect artists who could not hope to convince in a one-person exhibition. Some of the work at Moma is really shallow, and isn't fun either. The best painting comes from Callum Innes, who has regularly demonstrated that he can stand by himself. Innes is dignified, which can hardly be said of anyone else (apart from the mistreated Harris). He's a painter who feels his canvas, while so many others might just as well be applying their pigment to glass or photographic paper. Indeed, Innes's hyper-sensitive closeness to canvas is the clue to his work, for his techniques involve the removal rather than the addition of paint. He puts it on and then, as it were, disapplies it with solvents. The result is a primitive-looking beauty.

Innes may stand back from his pictures, but still he does not compose in the grand sense. Therefore his paintings, good as they are, tend to look lonely or fragmentary. I find it best if there's a lot of them together. Then Innes's sensibility begins to explain itself. Another sensitive abstract painter is Simon Callery. His two paintings are the largest I have seen from his hand. Probably he shouldn't go bigger. These exquisite surfaces, pale or nacreous colours and long lines, have their limit. I can't imagine Callery composing in any other way. Maybe, then, he should change his format. If his vision were made to operate within a circular picture something new might emerge.

In all there are 19 artists in the exhibition. Three are women: Harris, Lisa Milroy and Fiona Rae. Milroy is at bottom a painter of still life. She has a deft, rather vulgar manner, a way of looking expensive, and a complete absence of personal conviction. Her three big paintings of Japanese women in kimonos are marvellous expressions of bland curiosity and social disbelief. Rae likes to throw lots of contradictory things onto a canvas and then make them work together through the exuberance of her application. Sometimes the approach comes off. At other times the results are dull and muddied.

This is the kind of show in which a lot of people hope to be the star. I don't think many of them deserve starhood, but Peter Doig is a popular painter for domestic reasons, since he so fetchingly depends on family photographs; Chris Ofili is by contrast utterly undomestic, and really makes one think about Africa. As for stardom - the prize must go to Richard Patterson. One painting of a minotaur is rather silly, but his Motorcrosser II is a wonder of laddishness - and what a technique he has developed to paint about his enthusiasm.

! `Absolut Vision': Moma, Oxford (01865 722733), to 23 February 1997.

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