ARTS : The not so great British Art Show

EXHIBITIONS; Banal, boring, unfair: 'The British Art Show 4' paints a depressing picture of the current art scene. A history of the 'Northern Young Contemporaries', however, shows that things were not always so bad
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THE MISCONCEIVED and ill-organised "British Art Show 4" is bound to disappoint its visitors. It will also alienate the great majority of British artists, who already feel that the South Bank Centre has no right to represent their concerns. I agree, but am first of all sympathetic with the public. No one could possibly have pleasure in trailing around the seven Manchester venues in which the work is displayed. But, for the record, here they are: the Cornerhouse Gallery, the Manchester City Art Galleries, the Chinese Arts Centre, the Whitworth Art Gallery, the Metropolitan Galleries, the Castlefield Gallery and Upper Campfield Market.

Last week the press corps was escorted by coach. By public transport or on foot it would take weary hours to view this exhibition. Most of one's time would be occupied in such travel between the venues. For it does not take long to consider Anya Gallacio, the sole exhibitor at Castlefield, whose walls she has smeared with white chocolate (or to be precise couverture and coconut oil, though it smells like chocolate); and not much time to assess Douglas Gordon's video Hysteria, which is a 1980s medical film, with Ceal Floyer's slide projection of a light bulb, the only exhibits at the Metropolitan Galleries; or to become bored by Matt Collishaw's large bird cage and birds at the Chinese Arts Centre; or to feel exasperated by Georgina Starr's video of aliens, the one feature of the "British Art Show 4" at the Manchester City Art Gallery.

The more substantial part of the exhibition is housed in Upper Campfield Market, a large space that would be well suited to exhibitions of sculpture. The selectors (Richard Cork, Rose Finn-Kelcey and Thomas Lawson) have not however taken much notice of sculpture and instead offer us substitutes for three-dimensional art. Here is John Frankland's Untitled (Shed), a shed-like structure made from laminated polythene. It's a little feat of mimesis and engineering, but the proportions are wrong. An instinctive sculptor would have altered size and scale within the piece. Franklin refuses to do so, thus letting us know how coolly he regards art. Christine Borland's childish Black Museum is a Portakabin containing gruesome objects. Jordan Baseman shows a row of children's shirts with human hair attached. Permindar Kaur's Cot quite neatly refers to a strangeness she finds in infant life. Damien Hirst exhibits a lamb within a steel and glass structure filled with formaldehyde. It looks banal, and indeed it is banal.

Hirst's paintings are worse than his pseudo-sculptures. They are square canvases evenly covered with gloss household paint. Butterflies are stuck to their surfaces. Since they are patently inadequate as paintings they must have been included in the exhibition for non-aesthetic reasons. Of course we suspect that the selectors' purpose has been to present current art as a kind of superior game. It might be more amusing if the work on display were more original. But we have seen these attention-grabbing routines so many times in the last decade. The show is in truth rather stale. It also feels like an art-school exhibition, probably because so many exhibitors are from Goldsmiths' and have not enlarged their expression since the time they graduated.

The first "British Art Show" was held in 1979. The idea was that the selector or selectors would spend months going around the country to find out what artists were doing. An exhibition would emerge that, as it were, took a slice through art of all sorts. William Packer, the first person to be given this task, did his legwork and gave us a mixed exhibition of 112 artists. There are just 25 people in the present show. It could be chosen from recent art magazines, it's highly metropolitan and it is unfair to all painters and sculptors and any artist over the age of 35.

At the Whitworth, meanwhile, there's a pleasant exhibition aiming to give a history of the annual, and in its later versions biannual, "Northern Young Contemporaries" exhibition. This show of student work was set up in 1965, and lasted until 1993. The idea was to complement the successful "Young Contempories" held in London, an event well known for launching the careers of both Pop artists and the new abstractionists. Of course there was a rivalry between the two shows, but no hostilities that I can remember. "The Northern Young Contemporaries" was always a happy occasion, and its demise is regrettable.

Lots of prize-winning works from the early days have disappeared, but a fair number have been rescued and are now set against new work by the same artists. This intriguing exercise seems to prove two points. First, the judges awarded prizes to talented artists who, on the whole, have stayed talented. Secondly, the nature of the mature painting is already announced in the student work. There's one exception. No one who knows Ian Davenport's abstract striped paintings would guess him to be the same artist who once painted this gritty and concentrated self-portrait. But Mali Morris's painterly personality is there in her early canvas. So also with Stephen Buckley, Sean Scully, Paul Rosenbloom and the sculptor Michael Lyons.

Why has the "NYC" been allowed to die? It did such good work. Since it was largely organised by its exhibitors, young artists learnt about each other and formed friendships. Teenage visitors realised that to be an artist was almost within their grasp. Whitworth officials were temporarily rejuvenated. A short guide lists every exhibitor since the "NYC" began. There are around 1,300 of them. This statistic alone suggests the liveliness of our old art-school system. Nobody could assemble a comparable number of young creative writers. And, in its latter days, the "NYC" regularly demonstrated that there were dozens, if not hundreds, of bright young people who had no desire to mimic neo-conceptualism. It wasn't so good with sculpture, but the show proved that the art of painting still preoccupied genuine young talents.

Alistair Smith, the Director of the Whitworth, writes sadly of his show as "a final retrospective insight into the growth of a much-loved 30-year- old institution". He also says that it is time for the Whitworth to support emergent artists in a different way and adds a dark remark about "the era of corporate identities". We know what Smith means. He's dependent on sponsorship. Today's sponsors won't touch a student exhibition unless it's much smaller than in former years, has a trendy and biddable curator in charge and has the same aura as the Turner Prize. Both art students and their public deserve better.

! 'British Art Show 4': various venues around Manchester (0161 236 5244), to 4 Feb. 'NYC': Whitworth Art Gallery (0161 273 4865), to 17 Dec.