Everything you ever wanted to know about `Sex'; EXHIBITIONS

For the new show at Flowers East, 100 artists were asked to get in touch with their sensual side. The results are revealing
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The Independent Culture
"SEX", at Flowers East, is the result of an invitation to around 100 artists, asking them to make whatever they liked on the subject, with the one stipulation that the work should be small. The result is a lively exhibition, full of surprises. I saw the show before the works were labelled and kept asking myself who did such-and-such a piece. Lots of artists seem to have, as it were, unbuttoned their usual styles. We think we're familiar with their manner - but then they're told to think about sex, and odd, rather nice things emerge.

Nothing profound, however. The mysteries of human nature are unexplored. This is not exactly a superficial show, but its prevailing tone is of good humour. There are no images that one might call shocking, outrageous or sexist. Nearly as many women as men have contributed. Wisely, I think, Matthew Flowers has avoided photographers, apart from his father, Adrian Flowers, for photography is the pornographer's medium, and erotic prints would have confused the exhibition. In fact, pornography is hardly to be seen, unless it's being satirised. One might conclude that artists have uncomplicated and pleasant sex lives, which of course is no less than they - or anyone - deserve.

The range of responses to the invitation was wide. John Loker got on his bike and rode round Norfolk farm shops in search of two pure-white bantam eggs. These he has snuggled together on a blue canvas and called the picture Love in a Cold Climate. In a tribute to Loker, with whom she lives, Emily Mayer has sent one of her little bird sculptures, now with the title Big Cock. Humphrey Ocean has simply given the world a drawing of two birds and two bees. Vicky Hawkins's very pretty and jovial picture, which can be hung either way up, depicts her with her boyfriend, Tony, on the job. It's called Researching Flowers East Xmas Show.

The titles of the paintings are often rather important, mainly I think because they add a subversive jokiness to the exhibition's erotic theme. Thus we have Birna Matthiasdottir's Light Nibble on Sunday Afternoon, Cameron Rudd's Quickest Pound Ever Spent and Mikey Cuddihey's Experimental Virgin. Of the artists who are natural humorists, Patrick Hughes is as ever pre-eminent, though he also takes quite a sharp look at sin and oral pleasure. Anthony Green is the clear winner of a small and generally disappointing sculpture section. In one of those triangular clear plastic sandwich boxes he has placed a monstrously priapic imp, modelled and coloured with devilish glee.

If you're looking for a picture of a slice of hairy pie, I commend Maggi Hambling's Ambisextrous. This canvas is by turns intimate, loving and rude. It's not quite the best painting in the show, but it does go directly into sex in a manner that no other artist attempts. Metaphors for sex are quite frequent, especially from abstract painters, as we would expect. Bert Irvin and Trevor Jones don't quite hit the mark, it being in the nature of a metaphor to generalise. I prefer Adrian Berg's piercing little Orchid. The picture won't tell you what he's thinking about, but its colour and handling are warm, precise and sensuous.

Congratulations to the many artists who are in their seventies, even eighties. The oldest of them is Conroy Maddox, whose An Old Habit depicts a nun in a stiletto show. Maddox first began doing disgraceful things with nuns (in a shop window) in the 1930s. He is a treasure of irreverence. So is Arthur Moyse, former bus driver and for years the art critic of the an-archist magazine Freedom. Other oldies include Terry Frost, Maurice Kestelman, Jeffery Camp and the enticing Eleanor Brooks. Eu- an Uglow's picture of a girl ready to be penetrated was done in 1958 - nearly 40 years ago. Obviously he was a dirty old man even then. I love this painting. It doesn't reproduce well, but the person who buys it will have a private feast forever.

Peter Howson's bedroom fantasies are disturbing in a way that his war pictures are not. If he could keep away from the influence of pornography (and of Kitaj) he might make a genuinely sensuous set of figure paintings, or monotypes. Emma Douglas's happy Bottom On Bed, evidently the work of a print-maker, could be a much larger painting. Generally, though, a moderate format appears to suit the subject. Jonathan Waller's caressing and panting colour would fail if his picture were bigger. A lesson of most of these paintings is that you can do what you like if you keep it intimate and don't worry about dignity, or the imagined rules of art.

! Flowers East, 199 & 282 Richmond Rd, E8 (0181 985 3333), to 19 Jan.

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