Exhibition: Paint and be merry, for then we die

'Death' at Flowers East has some terrific work in it. And it's a heartening show all round; EXHIBITIONS
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Writing about the Liverpool John Moores exhibition a few weeks ago, I remarked that - despite the prominent position of new media - painting is still the chosen mode of expression for most people who call themselves artists. This is not merely a statistical fact. It is an artistic and human truth, and I wish our leading museums felt more sympathy for contemporary painting. Guess how many works by living British painters are on display in the Tate Gallery at the moment? Three, by Frank Auerbach (born 1931), John Craxton (born 1922) and Alan Reynolds (born 1926).

Meanwhile, the John Moores and other group shows continue to prove the vitality of painting. At Flowers East, for example, in an exhibition somewhat unwelcomingly called "Death", there are no fewer than 102 artists. About 70 of them are painters, there are a dozen sculptors, a handful of photographers and one video artist. I think these proportions may well reflect artistic life in the country as a whole. Anyway, to speak only of the painters at Flowers East, I note that none of them are in the John Moores this year. But most of them could have been, since they are perfectly decent and inventive artists, and a number of exhibitors in Matthew Flowers's genial Hackney emporium are previous Moores prize-winners.

Why "Death"? Last year artists were invited to contribute pictures about sex; previous themes have included night and day, food and drink, and other catch-all topics. Death will of course embrace us all, but it might have seemed a rather dismal subject for a Christmas exhibition. As things have turned out, it's not a gloomy show. There are many jolly moments and not the slightest sign of self-pity. The tone is of a varied ruefulness and wonder about the end of life. Friendship is an important sub-theme. It could be said that tragedy is lacking. But tragic art is not made to order - especially when young Flowers rings you up and asks you to paint a little picture in time for early December.

For me, the most moving work in the exhibition is Adrian Berg's Miguel Osmund, a drawing of the artist's friend as he lay dying. Berg did it in Biro on hospital paper, and the pathos of the drawing is heightened by the rubric on this memorandum sheet. "BRIGHTON HEALTH CARE NHS TRUST", it says, "HOVE GENERAL HOSPITAL," and then there are boxes to be filled in by doctors or nurses. Berg turned the paper on its side to make the drawings, presumably having no other materials with him as Osmund expired. One wonders how long the drawing took. Usually you can tell whether drawings are quick or slow. Not with this one, no doubt because of the situation it records.

Maggi Hambling contributes a portrait of Max Wall in his coffin. Otherwise, there are few direct references to the moment or the physical fact of death. I guess that many of these paintings come from the experience of bereavement. As most of us know, you lose someone, you mourn, with luck you have other people with whom to share your grief, you get on as best you can, things return more or less to normal, but a private part of you is changed for ever. Trevor Jones's paintings, which are abstract, seem to me to convey the feeling of bereavement with a mixture of eloquence and reserve - in just the right quantities.

I expected skulls and skeletons, and here they are: not too many of them, though, and there are no cliches. At first I thought Sheila Girling's picture was simply one of her abstract collages. It took a moment or two before the gaping sockets and grinning mouth appeared. Vicky Hawkins's Them Bones ... Them Dry Bones is a mixed-media assemblage, maybe influenced by the Haitian art we've seen in London recently (Haitians are very good at death art). Her figure of death has a long swinging bone instead of a penis. Hawkins has always been a naughty girl and I hope she continues to make good dirty jokes until she dies.

Presumably these are chicken bones in her piece. Ansel Krut has a painting called The Ghosts of Chicken Dinners. I don't understand his title, but it's clear that Krut is trying to imitate Goya. Quite a brave ambition, and there's a malevolent undersheen in the picture, because he's used oil on a copper support. The idea of death evidently discourages painters from having a light or easeful relationship with the canvas, so an amount of digging and scratching goes on. Coffin-shaped holes appear in painted surfaces, or photographs of departed friends are buried beneath pigment.

Painters with a naturally lighter hand turn to metaphor when thinking of death. William Packer has a flower-painting-cum-still-life of a dead rose and a burnt-out match. Another touch painter who uses metaphor is Lynn Dennison. Where has she been hiding? Or is she a newcomer? Dennison has a feeling for paint. Perhaps, in her untitled picture, it's a little too waxy. On the other hand the waxiness fits the subject. Her metaphor is a cross between a wedding dress and a shroud.

David Dawson is also a new artist on the public scene. He is Lucian Freud's studio assistant, which may or may not be good for his own development. Dawson's Studio Bed is one of a number of paintings in which the bed and the deathbed are associated. Cameron Rudd, on the other hand, reports a death on the street. His 3rd October 1997 is about a murder in Highbury Barn, just around the corner from Flowers East, on that date. People are looking at a placard appealing for witnesses and we know that something has gone horribly wrong, even though we have only the atmosphere of the painting to guide us.

I like works by Conroy Maddox, Shaun McCracken, Garry Wragg, Terry Frost and Jacqueline Stanley. Josef Herman, 86 this year, has a serene picture he calls Prometheus, a god of birth rather rather than of death. John Loker's A Watery Grave is exceptional: its blue is so piercing and heartfelt. The surprise of the show is Stuart Brisley's Mirror. Brisley has been a performance artist for as long as anyone can remember. This year he decided to start painting again. This disturbing, beautiful picture is one of the results. Brisley has re-made himself. And that's painting for you. It won't stop you dying, but it has so much potential that it can make you young again.

Flowers East, E8 (0181 985 3333), to 11 Jan.