EXHIBITIONS / A touch of middle class: The recent work of Tony Bevan, hard man of new British art, reveals a soft underbelly

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TONY BEVAN'S exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery deserves much of the praise it has received in the past week, and I agree that he is a significant artist. Nobody quite knows what he represents, however, so his importance is hard to define. The pictures themselves are simple enough, and better when they're simpler. It's the intentions that puzzle. What are the motives behind these superficially banal portraits?

Some clues are in his earlier works. Bevan's last substantial British show was at the ICA in 1987. The mood of the times then led people to interpret his work as protest painting. His pictures, all figurative, showed the artist himself, or young people and adolescents, without embellishment or social setting. But they were not socially anonymous. We could sense that they were street kids, hard but vulnerable, Mrs Thatcher's jetsam. The pictures did not actually say this but we sensed this was their message; and Bevan's bleak, spiky way of painting, his uningratiating colours and black outlines, all contributed to the notion of a working-class art, opposed both to government and to genteel aesthetics.

This looked fine, especially since the attitude of the paintings opposed the sentimentality of so much figure painting in the Eighties. Bevan was in the tough camp, with such Glaswegians as Ken Currie and Peter Howson (Bevan is from Bradford), the hard men of new British art. I now doubt such theories. Bevan doesn't look at art from a regional base, nor is he sufficiently forceful in his own artistic corner. He has come to make whither-humanity paintings - an area where you can't be hard. And the dangerous look of his Eighties' style is softening: this way lies academicism.

Bevan is a constant self-portraitist, partly because he repeats pictures when he finds a workable idea. The best painting of his own personality, from 1988, opens the exhibition. It suggests that someone has yanked the artist's head leftwards by his punk hair, thus revealing neck and ear. The artist might be in for examination after an accident or he might be about to have his throat cut. The painting's application is barbarous, at least by some standards. None the less it works, as though in sympathy with some violent predicament, and many others of Bevan's now familiar themes - he presents pictures merely of a back, a foot, or twisted hands - have a similar flavour. It's as though he had been inspired by some really bad government-cut hospital, both in subject and in manner.

Hospitals are for everyone, and Bevan would not be so effective if his paintings were not reminiscent of amateur art. But these works are not nave. Bevan has the cleverness of the super-amateur. He mixes and applies paint as though no one had ever taught him. His palette is especially uncultivated, though no innocent artist would have chosen such maroons, photographic greys and violet-purples. His influences are numerous, which is not an amateur characteristic, and they have been selected by sophistication. They include films, billboard advertising, the self-taught painters Van Gogh and Bacon, Kitaj and popular photography. No doubt Bevan picks things up from his contemporaries, but these are the mixed forces that count.

To have made a recognisable and workable style from such elements is an achievement, and Bevan is to be credited with some powerful paintings. They are unlike anyone else's and have a special way of being memorable. One of Bevan's native talents is to recognise and exploit images that seem commonplace at first sight but turn out to have a lot of staying power. The effectiveness of his pictures of feet is quite surprising. He has also given a new twist to the theme of the child portrait - something few painters achieve, though not many have ambitions in such an area. I think there's a danger here. His sombre and ineloquent humanism can turn into symbolism a la Bernard Buffet. One new image is of a figure stooping over a table with upturned hands, as though offering something, or demonstrating a disability, or allowing that the hands are empty, therefore honest. It sticks in the mind, but the emotion lacks truthfulness.

Another painting of this sort is in a subsidiary Bevan show at the Frith Street Gallery, where there are also charcoal drawings. I don't find these sheets special but they have a somewhat hallowed place because they are preparatory studies for a large work at the Whitechapel, The Meeting. So are many of the Whitechapel paintings. They are all presented as canvases that lead to a main work. The exhibition seems to have been devised to show that The Meeting is of great and perhaps permanent consequence.

Alas, it is not that kind of towering work. Bevan has found an image of men singing, and has turned it to his own ends. You can't tell how old the men are and they have become strangely classless and nationless. They all have the same brown eyes and indeed may not have individual characters. At first you are sure that they are singing. Then you think that the open mouths may be the result of something else. Perhaps they have been dumbstruck. Or are they shouting? You can read all sorts of things, and this is agreeable. But I regret that a sort of middle-class manner has entered Bevan's style. He's on his way to the Royal Academy. Worryingly, he has joined individual paintings on The Meeting theme together so that they make a cruciform shape. It's not a successful device and underlines the fact that Bevan - like many figurative artists who specialise in angst - can't compose on a large scale, or with any complication of his format. - Whitechapel (071-377 5015) to 11 July; Frith Street Gallery (071-494 1550) to 3 July.

(Photograph omitted)