EXHIBITIONS / Familiar signs of a misspent youth: This year's postgraduate shows have their highlights, but they still display a worrying contempt for painting

Click to follow
THE FINAL year painters in the Royal Academy Schools put up a quick show of their work last week, just to see how their canvases would look in the Sackler galleries. Pretty good, I thought, and among them were two young artists of undoubted gifts. Jo Townshend is an out and out colourist - unusual in a student - and Anya King can orchestrate a big painting, full of different parts and passages, because she has an overall vision of its unity.

I mention these artists not only because they are good but because the world is against them at the moment. Might such people be considered for the Barclays Young Artist Award, whose short- listed artists are now on display at the Serpentine Gallery? The answer is no, and the same applies to the painters from the five other London postgraduate colleges whose students were eligible for this pounds 10,000 prize. They are not good enough, says Andrea Schlieker, assistant director of the Serpentine and one of the judges of the competition (the others were Mel Gooding, Tim Head and Sarah Kent). Furthermore, she adds, they did not see a painter doing anything really new - art for today.

Not for a moment do I believe that student painting is in such a poor state. Nor do I see anything novel from the nine artists in the Serpentine show. These hardboard cubicles, self-regarding videotapes, tableau photographs, pieces of crazy furniture - have we not seen them many, many times before, in fact since the very first Serpentine shows in the early Seventies?

The fact is that students rarely produce original art. In their education they find out about themselves by working through influences. But one thing does seem to be new on the art school scene, an institutionalised contempt for painting. Hence the one unpleasant display at the Serpentine, a room of imitation paintings by Glenn Brown (Goldsmiths'). Two of them, after Salvador Dali, have been taken out of the show for copyright reasons and so there remain only Brown's imitations of Frank Auerbach. They are not true copies of the older artist's work. Nor are they straight oil on canvas, as the labels claim. Brown has used some photographic process to give a flat, slathering look to Auerbach's impasto. So the pictures initially look like very bad colour reproductions and the last two seem to recall paint-handling that never existed. Such objects would not make their point if they were not unpleasant to look at, which they are. But Brown's cynicism has been rewarded, for these works have all been bought for the Saatchi collection.

The winners of the Barclays Prize are twins Louise and Jane Wilson (Goldsmiths'), who contribute staged photographs of interiors which we may believe to have recently witnessed frightful events. Stained bedding, a broken chair, a stuffed carrier-bag hanging from a hook in the ceiling; such things come with the guarantee of a frisson. But the addition of other elements, as if trying to make an environment, doesn't work.

The Serpentine's front room is the best installed. Hilary Wilson (Slade) has made structures from ash wood and chipboard. They resemble beds or cabinets. The parts in ash are carefully crafted, as though they had come from an expensive department store. But the chipboard cancels such associations, and the pieces begin to look disturbing. This is neatly subversive work. Suzanne Walker (Slade) has taken photographs of tower blocks, whose silhouettes she then transfers to canvas. Tacita Dean (Slade) shows three large photographs in which living people have posed in the positions of Tintoretto's Martyrdom of St Agatha, she of the indomitable chastity.

Of the other exhibitors, Georgina Starr (Slade) and Laura Thompson (Chelsea) are notable. Starr's work is both invisible and anonymous. She has been in the gardens around the Serpentine, secretly recording conversations between people she doesn't know. Back home, she has transcribed these tapes, then read them out in her own voice. This is what we hear in her own room, the gallery's lavatories and the Serpentine portico. Thompson's twin videos show her spread-eagled, then drawing the outline of her body; on the next screen she performs various drawing and smearing actions with a brush, or her fingers, or a bursting bag of pigment. Thus she combines, in a modern medium, a strangely primordial self-portraiture with a look at the first origins of drawing. It's the best piece in the show - but perhaps too modest to have won the prize.

At the Saatchi Gallery are works by four young or not-too-old British artists. Some of this is already familiar. Mark Wallinger's portraits of his friends dressed as vagrants were shown at the ICA two years ago. If they do not impress quite as much the second time round, the ironic combination of pompous full-length academic portraiture with social poverty is still relevant. Wallinger now adds four paintings of racehorses. These (I am told) criticise the wealth of the person who owns them, who may be identified by the fact that all four horses are out of Eclipse. They are nicely painted, in an academic but just slightly mocking manner, and Wallinger has quite correctly left a lot of bare canvas; if he filled the pictures to their edges they would be nothing but academic.

Rose Finn-Kelcey shows her commanding galvanised steel trough that expels steam to an extractor hood. This gigantic piece, so dependent on our views of modern machinery, also looks rather neo-classical, as though it were first conceived in the 1780s. By contrast, her frightening refrigerator - which may be entered - seems utterly contemporary. Is she contrasting a comparatively benign industrial past with the inhuman present? Finn-Kelcey guards some mysteries. Not so Sarah Lucas, whose blown-up pages of the Sunday Sport are inadequate as art. We know the tabloid is objectionable but it's boring to be told so.

The talking point of the Saatchi show will be Marc Quinn's sculpture of his own head, made from eight pints of his own blood. He collected it over a period of time, then poured the red gunge into a cast of his features made with the help of dental alginate. It has to be kept frozen, of course, which is why it is in a sub-zero box. Here is a sculpture that provokes many thoughts, not all of them gruesome. I suspect Quinn is a genuine artist, but his more conventional pieces are disappointing.

Barclays Young Artist Award, Serpentine Gallery, 071-402 6075, to 28 Feb. Young British Artists, Saatchi Gallery, 071-624 8299, Fri and Sat only for the next six months.

(Photograph omitted)