This is the fourth in a series of big summer exhibitions of living artists. Previous displays have covered figurative painting, abstract painting and abstract sculpture. These have been excellent, and I lament that no publicly funded museum, except the Whitechapel, ever attempts a similar exercise. And what a lot of people have been gathered together in the Flowers family's Hackney galleries! More than 200 artists must have now shown in these popular events.
This year, as usual, distinguished and famous people have their work placed next to artists who are less well known. There's a relaxed,
uncompetitive atmosphere. And occasional bits of humour, for sculptors who concentrate on the human form do tend to be - what's the word? - effortful.
Andrew Logan's portrait of Maggi Hambling is the only sculpture of his that I have ever liked. It's a deft exercise in the higher kitsch, all in glass and clay, hideously coloured. Hambling looks like Evil Queen Bess. Her paintbrush and cigarette (whose smoke is represented by a bit of twisted wire) seem to be the menacing instruments of her will. Logan's sculpture is rough at the edges, but its improvised character makes the piece feel more authentic.
Another explorer of kitsch is Eleanor Crook, a new artist in only her second exhibition. Harry hoped I'd understand that my interest in him came at an inopportune moment is a ridiculous title that she must have copied from the cartoon drawings of Glenn Baxter. More relevant is her derivation from Jeff Koons. The American's relentless search for bad taste has led him to many corners of the 20th century, including the debased Christian folk art of the Italian- speaking Swiss valleys. And where Koons led, Crook has followed. Her little wax sculpture is of a Christ- like figure, eviscerated, with his entrails hanging out. She has made him a tweed jacket, to keep him warm and complete her mockery of rural superstition.
These surveys at Flowers East wisely avoid any overall theme or message. I conclude from this one that figurative sculpture has a future, but no direction. There will always be people who model material into a simulacrum of the body. It's a basic human impulse that will never be eradicated. William Tucker's recent sculpture has a sub-theme which I believe to be despairing. Whether Tucker models lumpy horses or lumpy people, there is still the same air of defeat. Even when Tucker was a hard-edge abstractionist in the 1960s, we suspected that his true master was Rodin, whose constant metaphor was that life might be found in clay. Now Tucker's Prize Fighter (Bibi) suggests that he ought to be more frank in following Rodin, or even Bourdelle. He would then reveal himself as an academic artist.
Whatever his eccentricities, Barry Flanagan is now overtly an academician. I think his image of a hare - its symbolism too - keeps him up and running, bounding past his fellow RAs. Did you know that a hare's back legs are so strong, it runs faster uphill than down? That's Flanagan. He somehow thrives on doing things the wrong way round. The hare in this show is a good one, especially because it's so loopy. The crescent and bell motifs give the sculpture an alchemical flavour.
Some sculptors are born magicians, whether their work is figurative or abstract. Flanagan is one of them, and so is Phillip King, who years ago was Flanagan's tutor. King's contribution is his Ubu's Camel, which dates from 1989. It looks just as good today as it did then, maybe even better, for this surreal, tortoise-like hump-back takes its time on its ruminant march into the spectator's imagination. Some sculptors have tried to be magicians all their lives yet have never made it, for magic is a gift. I place John Davies in this category. His ghostly figures appear to belong to a never-never land. Perhaps this is what he wants. But there is something passive about his creativity none the less, as though his sculpture might as well have been made by someone else. Davies's Threshold Figure is accompanied by two spindly trees. They don't help the figure at all; they simply make the sculpture even more vague.
Can there be such a thing as vague sculpture? Alas, yes. Medardo Rosso was vague. So was the overrated Giacometti. Tucker is vague. So are Katherine Gili, Maggi Hambling - much better when painting - and Peter Burke. I prefer sculpture with a perfect grip on things, work that convinces us that it could not have been made in any other way. This is among the merits of William Turnbull's Tall Balance, the most lucid and economical sculpture in the exhibition. A tall cylinder rises from a small round base. A long rod is balanced on the top of the cylinder, at a slant, and on this rod is an irregular sphere. That's all, and it's beautifully accomplished. Turnbull says that his sculpture comes from seeing a man in the West Indies "walking along the beach with this long thin coffin balancing on his head". One likes this information, though it's vaguer than the actual work of art.
The surprise of the show is Anthony Caro's bronze portrait bust of his old friend Clement Greenberg. It was made in 1988 when the critic was still alive, grumbling a lot, but as clever as ever. Other notable pieces are by Ken Armitage, Jane Ackroyd, Stephen Cox and Eduardo Paolozzi. Norbert Lynton contributes a genial introduction to the catalogue, beginning: "Visitors to this exhibition will have an advantage over me. I must write about it without having seen it."
Flowers East, E8 (0181 985 3333), to 8 Sept.Reuse content