Exhibitions: Painted into a corner - but a perfectly pleasant one

Jerwood Painting Prize Jerwood Space, SE1
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London has a pleasant new art gallery at the Jerwood Space, 171 Union Street, SE1. The building looks totally modern from the outside, but is a converted 19th-century school, cleverly adapted for the Jerwood Foundation's present-day purposes. Most of the floor area is occupied by five rehearsal spaces which are used by dance and theatre companies. The one I saw was excellent. Downstairs there's a cafe, a sculpture courtyard is at the back and the gallery opens on the street.

This is a fast-developing part of Southwark. Even though there are not many people in the streets, there are large new banks, surely a sign that the future is waiting to spring on us. The Jerwood Space is quite close to the Globe Theatre and the new Tate Gallery at Bankside. I expect that 171 Union Street will become a popular venue by the millennium. It has started quite well. The first show looks good, if not spectacular. The previously homeless Jerwood Painting Prize is now in its fifth year and has become an established part of the British art scene, not least because its winner receives the sizeable sum of pounds 30,000. The Prize is also popular because it concentrates on painting, a vital contemporary art form that's often overlooked by the conceptual establishment. Furthermore, there's none of the ageism that tends to creep into art competitions these days. Most of the 10 shortlisted artists who make up the exhibition are in their thirties, while two of them, Basil Beattie and Edwina Leapman, are in their sixties. Significantly, both of them are painting with more authority than at any previous time in their careers.

Leapman, as always, exhibits can-vases in which some five or six dozen stripes run horizontally and in parallel from one edge of the picture to the other. These stripes have a variegated touch and muted colour. For some years Leapman used only white - grey, that is, for very few white paintings are absolutely white. At the moment, she seems to be concentrating on maroon and blue. But the colour is not the most important change. Leapman's stripes used to seem exploratory, as though she didn't know when she started on the left of the picture (as one presumed she did) what minor adventures might occur to her brush as she approached its right-hand side. Today, that sense of uncertainty has disappeared. She shows more command, and her paintings are better for being more regulated.

Basil Beattie is more obviously commanding, but there's much subtlety in his bravura. Of his paintings (each artist exhibits two, and often they seem like pairs), I prefer Bound in Blackness. A yellowy-cream border encloses two shapes or areas: one is black and at its side is another shape that's almost black and is in fact very dark chocolate. At the top of this area is a sort of architectural motif, roughly painted doorways that give a hint of perspective. At the bottom left of the picture is a white triangle - white because the canvas has been left bare. This triangle contains three strut-like lines, painted thickly with white oil.

Here's a bold painting whose dramatic outlines contain some extra-fine colour contrasts and unexpected passages. Such passages may seem nonchalant or casual, but that's because they are the result of experience. And, in general, I don't think that Beattie's painting could have been accomplished by a younger artist. Bound in Blackness travels beyond the other side of maturity. Looking beyond the confines of the Jerwood Prize for a moment, I notice how many painters of Beattie's generation - he was born in 1935 - are currently producing rather lawless and innovative work. The changing life of painting, and therefore its future, is found in older as well as younger artists.

The Jerwood Prize is no guide to emerging talent. Most of the exhibitors have been regularly seen in group shows, competitions and the like. One of them is this year's prize- winner, Madeleine Strindberg, who nearly won the 1997 Jerwood. She has a string of awards dating from her student years in the mid-1980s, including a residency at the National Gallery, and the Abbey Award, which gives an artist a year in Italy and a one-person exhibition at the British School in Rome. Yet Strindberg is not exactly a famous painter of our day. I write this not in disparagement, merely to point out that she belongs to the middle ground of contemporary art - a wide middle ground, because nobody at all is acknowledged today as a leader of new painting.

Strindberg's pictures are full of interest. She can paint rough, as she did last year, or with delicacy, as she does this year. Her motifs are both personal and allusive. One can't say whether she's inspired by her sitting room or by wider aspects of life. The present paintings contain both butterflies (or shapes of butterflies on a fabric?) and diagrams of the brain. Though intriguing, Strindberg's subjects are too random. I wish that her paintings were thicker and richer, with definite and as it were unarguable themes.

Medulla - Bruised is the picture that convinced the Jerwood judges. You get the feeling that the artist is inspecting natural phenomena, insects, parts of the brain and so on, without drawing any thoughts from her inspection. Butterflies flit around, and that's their life. They fly, they flutter, they die. The human brain is a more demanding subject. Does Strindberg imply that our instrument of thought also flutters and dies? One does not know, nor greatly care.

Other people exhibiting are the shortlisted Richard Beck, Alan Brooks, Claude Heath, David Leapman, Chris Ofili and William Tillyer. Beck (born 1946) is new to most of us, for he has been working in Los Angeles as a commercial photographer. While photography inspires his painting, we realise that only the activity of painting satisfies him. Beck has invented a formidable private technique using oil paint and sand.

Brooks has been seen recently in the Liverpool John Moores Gallery and the NatWest Painting Prize. His drawing is often dismissed as scribble. It's not. But a more thoughtful use of line would still be welcome. Ofili's paintings can be seen in greater quantity at his current Serpentine show. This is the exhibition I reviewed when it opened in Southampton in April.

In the sculpture courtyard is a life-size self-portrait figure by Don Brown. Strangely, he looks a little like Andy Warhol and a little more like the late Peter Fuller, founder of the dumb magazine, Modern Painters. Better sculpture next time, please.

Jerwood Painting Prize: Jerwood Space, Union Street, SE1 (0171 654 0171), to 8 November.