EXHIBITIONS / Some are more equal than others: How should the works in a send-in show be chosen? Two new examples demonstrate that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it

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The Independent Culture
TWO NEW mixed shows, both selected from a general submission, aim to give an idea of the mood of current art. East, at the Norwich Gallery in Norwich, presents 36 artists chosen from 1,400 hopefuls. The First John Jones Open, at the pleasant John Jones Gallery in Finsbury Park, London, features 43 out of 850 entrants.

Perhaps the shows aren't really comparable, but the John Jones display is sharper and the installation at Norwich leads us through room after room of dud art. The reason for the contrast is pretty obvious. The London exhibition was selected from actual works. The show was directly formed by Prunella Clough and Andrew Lambirth. East, on the other hand, depends on slides. Its Dutch selectors, Jan Dibbets and Rudi Fuchs, chose their art at a photographic remove. The ambiguous nature of painting on slides must have deceived them. Anyway, they are now promoting artists who have no place in a discriminating exhibition.

Clough and Lambirth differ in sex, age, taste and perspective on the world but they do know what is going on in British art. I question whether Fuchs and Dibbets have a similar qualification. They belong to the generation of conceptualists who were first prominent around 1970: Fuchs as a writer and Dibbets as a disillusioned painter who soon came to construct his work with photos rather than pigment. I haven't seen Dibbets's work recently but Fuchs is prominent on the European art scene, for he is director of Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum.

Like the directors of other contemporary art galleries, Fuchs has wearied of the neo-conceptualism which was lauded three years ago and now bets on a revival of expressionist figure painting. There are some odd results of this shuffling of the directorial cards.

Fuchs and his friend Nick Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, now have an enthusiasm for the thick, scrawled painting of the 67-year-old Leon Kossoff. Serota, in his other capacity as chairman of the Advisory Board for Visual Arts at the British Council, has chosen Kossoff as the British representative at the next Venice Biennale. Thus are quashed the hopes that we might at last have a younger, woman artist in the British pavilion. Meanwhile, Fuchs plans a Kossoff exhibition at the Stedelijk.

I mention these art-world manoeuvres because they have an effect on East. Dibbets and Fuchs did not look at slides in Norwich without preconceptions. They wanted a show that would declare 'the rightful role of Expressionism in the history of modern art and therefore its influence on the art of today'. They also have a distrust of abstract painting. Abstraction is too 'pure', Fuchs currently believes, for the complex needs of the present-day world.

If artists had been informed that this was the programme behind the 1994 East, many of them might not have troubled to photograph their work, make slides and all the rest of it. Surely the whole point of a send-in exhibition is that it should be genuinely open and its judges without parti pris. This preconception about expressionism has weakened the exhibition. We can't know who was rejected at Norwich, but surely better artists put in their entries than those now on the gallery walls.

Just what is contemporary expressionism, as found in this show? Certainly nothing coherent. Pseudo-nave gestures, nudes with ragged edges, inchoate street scenes, winsome self- portraits, mannerism and carelessness: these things make up the recipe.

We seem to be at the fag-end of the kind of painting once associated with the followers of David Bomberg (who, of course, included Kossoff), and the sense of a tradition in final decline makes this year's East a sad occasion. And it used to sparkle . . .

As in previous years, the exhibition has brought in a few artists from the Continent. Reggy Gunn from Amsterdam contributes a humorous picture of a fish, nice but little more than a joke. Beat Klein from Basle puts a dog's head made from fur and rubber foam on a pedestal. Lara Schnitger from Amsterdam suspends an indeterminate-looking cardboard shape in the middle of a gallery by means of long strings of cotton. I don't see how anyone can have thought this piece worth importing: one would hardly accept it from a second-year student. The most interesting of the foreign entries is from the Russian Tatyana Yassievich, yet another artist now living in Amsterdam. Her picture of green benches in a public garden under snow has a genuine Russian touch and is the only painting in the show with the conviction that expressionist art ought to possess.

Lack of conviction spoils Kathleen Thompson's likeable paintings. Here is an artist with real talents. But she disguises them by pretending to look at life through the eyes of a child, half curious and half amazed. A similar childishness is in David Powell's picture of a poster advertising seaside holidays. Paul Kuzemczak, like Thompson and Powell, writes words on his paintings. Why do people do this? It always gives the impression of an artist unable to come to grips with the real world. And that, alas, is another message of this disappointing exhibition. So much in it seems inconsequential,

as though art were no more than a bizarre hobby.

Both East and The First John Jones Open have offered prizes. The Norwich exhibition gave an award to a video by Stephanie Smith, and the John Jones management has presented a cheque to Graham Crowley for his Flower Arranging. I think this was the right choice. Certainly it's the best painting by Crowley that I've ever seen. He's had an up-and-down career as a professional artist, with many exhibitions and not a lot of acclaim. Recently he's been artist- in-residence in a secondary school - the sort of thing artists do only if they're crazily idealistic or broke, almost always the latter. Anyway, Crowley may have hit a winning streak with paintings of this sort. Always a virtuoso at drawing with the brush, and happier with grisaille than with full colour, Crowley now makes flower painting - which by definition ought to be colourful - into a strangely grey extravaganza.

Another surprise at John Jones is the large, meaty and confident canvas by Yolanda Sonnabend, best known as a stage designer. This picture has the feeling of her early painting years in the Fifties, and is none the worse for that. Sonnabend must be one of the oldest contributors to this show. Most of the artists I guess to be in their late twenties or thirties and a high proportion of the better paintings are by women. I like Susie Hamilton's Hut in Spain, am disturbed (as we are all meant to be) by Lee Maelzer's menacing The Price of Liberty and am rather in love with Eleanor Engle's delicate acrylic-and- collage Lovespoons.

Painting predominates, as always with send-in exhibitions. Sculpture is usually too awkward for this type of show and photographers often don't enter their work. Though they never touch the heights, I wish we had more send-in exhibitions, in the provinces as well as in London. After the death of its founder and sponsor, the future of the Liverpool John Moores exhibition is in doubt. The Whitechapel Open may have become simply too popular for the organisation to cope with its costs. Neither the Hayward nor the Tate would dream of helping artists with an open exhibition. So let's have another one. The way to do it is to open up an art school during the summer months when the studios are empty. This is how East began, four years ago. The best venue for a new open show would, I think, be Birmingham, whose gothic-revival art school is the most beautiful in the country and is set right in the middle of the city.

'East': Norwich Gallery, 0603 610561, to 3 Sept. 'The First John Jones Open', 071-281 2380, to 26 Aug.

(Photograph omitted)