EXHIBITIONS: The future's bright, but is it art?

You may not spot tomorrow's household names among the `New Contemporari es', but their progress is still fun to watch
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The Independent Culture
The "New Contemporaries" exhibitions are annual showcase events for art students and recent graduates. These anthologies of bright new work are usually pleasant entertainment. Occasionally the atmosphere has been spoilt by theorists or political activists, but the general rule is that anarchism and good humour win the day. I thought that last year's "New Contemporaries" was a little too professional, with too many post- graduates and some chillingly serious abstraction. The 1997 version has a better spirit. Visitors to the Camden Arts Centre will find nothing profound and, God be praised, nothing that aims at profundity.

The tone of the exhibition is light, throwaway, inventive and cheeky. There's not much in the way of traditional painting and sculpture. I like the three paintings by Katherine McKee (Glasgow School of Art). One is made from black dots. The others, which are more successful, are composed of parallel black lines running horizontally from one edge of the picture to the other. There are a few bits of colour, but basically these are black-line paintings. As so often, one wonders at the magic nature of painting as an art form. Just some black stripes on the canvas. We have seen such things many times before. Yet individual personality can emerge within minimal formats. One feels McKee's character. It's also obvious that these are the paintings of a young person. If she's still painting in her maturity we may have a formidable new Scottish artist.

I write "if" because so many art students of the 1990s decide that they'll give art a go for a couple of years and that, if they don't make it big, then they'll switch to something else.

The notion of a lifetime's vocation has disappeared, so that much publicity for student shows is misconceived. Punters are always invited to spot the great art stars of the future. In truth, future household names have not been part of the "New Contemporaries" exhibition since the 1960s. That's because new art has become so expendable and also because art-school graduates easily find the music and entertainment industries.

Hence the feeling in the Camden show of a youthful multiplicity of skills that could be used in quite different areas, not just displayed in an art gallery. Student photography, for instance, has recently become much more confident and professional. A sign of this new expertise is the way that photographers handle colour on a large scale, influenced, I suspect, by advertising. Camerawork is turning away from intimacy, portraiture and reportage - a pity, for we could do with a new generation of photojournalists. It's Great Outdoors by Jemima Brown (Chelsea College of Art) is a panoramic shot of two young people quite at odds with the Wiltshire countryside. They seem to be longing to get back on the motorway. Seamus Nicholson's nocturnal visions (Royal College of Art), carefully devised and smoothly printed, record his generation and its pleasures. Aftermath is about litter after some rave. Megatripolis records a club scene, cleverly hinting at hellish activities. Here's a photo that is bound to unsettle parents, perhaps by intent.

A bit more humour from the photographers would be welcome. By contrast, the artists who use video have a lighter touch than usual. Normally one enters the darkened cubicles in those exhibitions with foreboding. Video is a cumbersome medium, it often requires sound effects to make it more interesting and it's fatally prone to repetition. Video pieces tend to be less convincing the longer one stays with them. Jemima Brown faces these problems head on by repeating to a ludicrous degree and her Pumping up Dolly Brown is more touching the more ludicrous it becomes. The artist pumps up a life-size inflatable figure which might be modelled on herself. There's a hole somewhere. Dolly deflates. The artist hold her hand, pumps again. Dolly deflates once more. On and on it goes, suggesting with some mockery that motherhood or the renewal of life is a theme for really boring middle-aged people like the current guru of video, Bill Viola, whose most celebrated work is concerned with such matters. Smart Jemima Brown hints that art students are also good at deflating reputations.

Another bit of idiocy I'd like to applaud comes from Brian Griffiths (Goldsmiths). His four sculptures are all labelled Untitled but he insists on listing their components. The most elaborate work, a sort of control panel, is constructed from "cardboard box, plastic sheeting, plastic bottles (varied), golf ball, tea strainer, buttons, paint roller handles, tape box, string parcel tape". What's he up to? Not sculpture. When he most approaches the look of sculpture - Mir's surrealist assemblages, in one case - he's less interesting. Griffiths is a model-maker, and joins a number of new artists who like to construct a batty neo-realism of 1990s life and its artefacts. Here's a current trend, but a trend without much future and little hope of future achievement. Who cares about that, when you're 21 in 1997?

At the Curwen Gallery and the New Academy Gallery, almost opposite each other on Windmill Street in Fitzrovia, is a comparatively restrained exhibition, "Northern Graduates 1997". With much reason, art schools in the north feel that they are given less media attention than those in the south- east. I'm sure their students are quite as good. This show looks less dramatic than the display at Camden because it includes no postgraduates and has not had the benefit of sponsorship that "New Contemporaries" can attract (this year from Beck's). Also, it includes more painting, has only one video piece and no installations. I like the exhibition because it doesn't go in for posing and points out the difficulties and minor successes of student art.

Here, for example, are paintings by Helen Panes (Cumbria), typical of student work as it has been for the last 20 or even 30 years. How one recognises the cheap pigment, the obvious colour, the mistake of painting on a square when the picture should have been taller ... But Panes has done some decent improvisation and reworking. She just needs more experience, and then her genuine talent will come out. The same goes for Lucinda Parker (Bradford and Ilkley) and Louise Payne (Lancaster). Apart from Max Caffell (Newcastle), who gives us a post-modern coffin, the most metropolitan- looking artist in the show is Hannah Maybank (Liverpool). She has a keen eye, a neat way of drawing and an interest in the differences between fine art and graphic design. I hope she comes to ally herself more with art but suppose that she might make a success of working in a television studio.

! "New Contemporaries": Camden Arts Centre, NW3 (0171 435 5224), to 21 Sept. "Northern Graduates 1997": Curwen Gallery, W1 (0171 636 1459) & New Academy Gallery, W1 (0171 323 4700), to 30 Aug. Both shows are free.