Exhibitions: Vacant and proud of it

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The Independent Culture
Drive-By: New Art from LA

South London Gallery, London

Maybe it is our nasty British preconceptions about West Coasters; maybe it is just the echoing white space that is the South London Gallery: either way, a great feeling of loneliness sweeps over you as you walk into "Drive-By", a show of new art from Los Angeles. Try to deduce Angelinos from the works in the exhibition and you will come up with a race of people who apparently favour objects over subjects, appearance over anything that the average Londoner might recognise as reality. Emptiness stares dully at you from the gallery's walls: a sense of lack that can only be explained by the famed vacuity of the Southern Californian. Somewhere, in the background, you seem to hear an endless loop of people chewing gum and voices saying "I mean, like, rilly, aziff".

Listen a little more closely, though, and you will realise that the works in "Drive-By" are actually saying something rather different. Yes, they are all about vacancy: but that is not to say they are vacuous. Rather, the sculptures and paintings in this cleverly curated show turn vacuousness into an art form. This is not to confuse them with the East Coast trash art of Jeff Koons and his kind, which celebrated duh-uh American kitsch. No, the works in "Drive-By" are serious in their exploration of emptiness, less celebratory of it than they are intrigued or even haunted by it.

Take Catherine Opie's photographs of mini-malls. The first thing that strikes you about them is their deadness, a quality so palpable that it clearly takes a certain sort of brilliance to achieve it. Deserted shopping malls are easy meat for the portrayal of vacancy, but the subject of these pictures is, in a sense, coincidental. Where the real emptiness of Opie's work lies is in the hieratic nature of her style. These are architectural mug-shots: the malls are seen face-on, facades and telephone wires parallel to the picture frame, lamp posts perpendicular to it. It seems pointless to remark that these are self-consciously photographic images, but they are. Everything that photographers normally fight against - the inescapable stasis of the medium, the tyranny of frames - Opie embraces.

The paintings of Kevin Appel are also knowing. Like Opie's work, Appel's agonisingly neat acrylics lack people just where there could well be some - his works are called things like Interior with Screen and Lamp after all. Like Opie, too, Appel plays with our expectations. We have seen his pictures somewhere before: the modernist houses by Eames; the sun- faded palette of Hockney's West Coast pictures. But if these works were underpinned by a Californian belief in the perfectability of climate, Appel turns this into something less optimistic. This is utopia taken too far, the minimalist dream of Licht, Luft and Sonne rendered so perfect as to exclude humanity.

The difficult thing about exhibitions like "Drive-By" is that the process of curatorial selection can skew your view. There are only five artists - 23 works - in the show: to claim this as in some way representative of a new voice in Angelino art is obviously statistically risky. If you saw Appel's work without Opie's - or without the winsomely threatening sculptures by Jason Meadows, which morph picket fences and picnic tables - would its emptiness be as apparent? Is the satire in Appel's Interior Views series so very refined as to make it possible to read his work, taken out of this context, as a Hockneyish hymn of West Coast praise? To be honest, I don't know.

What is certain, though, is that the works in "Drive-By" do speak with a remarkable unity of voice. Whether this belongs to Los Angeles circa 1999 or to the show's curator, Sadie Coles, is for you to decide. While musing over this question, you might like to look at Jeff Burton's Untitled #97 (Clamps). Like Opie's malls, everything seems to be up for sale in Burton's work: not inaptly, given that the images come from his job as a photographer in California's thriving gay porn industry. Like Opie's malls, too, though, it is impossible to imagine wanting to buy: not because the subject - a muscular man taking his trousers off - is unattractive so much as because Burton is clearly so bored by the whole thing as to edge it out of the frame. Boredom in the face of plenty. Maybe we were right about California.

'Drive-By': South London Gallery, SE5 (0171 703 6120) to 30 May.