Fate, hopelessness, little clarity

EXHIBITIONS: Where does British painting go from here? Two new shows offer a glimpse of the future, but it's a depressing sight
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The Independent Culture
THE NEW exhibition at the Waddington Gal-lery (jointly organised with Karsten Schubert) is uncharacteristically depressing. It's called "From Here" and is concerned with the prospects of contemporary painting. The show's title comes from a picture by Bridget Riley. Of course, you're meant to prefix it with the words "Where do we go . . ." and that sums up the mood. Negative or hopeless attitudes prevail.

There are 18 people on display. Of the younger artists not more than three show any innate belief in painting as an art form. The two contributors with most freedom and invention are the oldest, Bridget Riley and Patrick Heron. Riley's picture continues the explorations she began six years ago, when her paintings ceased to rely on dazzle - powerful optical effects caused by the interaction and repetition of colours. Now she builds her pictures with discrete but interconnecting lozenges. In From Here there must be nearly five hundred of these elongated rectangles. The painting is a triumph of organisation. But its composition is not pre-ordained, as was her earlier art. Not one lozenge is out of place, yet there is still an element of improvisation in this impressive canvas.

As we know, the ability to improvise usually comes with experience. Of younger artists, Fiona Rae is the most daring in letting a picture take its own course. She overdoes it, not knowing how to concentrate on the good bits. The vastly more knowledgeable Patrick Heron doesn't overcompose, though he does have rather a lot of those little twists, dabs and whirls that record his pleasure in his Cornish garden. I like the way he keeps changing the subject, darting around like a butterfly. Those canvases are fluent, surprising and light-handed: Heron's best paintings have never had a heavy touch.

Heron (born 1920) and Riley (1931) are veterans. Both are self-contained artists who find the course of their future work within themselves. Neither has been a teacher, except intermittently, nor has had much influence on later artists. So what are they doing in a show about the future of painting? The rationale of this exhibition escapes me. Here are two senior artists happily doing what they do best; and then there's a gulf before we come to new paintings of a neo-conceptual type, mainly produced by graduates of Goldsmiths' College.

There's no link, unless it's provided by Michael Craig-Martin. A teacher at Gold-smiths' since 1973, now its Millard Professor of Fine Art, and a Trustee of the Tate since 1989, Craig-Martin has a lot of influence in today's art world. But he's never been a painter, in any sense of the word that most of us would recognise. On the occasions when he does use paint, it is with a mocking or derisive intent. His present work is of this sort. Abstract Painting is a long, large canvas, seven-eighths of it painted in a hard, undifferentiated blue. At the right is a yellow strip. Placed on the yellow is a mechanical drawing of step-ladders, on the blue an equally mechanical drawing of a paint roller. What's the difference between fine-art painting and house painting? Craig-Martin enquires. None, if you view these activities from the eminence of conceptual art.

At the Karsten Schubert Gallery in Foley Street, Craig-Martin shows another version of his piece, this time painted directly on to the gallery walls. Also in Foley Street are another Heron painting and a work by Glenn Brown, Telstar. Brown is the artist who was in trouble two years ago when he attempted to show pseudo-Salvador Dalis at the Serpentine, thus annoying the Surreal-ist's estate. His trick is to enlarge portions of very famous artists' work in a technique that combines oil on canvas with photographic reproduction. I don't know how he does it but I can see the slimy and second-hand look thus attributed to pigment. The paintings he now shows are enlargements from de Kooning.

One is called Night of the Living Dead, referring no doubt to de Kooning's Alzheimer's disease. Not a hint of pity for de Kooning is allowed to enter this pseudo-painting. That would spoil its poise and glistering morbidity. Brown's work shows Goldsmiths' attitudes at their worst, or what I hope to be their worst. There's still something worth considering about him. What Brown does is trivial as art and has no creative feeling. But he's exhibited all over the place, and this must tell us something about the world in which we live.

Craig-Martin and Brown re-open a question first posed in the early 1970s. It's philosophical, but could only be asked in our time. Is it possible to make a totally cynical work of art? I think not. For not even the most venal faker can exclude some element of art or artistry from his or her work. I leave this question for a Gold-smiths' seminar. Meanwhile, I observe that Ian Davenport, Damien Hirst, Gary Hume and Simon Linke all present unoriginal paintings whose novelty resides only in their distaste for the more sincere artists on whom they depend. Often, their downgrading reinterpretations are managed simply by the use of household paint or some other non-art type of pigment. That's not very searching. Nothing is changed by such art. What has changed, obviously, is that there's now an art audience prepared to give in to it.

The three talented painters in the Wadding-ton/Schubert show are Callum Innes, Zebedee Jones and Fiona Rae. By good fortune they also exhibit in "New Painting from the Arts Council Collection" at the Norwich Gallery. Jones (born 1970) is as yet too young to be able to put his experience of life into a minimal monochromatic painting. But such a thing can be done, as we see from Innes' enlargement of his own, equally minimal art. Rae, as I hinted above, could become more economical without losing any of her interest. Other artists at Norwich with a genuine feeling for paint are Nicholas May and Tim Allen. I attended an "open meeting" about the exhibition the other day. These were the only exhibitors who had anything to say to the audience. Allen was good. He raised the question of beauty. It was not pleasing to the neo-conceptualists who were present, but I for one was glad to hear the word.

! `From Here': Waddington Gallery, W1 (071-437 8611), to 29 April. `New Painting': Norwich Gallery (0603 610561), to 29 April.

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