Oh no Gary, not again

EXHIBITIONS: Last year Gary Hume just missed the Turner Prize. Now he's won the Jerwood
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The Jerwood Prize for painting is now in its fourth year, and it ought to be a celebration. Britain is full of good painters, and money isn't lacking. The winner of the Jerwood gets pounds 30,000, so there's little wonder that this year more than 300 artists sent in more than thousand works.

Nine people were shortlisted and there's an exhibition of their work at the Lethaby Gallery in the Central School of Art. Surprisingly, the display is lacklustre. Perhaps this is because the gallery is hard to hang and reeks of higher education. I doubt, though, if the show would have looked much better elsewhere. What has gone wrong?

Two or three things are possible. Painting as an art form might have failed completely in recent years - but I know this not to be true. A lot of leading artists won't put in for a competition if they think the prize has previously gone to the wrong picture, as with the Jerwood last year. And they won't enter if they don't like the composition of the jury. Well, this year the jury wasn't bad at all, and its two leading members are popular in the art world. Iwona Blazwick used to be at the ICA and has recently been made curator of the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art at Bankside. Bryan Robertson is a natural radical with a wonderfully sharp eye, and has organised dozens of innovative exhibitions. If the Jerwood Foundation had sent Blazwick and Robertson round the country with a brief to make an exciting painting show, the results could have been terrific. But it hasn't happened that way; and the send-in system, with selection from slides, has failed.

With the exception of Rose Wylie, nobody looks proud, shows off or displays much emotion. The prize might have been taken by Rose Wylie or Madeleine Strindberg, but has gone to Gary Hume. This has been a successful year for Hume, for he is also in the "Sensation" exhibition at the Royal Academy. Writing about "Sensation" three weeks ago, I remarked that Hume was one of the few artists to have improved after they were first purchased by Charles Saatchi. Hume's Jerwood-winning pictures show that improvement to have come to a halt. There's not much more he can do with either his attitude or his chosen medium. He uses household enamel paints applied to aluminium. The technique makes him look shiny, brash and contemptuous of fine-art approaches to painting. The superior and joking stance of Monkey comes from the way its silhouettes mimic and mock classic abstract art, in this case the stained painting of Morris Louis. It's cool and amusing, for the moment - but only for the moment. Hume would benefit from doing some printmaking, preferably with a bullying printer who could teach him how to clarify and emphasise his outlines. Since at least the Sixties, all sorts of new British painters have been helped by doing prints. Alas, the 1997 gen-eration of successful artists avoid printing studios, considering them places of boring old-fashioned craftsmanship.

But new kinds of craftsmanship on canvas are not bringing the right results. Jason Martin has invented a way of painting that works, in its own way, yet is at the same time self-defeating. On perspex or stainless steel he drags a strip of draught-excluder that is exactly the same size as his support. Thus we get parallel marks evenly distributed across the picture, with a few wobbles. The technique is obviously hard to control and leads nowhere. Martin's paintings don't look good, just odd. There's no future in them.

Six of the nine finalists are women. Jane Harris has been doing ovoid shapes with scalloped decoration for some years now and has probably exhausted the possibilities of her format. The pictures depend a lot on the light in which they are seen and would probably look better outside the Lethaby Gallery. At the moment, her use of a dull but still declarative red is troubling. It seems not to be Harris's colour.

Not one artist in this exhibition is a true colourist. Maria Lalic's minimal, one-colour red painting must have given more satisfaction to its artist than it does to the viewer. Joanna Price's men in suits, all in blue, only demonstrate that she cannot genuinely use blue in an expressive way. Madeleine Strindberg makes a brave try at a yellow painting. The picture looks experimental. I think colour paintings should be unhesitant, free of worry.

Still, Strindberg is an interesting artist. Her three canvases show quite different approaches. She has been exhibiting with some success (if prizes equal success) since the early 1980s, but has never quite settled down into a developing style. One day she will hit her true mark. Strindberg's most effective picture is of a toy gun that doubles as a penis. It's not as lackadaisical as it first appears. Neither are the two paintings by Rose Wylie, the only artist in the show not to have been widely seen elsewhere in recent years. Do not imagine that these are faux-naif pictures with a look-it's-little-me message. Wylie is deadly serious, and her unorthodox handling is not childish. There are signs that Wylie is becoming a bit of a cult figure. She doesn't deserve a cult - no true artist does - but she ought to be appreciated, on her own, strange terms.

Next month, the biannual John Moores Liverpool exhibition opens at the Walker Art Gallery. This painting show is now 40 years old, but always keeps us up to date with new painting. The Jerwood Foundation means well, but its directors could usefully take some hints from the Liverpool event.

Lethaby Gallery, WC2 (01372 462190), to Sat.

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