On the surface

Oxford's exhibition of new British painting glories in its modernist aesthetic: paint for its own sake, free of reference. But is it beautiful?
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The Independent Culture
One of the more intriguing works in "About Vision: New British Painting in the 1990s", at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, is Untitled (emergency room) by Fiona Rae; and one of the things about it that intrigues the most is the question of its title, its lack of one (or its lack of a lack of one). If the artist had truly wanted her painting to be untitled, surely she should simply have called it Untitled. Conversely, if she had wanted it to have the title Emergency Room, surely she should just have called it Emergency Room. Her chosen title opens up all kinds of ambiguities. How entitled to the title "untitled" is a work the untitledness of which is thus parenthetically contradicted?

Throughout her relatively short career as a painter Rae has contrived to be paradoxical. Her new pictures are as disorientating as their nomenclature. Untitled (emergency room) is a picture of something about to take shape before it has actually done so. It is, so to speak, a resolved image of an image that has not yet resolved itself. On a grey ground, swirls of black and white paint form a pattern that is incoherent but that also seems on the verge of taking on comprehensible form. Within this churning foam, many brightly coloured discs, some of them partly occluded, form a constellation. This elegant and slightly sinister painting of something or other in a state of crisis was partly inspired, the artist has let it be known, by the admirable special effects in the film Terminator 2. Rae particularly enjoyed the ingenuity that went into the creation of that film's villain, a robot with the power to assume liquid form and to change shape at will. It is her hope she says, that the black-and-white marks in her own painting will "seem to form and reform themselves like the T1000 terminator". All art, the Victorian aesthete Walter Pater believed, aspires to the condition of music. He might have been surprised by an art that aspires instead to the condition of a molecularly mutable robot as envisaged by the makers of a science-fiction movie.

Rae's sharp, bright, synthetic, fractured world may be her way of insinuating that reality is a lot like this, too: altered by us in ways that are beyond our ken; simmering over, everywhere, with particular but as yet undisclosed menace. A similar atmosphere is clearly intended by Mark Francis, in his rather more portentous but less accomplished painting, Spread. Dark tadpoles wriggle on a light ground, a microscope slide sample of some imaginary virus blown up by the painter to wallpaper-swatch dimensions. "How little we still know about ourselves and our place within the cosmos," the artist muses in commenting on his own work. But this sense of mystification is imperfectly communicated by his painting because the painting itself is the mere diagram of a notion, an illustration of microscopic malevolence that passeth all understanding. Once the significance of the image is understood it is a dead thing, because the image has no weight, no density, no interest of its own, whereas Rae's painting is eloquent because its pictorial structure, formed of seething discontinuities, expresses rather than merely illustrates the sense of dislocation that is its subject.

According to David Elliott, who organised "About Vision', it would be a mistake to visit this exhibition in search of a unifying theme. Instead, he hopes that he has put together "a cross section of the best painting being made by the generation of artists under the age of 40 without imposing any single view of what is important". It is indeed difficult to detect any overriding view of "what is important" behind the choice of works included; and whether or not his conscientiously selected, uneven, sporadically excellent anthology of new painting represents "the best" is (naturally) open to question.

Damien Hirst, considered too famous to leave out but likewise too famous to be given very much space, makes a guest appearance in the form of a solitary painting called Beautiful Mad Crazy Spinning Psycho. It was created by throwing household gloss paint of several hues at a circular canvas made to spin like a catherine wheel and it is a colourful, deliberately childish thing. The technique has been adapted to make an enjoyably messy children's game, and Hirst admits to having been inspired by a mid-Seventies instalment of Blue Peter. Hirst's spin paintings are certainly preferable to his spot paintings (pictures in which coloured dots, Smarties flying in close formation, are arranged in grids across the canvas). Their raucous, exuberant exhibitionism is a truer and more vivid expression of the artist's temperament. But their interest is inherently restricted by the extreme limitations of the method that produced them.

The superficiality of Hirst's moneyspinners is partly forgiveable because they are evidently a sideline. In an age when many artists seem painfully circumscribed by the nature of their devices, he has achieved an unusual degree of variability simply by varying his devices a great deal. This gives his uvre the appearance of breadth and it averts, or at least defers, the problem of having to deepen the nature of what he does with any one of those devices. There are no such excuses for some of those represented in "About Vision", who are painters and painters alone.

Jane Harris's small, fidgety knitworks of painted pattern on flat grounds of colour are exemplary only in their dullness. Glenn Brown, a yet more persistent reoffender when it comes to the crime of repetitiveness, paints very careful and very flat paintings of blown-up photographs of details of other people's paintings. David Elliott remarks that in the painting of Britain in the 1990s, "premodern figures such as Fragonard, Rembrandt and Manet reappear, but not within the context of the historicist morass of Eighties postmodernism". Brown's replicated Rembrandts and Fragonards flatly contradict this. They are the last-gasp exemplars of that played- out form of painting briefly dignified in the late 1980s by the term "Appropriationism".

Brown's deadpan copies of other people's work also contain a kind of exemplary melancholy. He is an outsider looking in, a student of the styles of others who knows he can have no style of his own.

"About Vision" celebrates an art form, painting, which is currently out of favour with contemporary-art institutions. It will no doubt be seen by some as a report from the intensive care ward on the state of the patient; and while there are no real grounds for concern on that score (painting being far too interesting an activity simply to die out or fade away) it is clear enough that many contemporary painters have their problems. Chief among these is that of establishing a personal style. There are plenty of artists whose work depends, rather, on a conceit. Marcus Harvey, for instance, paints large and heavily impasted pictures based on photographs of naked women printed in magazines to be read with one hand. He thus engineers a deliberate contrast between painterly handling and pornographic subject matter. But this seems at once experimental and academic, because it is so much the sort of thing that so many artists nowadays do. Although it is distinctive, it is also highly conventional. Harvey is not speaking his own language, but communicating in the esperanto of late twentieth- century modern art.

This distinction is a fine one, and can only be made in the eye of the beholder. But the most interesting painters in "About Vision" (and there are several) all seem to be working under the pressure of something deeper than a mere desire to perform academic avant-garde experiments. Lisa Milroy's long preoccupation with the etiquette of painting has issued in three extremely peculiar pictures of Japanese brides, frozen kimonoed mannequins with chilly smiles on their porcelain faces. This may be the artist's way of finding a metaphor for her own long-lasting preoccupation with politeness and precision, and perhaps marks the start of a breakout; there is hysteria behind the apparent calm. Peter Doig, for his part, continues to paint atmospheric fantasies drawn from life, memory and old photographs. He is unusual in daring to have recognisable subjects and his picture of two almost invisible men fishing from an almost invisible canoe in a Palmeresque twilit landscape is almost romantic; a twinkling dream of vanishing into nature on some dark evening.

Perhaps the most unified gallery in this highly disparate exhibition is that devoted to the work of those young British artists who are most clearly enthralled by the grand American tradition of modern abstract painting. Callum Innes, with Rothko and Motherwell on his mind, creates mistily vague expanses of etherised paint by brushing or dripping turpentine on to prepared grounds of a single colour. Simon Callery pays monumental tribute to the US minimalist Agnes Martin's pencil criss-crossed monochromes, again and again. Jason Martin plays variations on Ad Reinhardt's black paintings by applying his black paint to even larger canvases and by using a draught-excluder as a brush. This creates a grooved surface and lends his pictures the quality of hugely enlarged fragments of vinyl records. Best of all, and most original, are the recent paintings of Ian Davenport. These are poured abstractions of great vibrancy and delicacy that succeed in exact proportion to the narrowness by which they avoid failure. The artist's self-appointed task is to pour a line of paint as close to the edge of the canvas as possible without allowing it to run over the edge: every painting, therefore, is the record of this perhaps pointless but nonetheless entrancing act of virtuosity. These beautiful pictures also happen to look like doors or gateways, but the resemblance may not be charged with portentousness.

None of these artists appears to have too many pretensions, which is a good thing. More than that of any other painters in this show, their work may be said to exemplify the strength of British painting in the 1990s. Their work is large, bold, elegant, sensual. It is triumphantly - and almost entirely - decorative. British art now has produced the mannerism of high modernist painting, an abstraction in which the trembling virtuosity of surface handling - denuded of all metaphysical aspirations and almost all semantic claims - has become virtually the sole aim of the artist. There are reasons to suspect that the careers of some of these painters may end in disappointment, because it has long been fashionable to frown on purely decorative art. But their work will almost certainly last because it is so visually seductive. Beauty is never negligible

`Absolut Vision: to 23 Feb (01865 728608)'