The bank that likes to play it safe

The NatWest prize reflects a lack of energy in artists in their early 30s. And the age of the judges doesn't help; EXHIBITIONS
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A number of art prizes have been founded in the past few years, none of them entirely altruistic, all of them concerned in one way or another with the relationship between new art and money. If artists are rewarded that's fine by me, but I point out that such prizes are often meaningless and that no particular prestige is conferred on those who win them. At the Lothbury Gallery is an exhibition of the 11 finalists in the sixth edition of the NatWest Art Prize. It looks somewhat inconsequential, though the pictures are pleasant enough. The real interest of the show lies in the way that such competitions are devised and managed.

Many hundreds of artists entered their work. Of course they did, for the first prize is pounds 26,000. A stipulation was that the competition was restricted to people under 35. Furthermore, the NatWest Prize is only for painters. So we would hope that a whole wave of new, young painting might be revealed. This is certainly what the judges hoped for. They were Wendy Baron, who has just retired as Director of the Government Art Collection; Rosemary Harris, Curator of the NatWest Art Collections; Isobel Johnstone, Curator of the Arts Council Collection; the painter Albert Irvin; the critic Frank Whitford; Anthony Mould, who is a dealer; and Henry Wyndham, the chairman of Sotheby's.

This is a pretty typical set-up. As so often in these competitions there's an age limit, so that the sponsoring company can be seen to have a commitment to new talent. The jurors are on the senior side of life, but most of them are distinguished people. Again as usual, the sponsoring company likes to have a firm representation on the jury. Anthony Mould established the NatWest collection and is permanently chairman of the NatWest Prize judges. Obviously a lot of art-world expertise has been brought into the exercise. I imagine that the judges worked smoothly together. However, it's the very smoothness of the show that's so troubling. There are no surprises, indeed no drama at all, and in the heart of the City we find young artists on their best behaviour.

Part of the problem is that the exhibition was initially selected from slides. It's a fact of life that slides do not and cannot convey the real qualities of works of art. Slides do something else to jurors (and I speak from experience). They tend to confirm or underline any artist's style if you already know his or her manner from seeing it at first-hand. I suspect that this is what has happened. There are no discoveries in the Lothbury show. The exhibitors who command attention are those whom we have seen in London galleries quite frequently. And since so many of the artists are coming up to the 35-year-old barrier, there's a feeling that this exhibition represents new painting as it existed about five years ago.

The Lothbury Gallery, though unsuited to art exhibitions, is rather a marvel in itself. In pre-computer days this huge space was the central banking hall of the head office of the Westminster Bank. The building was opened in 1930. Mewes and Davis's design belongs to the imperial age of banking, which began when amalgamation had put an end to local town and county businesses. Head offices such as this one were built to demonstrate magnificence and power. Hence the Italian Renaissance facade, the temple- like marble pillars within, the certainty of strongrooms beneath one's feet (cellars are the invisible part of architecture, but in imperial banks their presence must be felt) and, we are told, the contract between a hushed atmosphere in the hall and the rattling of accounting machines in the hands of obedient clerks who sat within the large circle of the mahogany counter.

Instead of these clerks we now find modern paintings. Unfortunately, the canvasses look puny in such surroundings. Because the hall has no suitable walls on which to hang paintings, they have to be placed on temporary screens. In this and in other ways the bank's initiative has misfired. Its publicity brochures announce a new contract with contemporary art. However, the installation makes the art appear to be trivial. It's possible that people in the bank feel affection for the hall, but the NatWest Prize would obviously be more effective if it were held in a different venue. The interesting permanent collection of modern British art, not on view at present, also needs another home, especially if it is to expand.

The artist who most suffers from the way the show is hung is Jane Dixon. I have mentioned her delicate, enigmatic drawings in these pages before. They are on thick paper treated with wax and varnish. Her images might be of cages, or baths, or perhaps some kind of antiquated machinery, but their function is never explicit. At the moment they are on screens facing the outside walls and are spoilt by the lighting. Dixon nonetheless deserves attention, not only for her present work but also because one wonders what she will do next. Trained as a printmaker, she has invented a nice kind of surface for her own imagination. Could she next become a painter on canvas, or would she then lose her essential privacy?

Rosie Snell is a painter of a traditional sort, and none the worse for that. One can imagine her work becoming stronger and more skilful, but not changing its course. She has a rich vein of subject matter in her native East Anglia. Snell paints lighthouses, sea defences, deserted airfields and railway sidings in remote rural areas. It's reminiscent of war painting, and Snell (born in 1971) says she's interested in relics of the Cold War that she sees around her. Melanie Comber builds her mixed media into thick surfaces with lurid artificial colour, while her imagery is surely scientific- biological. Mark Francis's now familiar paintings have similar themes, but Comber's are stranger and more memorable.

The pounds 26,000 prize has gone to Max Mosscrop for his small, abstract panels, obviously connected with his training as an architect. These are hardly triumphant paintings, and the winner could have been any of the artists I have just named. We could think of the NatWest Prize as simply an exercise in public relations, which of course it is. But I fear that the nature of the show reflects a lack of energy in painters between 30 and 35 years old. Something more difficult and challening is needed. We might find some cracking new paintings if the wise old judges were thrown out of the window and young artists were asked to organise the prize themselves. Alas, that's the sort of thing that corporations will never allow.

! Lothbury Gallery, 41 Lothbury, London EC2 (0171 726 1642) to 13 June.