Too good to be true: The inadequacy of the imitative artists on display in 'Fake' only highlights the originality of the masters they copy, argues Iain Gale

A child of three could do that.' It's 80 years since Malevich first painted a black square and called it art, but still the cry rings through our art galleries: 'Modern art is easy. Anyone can do it. It just doesn't compare to real, old, proper art does it?' The vacuity of this argument is conclusively proven by a visit to an exhibition currently in London. 'Fake', an assembly of some 50 works by contemporary artists from western Europe and the former Soviet bloc, is an object lesson in what makes great artists great.

The works on show, mostly modern, can roughly be divided into three categories. First there are the straight copies of known works, then those works intended to be 'in the style of': possible overlooked additions to an artist's oeuvre. Finally there are works inspired by well-known artists, but undoubtedly the 'best' works here - in terms of verisimilitude - are those which fall into the second category.

Pip Seymour's 'Hitchens' is wonderfully close to the mark and Jim Clancey makes convincing attempts at both Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. The best 'faker' here is Nick Pace, an ex-picture restorer, whose 'Miros' and 'Lempickas' seem sufficiently accomplished to deceive the expert eye. But these are the only serious contenders here for true 'forgery' status.

At the opposite end of the range one finds a plethora of over-ambitious incompetence exemplified by Chris Kent's painstakingly painted 'Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy', which bears more resemblance to the work of Beryl Cook than that of Hockney. This level of 'copying' is sadly panegyrical. Barley Robinson desperately wants to be Otto Dix and Robert Castelo, Dali. But they just haven't got it. No matter how closely they study the works, it won't come together. Just as Georgi Baramidze's 'Van Gogh' will never be more than a second-rate Bratby.

However, it is between these polarities that most interest lies, in the works which almost get it right, but not quite. Here is Leger's 'Mechanic' painted by Townley Cooke but looking altogether more as if it is painted by numbers. To hold up a postcard of Lucian Freud's 'Girl with a Beret' against Jane Hart's copy simply reveals the assured form and figure which elevates the original and leaves the imitation flat, lacklustre and worthless.

Well, not entirely worthless. Hart is asking pounds 440 for her 'Freud'. That's not bad for a painting which, without the original alongside, is reasonably decorative and might even be taken for the real thing. The better pieces deserve the prices they command with Pace's unknown 'Miros' at pounds 400.

In terms of value for money, it is hard to beat the little trio hanging together at the back of the room. These three squares of canvas by Zeno Campbell-Salmon, one black, one blue and one white, at pounds 60 each, do not pretend to be anything other than copies of ideas first explored in paint by Ad Reinhardt, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni. But, as a comment on fakery, they say it all.

The artist does not appear to have copied these artists to prove them facile. On the contrary, while it is possible to see it as a wry comment on the simplicity of the painters' actions, this triptych is, in effect, a homage by an artist who acknowledges that neither he nor anyone else will ever really be able to copy that art whose essence lies in its originality.

'Fake' is at the Raw Gallery, 7 Gainsford Street, London, SE1 (071-357 7570) to 11 Sept

(Photograph omitted)

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