Visual Art: Simply the best, for now anyway

Jerwood Prize

Jerwood Gallery, London

John Moores 21

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

It may hearten you to know that the greatest work produced by any artist painting in Britain over the last year or so was done by Prunella Clough, an 80-year-old English Abstractionist. On the other hand, you may be cheered to discover that the greatest work produced by any artist painting in Britain over the last year or so was done by Michael Raedecker, a 36-year-old landscapist who happens, confusingly, to include embroidery in his pictures and to be Dutch. It is, of course, not yet possible to say which is the greatest overall work of art made by any artist, etc etc - the Turner Prize doesn't come out until next month, after all - but last week's announcement of the Jerwood and John Moores prizes does at least tell us everything we need to know about contemporary British painting.

Or not. On Tuesday night, the Jerwood Foundation handed its annual pounds 30,000 cheque to Clough, who sweetly declared that it should have gone to a younger painter. This was gallant, but probably unfair. In her ninth decade, Clough is producing work of extraordinary power: canvases painted with the earthy refinement of a British Agnes Martin, the elemental end-product of nearly 60 years at the easel. Unfortunately, though, none of these were included in the pictures Clough chose to submit for the Jerwood competition. One work, Land and Gravel (1998), was a fair enough example of the artist's mature vision, its surface scoured and gouged as though by an illusionistically- minded glacier. The other pictures, though, were disappointing one-offs, presumably all Clough could spare from her current (and excellent) show in Cambridge.

The unfortunate effect of this is to make you feel that the fight was fixed: that the Jerwood jurors had decided long ago that their prize should be given as a long-service award for Clough's half-century of hard work rather than for her submitted pictures, and that the artist could have handed in any old thing and won. This is sad on various counts. First, it does Clough herself no favours. Second, it makes you feel indignant for the six other painters in the show, much of whose submitted work was of a visibly higher standard than Clough's. That indignation is heightened by the fact that this is the strongest Jerwood show in the prize's six years of existence. Neil Gall's paintings of an Aberdonian roller-coaster play games of extraordinary refinement with ideas of stasis and movement, colour and monochromism, Tatlinish precision and free-hand impasto; Bob Law's "Castle" series picks up on the apparent simplicity of minimalist painting to produce images that are both iconically childlike and formally impeccable. It is easy enough to see why any prize that purports (as the Jerwood does) to "celebrate contemporary painting [and] take painting seriously" would include either of these artists in a shortlist whittled down from 500 entrants. On the strength of submitted work alone, it is rather more difficult to see why one of them did not win it.

If the dynamics of the Jerwood's prize-giving bemuse you, then you should approach the John Moores show in Liverpool with caution. The exhibition that accompanies the 21st biennial John Moores painting prize - pounds 25,000, plus pounds 1,000 for each of 10 also-rans - echoes the Jerwood's claim to showcase "the best and most vital work being done today throughout the country". Since the exhibition includes one work from each of 50 finalists (chosen from a field of 2,500 entrants), the scope of vision is rather wider than at the Jerwood Space. So wide is it, in fact, that the show's curators have tried to impose a sort of logic on it by placing the pictures in a vague thematic hang. Thus, one room contains works that respond in some way to photography: Luke Caulfield's cycloptic Missing Person, painted to look like a cropped snapshot, say, or Glenn Brown's Heart and Soul, painted, perversely, to look like a photograph of a painting. Other rooms contain a variety of landscapes, and so on.

Perhaps it was because Michael Raedecker's Mirage (1999) didn't fit easily into any of these that it caught the jury's eye. Raedecker's work is generally uneasy. Yes, Mirage is a landscape, although of an unearthly kind. Its colouring is Venusian, its shadows are both illusionistic and real, and the land it portrays curves upwards to one side like a breaking wave. Its use of materials is also uncanny, Raedecker forming his trees and ponds from a variety of embroidery stitches, sewn through the canvas's painted surface. We all feel at home with landscapes, and we all know what embroidery is for: it is unnerving to see these familiar things traduced in this way. More, it is unusual. Given the number of sub-Tapies, not-quite-Richters and nearly-Cy Twomblys in the Moores show, Mirage's originality must also have been eye-catching.

But can it, in any meaningful way, be said to be the best picture in the John Moores show? Three things may strike you as you walk through the Walker Art Gallery's rooms. First, there is the niggling suspicion that Raedecker may have been chosen because he was someone on whom all of the jurors could agree, and that this is not necessarily a good way of choosing good art. There are more provocative images in the show, and many less tricksy ones: let me recommend George Shaw's Home Time, for example. Second, there is a sense that Raedecker's ferociously trendy CV may have helped him in the way that Clough's heroic one clearly did her. Hand-crafting is all the rage right now, as is prettiness and a connection with Martin Maloney: Raedecker scores on all three counts. Last, you may find yourself wondering whether a competition that narrows down 2,500 submissions to 50 and those 50 to a single winner really has anything useful to tell you about painting, or anything else.

Jerwood Painting Prize: Jerwood Space, SE1 (0171 654 0171) to 24 October. John Moores 21: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (0151 207 0001) to 9 January 2000