Who needs London?

Exhibitions: The metropolis ignores them. But teachers at provincial art schools are the backbone of British art - and the John Moores show gives them due credit
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The Independent Culture
THERE'S a slightly sad atmosphere in the 19th John Moores painting exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, because it's the first of these much-loved biannual exhibitions since their founder died. Moores was an enthusiastic amateur painter as well as a millionaire businessman, and he happily funded a show that would be open to all comers, be judged by an expert but mixed jury, and - he hoped - uncover talent of all sorts. He was interested in eager newcomers, but also had concern for artists who work away in seclusion, painters with little opportunity to show their canvases in public.

A democratic exhibition, then, but one with the lure of big prizes. For many years the winner of the John Moores first prize not only had a pot of money, but also much prestige among fellow artists. There's less acclaim for the prizewinners these days. Still, David Leapman is no doubt a happy man. Born in 1959, he has a solid, but not dramatic track record, with four one-man shows at the Todd Gallery and appearances in such group shows as "Figuring Out the Eighties" and the "Aperto" section at the Venice Biennale. His present painting, Double-Tongued Knowability, is not particularly novel (the ultimate source is in Klee) but it does indeed demand some figuring out. Leapman does a lot of private drawing, so makes signs that have significance for him alone. These signs he has transferred to canvas. His ground is acrylic, but then there are four coloured oval shapes painted in dayglo and nightglo. They bounce away from the surface because of their high colour and the artificial pigments.

Double-Tongued Knowability explores and ponders its own techniques, and has the nice ability to be surprised by itself. Those oval forms were common currency in the art of the late Sixties and early Seventies. Leapman revives them without parody or knowingness, the bane of so much of today's painting.

Other canvases have an equally sincere attitude toward the vocabulary of previous generations. John Holden's Sixties-ish You Are the One is an excellent demonstration that a painting of high quality and individuality can be made from just three differently coloured and evenly painted rectangles. Do you remember the beautiful Snowdon photograph of Royal Academy students in their life room? It was in the book Private View, whose text remarked that the scene was unchanged in its essentials since the 18th century. Anyway, Holden is in the photo, for in 1965 he was still at the Royal Academy Schools. Nowadays he runs the painting department at the local Liverpool art school, which we must now call the John Moores University.

I mention these odd perspectives in Holden's career for two reasons. First, fresh and genuine painting can be made in 1995 out of any previous set of modern conventions. For good or ill, today's best work on canvas does not have a common period style. Secondly, painting is still very close to art education of a slightly old-fashioned sort. Very many John Moores exhibitors get their daily bread from teaching in provincial art schools. It's good that the Moores regularly gives them exposure: they are the backbone of British painting, but the people who run the metropolitan art world don't care about them at all.

Talking of life outside London, why has the show got only one painter, Henry Kondracki, with a Scottish address? There are three Ulstermen, Mark Francis, Martin Wedge and Mark Ainsworth. Actually Ainsworth is from Blackpool, but he's taught in Belfast for so long as to be part of the native scene, and for years he has influenced the quite vigorous new Irish painting. Ainsworth's Opus Alchymicum II is as crazy as its title. Heated and perfumed colours seem to have been unbottled by an imagination with its own rules and recipes. It's the sort of painting that ought to be a failure, but isn't. The jury were quite right to take in this lawless and exuberant work.

A more familiar abstraction comes from Noel Forstery (a previous prizewinner) and Bert Irvin. Jane Harris is a painter of true sensitivity, but she may have chosen a canvas size a little too large for her delicate wrist and eye. I know that artists are tempted to send big pictures to the Moores, but it's often a mistake to do so. This said, Hughie O'Donoghue's expansive A Need for Gardens is the best painting of his that I have seen. Trevor Jones, another unapplauded art teacher who lives in the depths of the country, exhibits Forgotten, a black and white painting whose funeral tone is sharpened by its hint that we are witnessing an execution.

Here is a strange, moving picture that deserved one of the prizes. Not many other painters in the show are overtly concerned with depth of emotion. Perhaps that sort of art simply doesn't have a home at the present. The younger the artists, the more smart and jocular they appear. Geraint Evans (born 1968) has a 12-part painting in a deadpan style whose themes are taken from instructional diagrams in a medical booklet. The patient is always hooded. The inference is that you're the blindfolded one and the doctor/artist knows how to manipulate your feelings. A cynical, humorous allegory. David G Martin's The Tyranny of Impressionism is similarly im- pertinent, but better as art. Charcoal-grey splodges and finicky little bird's nests of oil paint are cunningly disposed on a buff acrylic ground. Martin is a talented painter and one day might find what he really wants to say.

In the art of painting so many things can be said, some of them rather ordinary but none the worse for not being original. Paul Green's Sandra tells us that he loves his wife. You can fault the picture technically, and perhaps Green didn't need any of that background. I don't care too much, because it's a pleasant thing to see. Other notable pictures are by Jeff Gibbons, Ken Kiff and Janet Nathan. In all, 60 works were chosen from a send-in of 1,644 entries. I'm sorry that for the first time an admission fee has been charged. Couldn't the Moores/Littlewoods empire let people in free? That would be in the spirit of the exhibition.

! John Moores Exhibition: Walker Art Gallery (0151 478 4199), to 28 Jan.