London at the heart of art

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Art is sexy and hip for the first time since the Sixties. London has ousted New York and Paris as the epicentre of the contemporary art world.

Such assertions have been made before, but this time they seem to be borne out by the facts. The London Contemporary Art Fair, ART 97, which opens on the 15th of this month, is set to become one of the glamour events of the social calendar as well as an economic barometer for the art market.

The art world's style leaders, such as Damien Hirst, the Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon and his fellow short- listed artist Gary Hume, will have works on show, priced at up to pounds 100,000.

But the art fair will also be studied for the rising stars, including Adam Chodzko, the mixed-media artist who uses photographs sometimes sent to him by members of the public and Liz Arnold, the surrealist who has exhibited at The Saatchi Gallery's Young British Artists shows, as well as names such as Liam Gillick, the installationist, the photographers Susan Derges and Gary Fabian Miller and the painters Maria Chevska and Mark Francis.

A Francis monoprint, worth about pounds 400 a year ago, is likely to fetch up to pounds 1,200 at the art fair, one indication of the rising stock of British artists.

Lucy Sicks, director of ART 97, says: "The scene is a particularly exciting one. The whole British art phenomenon has been artist-led, starting famously with Damien Hirst. And now there are young dynamic dealers coming up alongside the young dynamic artists. London galleries such as Robert Prime, Lottahammer and Laurent Delaye have sprung up to show the bright young things."

The glossy style magazine Harpers & Queen is hosting a charity gala evening at the fair, and its latest issue declares that art, not comedy as often predicted, is "the new rock 'n' roll".

Supporting evidence is not hard to find. Hollywood is embarking on a series of art related films with Merchant Ivory's current Picasso biopic with Anthony Hopkins soon to be followed by Malcolm McDowell as Francis Bacon, Michelle Pfeiffer as Georgia O'Keefe, with Modigliani and Jackson Pollock yet to be cast.

Rock stars are turning to painting, either doing it themselves as in the case of David Bowie (who has joined the editorial board of Modern Painters magazine), or commentating upon it, in the case of Jarvis Cocker and the recent television coverage of the Turner Prize.

And when the Princess of Wales dropped most of the societies of which she was patron, she was careful to hang on to London's cutting-edge Serpentine Gallery.

The amorphous group informally led by Damien Hirst and known as Young British Artists may not all be as designer chic as their leader, and their style is far from homogeneous, ranging from Hirst's udderless bovine cross-sections to Rachel Whiteread's cast of a House to Douglas Gordon's video of Hitchcock's Psycho slowed down to last 24 hours. But as a group they have attracted considerable attention in international art shows.

Dealers such as Jay Jopling, who represents Hirst, are said to run their stables of artists in the same high-profile way as the Sixties pop impresario Andrew Loog Oldham once managed the Rolling Stones. Exhibitors such as Jibby Beane no longer just use a traditional art gallery but lease out a Smithfield warehouse with live-performance art models on show among the artworks, reminiscent of a Sixties happening.

And the Young British Artists have grabbed the mood of the moment, just as their forbears such as David Hockney grabbed the mood of the Sixties. According to the art critic Martin Gayford, who sits on the editorial board of Modern Painters with David Bowie, "New York and Germany have been quiescent since the catastrophic collapse of the Eighties art bubble. Right now, for the first time in history, London is the place. The Young British Artists are ironic, super-cool, disengaged, and disenchanted, while simultaneously being fizzy, peppy and energetic ... Where the Pop artists of the Sixties lauded the whizzo excitement of the world of mass production, the YBAs' focus is on the dinginess of everyday life. Gayford suggests the catch-all label "dinginess with attitude".

For the ninth London Contemporary Art Fair, which runs for five days at the Business Design Centre in Islington, attitude is part of the attraction, glamour another factor, but sales, higher prices and the continuing international kudos of young British talent the sine qua non. The organisers are confident of a record year, generating sales in excess of pounds 2m, with 80 galleries taking part. There is a "discovery zone" for new talent-spotting, represented by some of the new breed of Britain's artist-led spaces including The Tannery, Catalyst Arts, Hales Gallery and Cairn Gallery - converted factories and railway buildings selling new artists who have not yet graduated to London's Cork Street.

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