Null may be void, but he's highly acclaimed

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LIKE staff officer General Kiggell visiting the Somme trenches for the first time (he broke down and wept), I try to keep abreast of 'contemporary art'. I accordingly tottered down before Easter to the huge brutalist Attlee Gallery on the South Bank to see the exhibition of artefacts by young Geoffrey Null and his friends.

Geoffrey is the son of a crony of mine, a senior bank official in Surrey. Geoffrey's mother was famous thereabouts for being literary, artistic and 'sensitive'. She was therefore delighted when Geoffrey announced his intention to live for art. When she discovered what sort of art, however, the news killed her. His father, initially horrified, was soon won over by the 'prestigious' (I use the word correctly) and lucrative commissions, prizes, awards and rich rewards that poured in.

Geoffrey started off in the fashionable footsteps of Francis Bacon, the Hartnell of Horror, as someone bitchily called him. Like Bacon, Geoffrey dwelt on the fringes of normality, obsessed by 'extreme situations', by exhibitionism and instability. He painted deformed sodomites, freaks, lavatories, suicides, monsters and, more controversially, a screaming Queen Mother embellished by slashes, by the melting of half her face and a huge wen on the other half.

The critics, Giles Auty of the Spectator and some others apart, were predictably enraptured. So were fashion-crazed dealers, gallery owners and directors of public institutions dispensing public money. The critics conferred on Geoffrey their highest laurels and sobriquets - 'disquieting', 'disturbing', 'disgusting', 'chilling', yet somehow 'grand' all the same, because of his despair, 'self-hatred and ferocious loathing for the human condition'. High praise indeed] They placed Geoffrey along with Bacon, Turner, Burra, Velasquez, Van Gogh and Gilbert and George among the truly greats.

A dark and hideous sort of meaning was evident in Geoffrey's early works. It came to disgust him with its Grand Guignol sensationalism. In his second phase, he therefore retreated into ostentatious boredom, nihilism, minimalism, nothingness, loudly praised by Susan Sontag (the Ruskin or Lessing of our day) and other connoisseurs of tedium.

This retreat was not perhaps quite honest because some meaning, invariably banal and 'correct', remained, but hidden, to be extracted, or even created, by the viewer himself. Thus so many rectangles flatly painted, with colours ranging from black and brown to pink and white, might be construed as a vigorous 'statement' against racism.

At the Attlee a few weeks ago, Geoffrey and his chums showed scrap iron, bricks, wire cobwebs, piles of hardware, an enormous lump of gnawed plain chocolate - this last designed to 'critique' consumer fetishism, according to the verbose catalogue. This was full of American modern art usages such as 'critique' as a transitive verb, meaning to denounce hysterically or to rubbish. Between these enigmatic exhibits shuffled a few visitors, obviously not critics, therefore baffled and guilty, wondering whether they were themselves perverse or stupid to find nothing here, no meaning at all.

I suddenly noticed a familiar figure, with black slashed Levis, greasy black T-shirt, black designer stubble and wire specs. It was Geoffrey himself, come to see how things were going.

He greeted me quite affably. I was nervously effusive, congratulating him loudly on 'new trends', 'vital new tendencies' and 'new departures'. People like Geoffrey are always making new departures, but somehow they never seem to get anywhere. I praised his revolutionary idea of naming a nine-square-feet area of empty and undifferentiated gallery space as itself a work of art, to be contemplated with awe, reverence and enlightenment. Geoffrey explained that it symbolised the emptiness and futility of modern consumerist society.

I also lauded Geoffrey's 'socio-political critique of consumerist waste, profligacy and materialism', achieved by exhibiting against them objects themselves conspicuously useless, wasteful, profligate and materialistic. A delicious irony here, I raved on: 'You could, by the same token, ferociously 'critique' fascist brutality by exhibiting a real corpse, tortured and murdered.' Some suspicion may have reached Geoffrey that my fulsome enthusiasm was not quite genuine. He turned to me conspiratorially.

'Can you keep your mouth shut?' he hissed. 'Can you promise? Can I trust you? If so, I can show you something this afternoon that will - well - surprise you.' He handed me an embossed card - someone else's name, and an address in leafy Weybridge. 'Oh, the name: I live there incognito. You'll find out why. Be there at three]'

It was astonishing. Desirable detached residence, sought-after part of Weybridge, six bedrooms, three recep, four bathrooms, pool, tennis court, ample, sunny, well-kept garden, garage for three cars, the lot.

'Now for it,' breathed Geoffrey, 'this way to my studio, come.' We went right through the house to a heavy door that was double-locked and bolted. Through it lay a room, pitch dark and seemingly vast. Geoffrey pulled back heavy curtains and security blinds. A lofty studio was revealed, with countless pictures on hooks and easels, all mysteriously curtained, too.

'Now this,' whispered Geoffrey, 'is what I really call Art.' With a flourish he drew back the curtain of the meticulous canvas he was obviously working on. I gasped: an imposing captain of industry was revealed, a notorious 'consumer fetishist' and contributor to Tory funds. 'This is Lord Miblington, you know, used to be Sir Arthur Groole. What force of intellect and benign character lies in those commanding eyes]'

With mounting excitement he pulled back curtain after curtain. 'Look, look]' he cried: red-robed cardinals at dinner - 'a Jolly Good Carp'; three sad queens, crowned and richly but sombrely attired, gliding in a stately boat across a glassy mere; kittens in boots or cuddled up with a peaceful Newfoundland at the door of his kennel - 'Good Pals'; naiads sporting in water-lilied pools; a handsome Cavalier riding up, plumbed hat gallantly off, a Puritan's comely daughter eying him shyly from an oriel window . . .

'Yes,' roared Geoffrey, 'damn all Bacon balls and the minimal muck: I just do it for the money. This is what I paint for myself, for pleasure - yes, even Lord M. He pays up, OK, but I would do it for love. This is my samizdat world, underground art, but real art, art for art's sake, my guilty secret. . . .'

You must think me dishonourable, revealing this despite my promise. Well, Geoffrey has plucked up his courage and is about to 'come out' as an artistic fogey. Another new departure? Yes, and perhaps this time for once, real.