THERE is an extraordinary discrepancy between the hype and the sober curatorial judgment involved in ``The British Art Show 1990,'' the opening event in Glasgow's old but now refurbished McLellan Galleries. The enthusiastic advertising informs us that the show - which presents the work of 42 artists in their 20s and 30s - displays ``the most exciting art of the present.'' It goes on: ``Every conceivable art form is represented.'' Then it calls the show a ``major survey of new art,'' demonstrating the ``energy and diversity of multi-cultural Britain.'' Finally it claims that the exhibition ``looks forward to the mood of the '90s.''
Fortunately for visitors who, like myself, may be puzzled, after such high-powered promotion, by the surprisingly low-key character of most of the art on view - and by its overall dispassionateness and positive lack of ``excitement'' - the essays in the catalog indicate a more modest ambition.
The catalogue was written by two of the three selectors, who saw over 1,000 artists before their final choice. They call it a ``what is happening'' show, and they say they thought of it as ``forward-looking'' and ``speculative.'' But they also maintain that it was never intended to be a ``survey,'' and that, at best, all it can offer is a ``glimpse.'' They emphasize, above all, the diversity of the selected artists' aims and state that ``originality,'' in terms of a search for the ``new,'' was not their overriding concern. The trouble is that, while this may be an understandable stance, the resulting show is notable for its lack of tension, lack of a true ``originality'' that is not just novelty. In fact, the show is also remarkably free of novelty itself.
One of the selectors, Caroline Collier, touches with disarming straightforwardness on some of the more obvious characteristics of certain artists which she considers positive rather than negative. She talks about ``anonymity'' as an aim of art that is not ``personal.'' She talks of ``ordinariness'' and of ``bringing attention to the negligible.'' She suggests that perhaps we are all, essentially, ``amateur scientists'' (now that does sound more intriguing). But only one artist, Louise Scullion, seems to fit that particular notion, with a delightful and evocative little room setting called ``The Amateur Scientist.''
Ms. Collier writes about the tiny, rather charming works of Bethan Huws, made of ``assembled rush.'' They are like ``little boats,'' ``made, perhaps, to float in a stream in some remote place. What,'' she asks ``are they doing in an art gallery?'' And she adds that the artist herself does not see them as ``art.''
The difficulty is that the question ``what is anything doing in an art gallery?'' has been a flaccid clich'e of 20th-century art since Marcel Duchamp placed a snow-shovel and other uninteresting ``ready-mades'' in an art exhibition well over half a century ago.
What this exhibition ought to do is alert the young British artists to a startling fact: There must surely be something better to do with their time in the coming decade than not to have much idea of what to do with their time. The dearth of fresh ideas and forms, fresh explorations in this show is the most astonishing thing about it - apart from the publicity.
There are some possible explanations. One is that in March the second exhibition at the McLellan Galleries will be ``Glasgow's Great British Art Exhibition.'' It will feature not newcomers but ``established'' and ``well-known'' artists - people like Caro, Hockney, Riley, and Hamilton. Such figures, still very much alive, were therefore not part of the current show.
Another explanation is that any selection of artists is inevitably going to display the taste and outlook of its selectors. Indeed, it is almost as much about the selectors as it is about the artists they select - particularly when most of the artists on exhibition are represented by so few works that the character of their art may be actually misrepresented.
Julian Opie is a case in point here. Opie can't possibly be considered an unfamiliar newcomer; he has had an international reputation for some years now. But he is represented by an arrangement of neo-minimal glass screens - some transparent, some opaque. The visitor can walk through the arrangement, but it contains no more interest than the booths of some local government office (though the screens themselves are a lot smarter). This work gives the viewer who may not know Opie's other sculpture no idea of its irony, its critique of art styles, its own drama and excitement.
Another ``well-known'' young artist in the show - and one of the five or six exceptions to the general dullness - is the painter Lisa Milroy. This Canadian painter of lightbulbs and shoes supplies part of the ``multi-cultural Britain'' aspect of the show. Her work is at least recognizably her own, and it expresses a peculiar vision and a visual delight. She also loves paint, which is a pleasant bonus in a painter.
Amusing also is a work by Cornelia Parker of grapes and vine leaves that have been somehow turned to lead and hung on hundreds of wires from the very high ceiling. They are suspended just above the the floor in a flat circle. This work sticks in the memory at least.
One fiercely expressive work here is a ``self-portrait,'' an installation drawing over an expanse of wall which contains a doorway. The defiance in this work comes from the artist Brian Jenkins's sheer determination to face down the challenge of physical disability. There is anger and pain here, and it is in stark contrast to the ho-hum, take-it-or-leave-it stance of so many of the artists in this ``British Art Show.''
One hopes that the coming decade will have better things to offer.
After closing here March 11, ``The British Art Show 1990'' goes on to the Leeds City Art Gallery March, 30-May 20; and to the Hayward Gallery in London, June 14-Aug. 12.