Shallow waters

Martin Maloney's paintings take the temperature of tabloid culture. Just don't look to them to inspi

If it's deep and meaningful that pushes your button, Martin Maloney's work won't be for you. But, of course, that's not what he's after. Surface, not depth, is what attracts this one-time Goldsmiths student and member of the Britart pack. Popular culture, advertising and soaps are what turn him on. It was through Charles Saatchi's 1997 "Sensation", which showcased the work of the Young British Artists, and "New Neurotic Realism" (1999) that Maloney's faux naïfs paintings of the London club scene and fuck-rooms, where boys did more than wiggle their willies behind a bike shed, really came to prominence.

He painted with the sort of insouciance that seemed to claim good painting was for wimps. Arms looked like logs, fingers like bananas and faces like an accident waiting to happen. Careful was not a word in his vocabulary. The paint was slapped on and pushed around with a studied attitude of cool indifference. "Childishly sweet and banal figure paintings" was how the critic Julian Stallabrass described them, arguing that it was not "that the work comments on the media, but that the media has made the work and its author what they are". Maloney, always one to own up to his own shallowness, joked to a friend that he painted "men I wanted to fuck and girls I wanted to be. The more I paint, the more I am learning about my fantasies . . ."

He has talked of working with an "expressive painted language". He is a fan of Willem de Koon ing. He has also given nods in the direction of Vermeer and Baselitz, Francis Bacon and Kan dinsky, placing himself firmly up there in the pantheon. More recently he decided that sticky-backed plastic was an easier medium than slopping about with paint and started to make collages out of the sort of vinyl used for signage in galleries. Of his "Pastoral Paintings" at the Delfina Project Space in 2001, he said: "This is a painting of a group of people having a lunch-time break in a London square . . . The figures were randomly taken from photographs and then projected on to the canvas and arranged to form the composition. The characters and colour relationships come from intuition, invention and my imagination. I stuck down one colour and then responded to that by adding another, to create subtle tonal variation or a clash of complementaries. I wanted to make a painting that is both a believable representation of a real-life scene and that reconsiders abstraction's decoration and patterns. I try in the characters to make figures that are clear types but have an individual psychology. Sometimes when I have invented a character someone I know stares back at me; at other times it is a composite of several people."

Now he is making collages again. This time Maloney is using his old canvases, which have been chopped up and reassembled into new forms. All this has plenty of respectable art- historical precedent: Matisse's paper cut-outs, Kurt Schwitters's Merz collages and the Fauves' wild colour. Maloney may be shallow but he certainly isn't ignorant. And his theme this time? Maybe these are the girls he once said he would like to be. For he has taken that old chestnut, the page-three pin-up, along with other skimpily clad nymphets, and reconstructed their come-hither poses in large-scale collages/paintings and works on paper. Here models with names such as Kali, Ruby and Kitten, wearing little more than itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie polka-dot bikinis and toothpaste smiles, pose and preen like those girls on the phone booth cards. Their fractured faces lack all expression. Fragile, brittle, their images have been pieced together with a bit of this and a bit of that. Flaunting their walnut-whip breasts topped with glacé cherry nipples, these are the Barbies of the collage world. In fact, in their plastic girliness they look more like ladyboys than real women, however much Maloney insists that they are inspired by nudes from art history.

He has said that collage is "a substitute for a variety of brushstrokes, which, if I was doing a painting, I wouldn't be able to make". Collage allows for resounding clashes of colour: he likes to make unlikely pairings, whether tonal or textured, abstract or figurative. In this, he is a true postmodernist, constructing a whole from old fragments and plundering the past to make it his own. In a lecture given last year he spoke of a work by Poussin that he had transformed into a painting of a teenage rave. That these works have a presence, and that Maloney can handle colour, is not in doubt. And the pencil drawings, which rely on techniques such as frottage, do have an unmistakable originality.

But should we consider him a poseur who simply flirts with the rude, the vulgar and the aggressive, or a Poussin or Picasso de nos jours? Well, it all depends what you think the function and purpose of art is in a modern society. If you are of the "barometer" school - of the opinion that art takes the collective temperature of a culture - Maloney's empty, facile, but accomplished and knowing images mirror the celeb-hungry sexfest that fills our screens and tabloids daily. If, on the other hand, in a world where church and politics inhabit a moral vacuum, you want art to inspire and raise (if not answer) difficult philosophical questions, Maloney's work is not what you are looking for.

"Actress Slash Model" is at the Timothy Taylor Gallery, London W1, until 17 May. More details: http://www.timothytaylorgallery.com