Doing the rounds

Art - Ned Denny on how to visit 20 leading galleries in one morning

A smart idea, this. Instead of holding another show as nakedly attention-seeking as "Sensation" or "Apocalypse", the Royal Academy has surrendered curatorial authority (well, sort of) and handed over its main rooms to 20 of London's leading commercial galleries. Where the Royal Academy had its say was in deciding which ones to invite, the list of which reads like a Who's Who of smart and fashionable dealers (a number of them based in the East End). The resultant snapshot of the commercial scene, then, is muddled, partisan and highly useful, not least because the book published to coincide with the show is a kind of Rough Guide to London galleries complete with maps and opening times. Two themes or strands emerge, namely animation and outsider art - the former because we all grew up glued to cartoons, and the latter because much of the work is obsessive, neurotic and detached from the "real world". And, for that reason, exciting and alive.

Purely on the strength of their displays here, you'd have to rate the Victoria Miro and Laurent Delaye galleries as being currently the most worthwhile in London. A number of dealers are represented by a single artist or installation and are therefore harder to gauge. The Victoria Miro room is especially good in that it's wholly dedicated to painting, its title - "A New Spirit in Painting 2002" - taken from the 1981 Royal Academy show that first introduced the work of Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter and Julian Schnabel.

Paramount in this room of large, ambitious pictures, possibly because the artist is new to me but also because of his combination of grand scale with a weird, cartoonish pastoralism, is the single canvas by Verne Dawson. Looking like an illustration from some American Tribal Peoples of the World schoolbook, but filtered through Dr Seuss and Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Olduvai Gorge (2002) shows lithe natives, a sinuous, preternaturally green valley and a sky swollen with lava lamp clouds. In anthropological terms it's pure fantasy, but there's also an air of pious, Emersonian sanctity, a tripped-out reverence, that makes it entirely compelling. Also looking good are Peter Doig's sticky, festering, subtropical nocturne Grand Riviere (2001-2002) and one of Inka Essenhigh's majestic, protean, animated visions. An old, distinctly tired-looking Chris Ofili is the only obvious duff choice.

The Laurent Delaye hang is dominated by Chad McCail's Snake (2001-2002), a series of 12 classroom-like wallcharts that show the child's progression from innocence ("the child has a vital, active genital/ the source of life to come/and the root of love and pleasure") to experience ("The child's confidence is undermined./ Wealthy parasites need millions of submissive zombies./Training is compulsory"). Here once again we have the unthreatening imagery of childhood co-opted for strange, vaguely pagan ends, the snake of the title being the crimson thread that ties all things into a hidden, higher unity ("no one really dies", it declares in big, dinky, Early Learning Centre letters). Grayson Perry's astonishing brace of pots (Entrance To The Forest, 2002) is also much concerned with sex and initiation, illustrated in this case by a series of fairy tale-esque episodes involving a not-so-innocent little girl and a kind of yeti figure. What really sticks in the memory, though, is the beauty of Perry's painstakingly etched lines, their black-and-white clarity and nervous intensity reminiscent of both Aubrey Beardsley and Japanese woodblock prints.

And the rest? I liked the deranged correspondence between Yoshitomo Nara and David Shrigley (Stephen Friedman Gallery), three walls of childish cartoons that tread a fine line between illumination and mania (sample - a crudely-drawn man with a palm leaf for a body and the inscription "you should abandon all hope of ever being truly bad"). Equally loopy is Paul Noble's vast drawing Public Toilet (Maureen Paley Interim Art), an Escher-like fantasy whose evocation of different textures with nothing but a pencil (the geometric solidity of the mountain, the ineffable softness of the clouds) is masterly. The installations by Richard Woods (Modern Art) and Paul Morrison (Asprey Jacques) are ambitious one-liners, far less substantial in fact than Emma Kay's minute, biro-written description of a man and woman with all Creation tattooed on their flesh (The Approach). The most touching piece of all, though, is in the space curated by ex-RA students for East London gallery Vilma Gold. Ben Judd's I Miss (2002) consists of a film of trainspotters skulking at Doncaster station and a man's voice listing what sounds at first like the many ways he misses his lover. "I miss the way . . . you touch your face," he says. "I miss the way you look at me," and then each named gesture follows a moment later on the screen, as if willed into being. But words can't do it justice, because the voice is filled with such tenderness that what comes across isn't cleverness or mockery, but an unconditional love for all mankind.

"The Galleries Show" is at the Royal Academy, London W1 (020 7300 8000) until 12 October

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2002 issue of the New Statesman, No Go Britain