The contemporary art scene in northern East Anglia is both aggressively regional and inclined towards Europe, a combination that gives a special flavour to the "East" exhibitions held annually in Norwich. This year's version is the seventh, and the most extensive, for it is housed in three places: the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, the Norwich Gallery and the freshly painted studios of the School of Art. Lynda Morris, its organiser, points out that "East" has become the largest international exhibition of contemporary art held annually in Britain. She also insists on the show's orientation. She and her colleagues concentrate on "an imaginary geographic line from Glasgow through Norwich to Amsterdam and Dusseldorf as a counter balance to London".
This may now be a common attitude in the vales of Wensum, Yare and Waveney. When modern East Anglians want to visit other parts of the world they fly from Norwich and change at the user-friendly Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Morris likes the connections between Norwich and the Netherlands and as usual there are Dutch artists in "East". A veteran of the conceptualism of 25 years ago, Morris has probably also been influenced by the way that new art in those days was mainly successful in self-consciously independent German cities. This explains the shrine to the late Konrad Fischer, a reconstruction of the dealer's first Dusseldorf gallery - but without any work in it at all - by the Dutch artists Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol.
Many visitors will regard this tribute to Fischer as a waste of space and energy. Yet it reminds us that the new generation believes that modern art began around 1970, so that Fischer (the selector of a previous "East" exhibition) may be honoured as a founding father. Almost all the exhibitors in this year's show are in some way the children of the conceptual art of a quarter of a century ago. Hence the scantiness of traditional painting and sculpture. But painting won't quite go away. Alex Landrum and Anthony Freestone have to paint placards to convey their messages. Sa'ad Hirri's Paintings Without Paint are stretchers covered with fine gauze. Willie McKeown presents three absolutely monochrome canvases in pale colours. Like Hirri, he benefits from the calm, lucid light in the art school's upper rooms. We are not being offered painting but an installation. Consciously or not, the selectors have placed most of the weaker artists in the Sainsbury Centre. Notoriously inadequate as an art gallery, the SCVA makes poor art look worse. Two artists succeed by being so critical of Sir Norman Foster's building and Lord Sainsbury, the University's benefactor. Matthew Cornford and David Cross have erected something that has no aesthetic value yet raises all sorts of interesting points about the values of today's East Anglia. They call it New Holland, the name of a leading manufacturer of farm machinery and a phrase often used of East Anglia itself. Basically, it's a turkey-breeder unit. Cornford and Cross have made an exact copy of a battery shed they found on a visit to one of Bernard Matthews's intensive factory farms, a significant part of the rural economy in Norfolk and Suffolk. …