BY Neal Brown in Reviews | 04 MAR 97

'Sad' was a car boot sale of the soul, comprising pieces by 96 artists asked to submit work on the theme 'sad', and included dignitaries such as John Stezaker and Tracey Emin through to a number of students. Gasworks is an artist-run studio and exhibition space and the four artist/curators of this show wanted to involve everyone who'd shown at the gallery in the last year and a half ­ and then some. On the car boot sale principle, the majority of works shown were imperfect goods of uncertain or dubious origin. These were cheerfully in breach of all sections of the Trades Descriptions and Sales of Goods Acts, in their use of the evocative, sometimes poignant word 'sad' ­ used so effectively to gain our attention.

As 'bad' for Michael Jackson means 'good', here 'sad' has come to mean 'bad', in the sense of 'not good'. In this way, 'sad' is used often as a pejorative description of an inadequate person, thing or situation, rather than as an emotion. On this basis, many of the 96 works were somewhat judgemental ­ sparring, with a good-natured sick humour, but indicating little of the resonant authenticity of reflective sadness or the occasional insights of melancholia. Any melancholy sadness in the work was usually either quickly exteriorised or made acceptable by the use of the word 'sad' as part of a lazy vocabulary of critical terminology. Works were often charming, cheeky-chappy punnings, end of term cerebral slapstick and stylistic buffooneries. There were a large number of these, some were enjoyable, like David Batchelor's Sadder than Sad, a framed, hand-written reproval sent to him in the post; but many were not.

Works displaying a deeper interest in the theme seemed to be at the more mortal coil end of the range. Amongst these, Emma Tod showed a photograph of an unlit gas fire The Big Chill (all works 1996), certificated with a sticker by the Gas Board reading 'Danger do not use'. Authentically bedsit and anxious, and describing a banal uselessness, the work implied an unspoken post-mortem of loneliness and carbon monoxide. It was simple and successful ­ but nearly defeated by the choice of a tabloid caption-style title. (The titling may have indicated a common wriggling embarrassment about this show ­ a fearful anticipation of accusations of portentousness). Also ambiguously funerary was a large bunch of plastic flowers dipped in resin by Rachel Evans The Sorrow and the Pity, set against a painted wall of a suspiciously deoxygenated mauve colour.

Jane Gray showed a plastic window box of real flowers, Small Rejuvenation, rigorously unwatered during the course of the show to increasingly sad effect. Richard Elliot presented Hurt, a record book of industrial injuries kept over many years by the sick room of a big shipyard, which has now, as usual, closed down. This was simultaneously sinister and touching, and was successful, if not exactly on an art level, but on a political and social one ­ an enfleshment of the human sadnesses of industrial history.

Louisa Minkin's work Useless Knowledge ­ The Widow Insane was technically and emotionally exciting ­ a delicate tracery of thin, threaded text apparently held on stretched, fine gauze by static friction only. This handwritten text appeared to be some kind of contorted legalese and contrasted the traditionally feminine crafting of fabric with the brutalising of a fragile human situation by litigious text. Bernadette Moloney's What's up Doc? was, again, a slightly cowardly, evasive title for a moving work: a dead bird in an old first aid box. Elsewhere, Tracey Emin achieved a beautifully bittersweet, poignant quality in the line of her monotype It's Always the Same.

It is understandable that, almost by definition, this should have been a confused show: many of the current dictates of artistic style necessarily require a colossal and undignified contortioning should the artists wish to be reconciled with the ostensible theme of the show in a deeper sense ­ which they didn't. With some exceptions, it is understandable that the majority of the works shown were mostly very minor tragedies and casual fripperies, presented using the devices of art-contextual sunderings and ironic amusements. Sadness is perhaps too veritable an emotion for sad times.

Neal Brown is an artist and writer based in London, UK.