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Signs of life

The Language of Things At Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge, until 11 March; the Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle, from 17 March-21 April; and Bury Art Gallery from 26 May-7 July

Admiring an exhibition of still-life paintings by Morandi at London's Estorick Collection, one reviewer pointed out how architectural they were: 'Their formal explorations relate to the visual and spatial experience of cities' (AJ 22.7.99). Morandi reappears in this show at Kettle's Yard, in drawings and etchings lent by the Estorick, alongside other artists who often figure in discussions of architecture or domestic space - Ben Nicholson, Rachel Whiteread, Richard Wentworth. In the catalogue, Ian Jeffrey says of a kitchen-table scene (1957) by William Scott: 'It is a new universe of the imagination in which material has not quite been brought to order. In architecture the same impulse gave rise, at the same time, to the abrasive realism of New Brutalism.'

One cannot claim, though, that such architectural allusions dominate the exhibition, or any other allusions for that matter - it is little more than a miscellany. 'We have gathered the work of a dozen artists who have extended the scope of still life, ' says curator Michael Harrison. That statement is debatable. Jane Simpson makes ceramic replicas of Morandi's painted clusters of jugs and bottles, which seem more like an instance of Post-Modern pointlessness.

Manuel Franquelo poses bits and pieces on a shelf before a weathered wall and depicts these ensembles with hyper-realist precision - much as his precursors did in the seventeenth-century Netherlands.

Specific items may be beautiful or thought provoking - Scott's Still Life with White Mug (and two ghost mugs in attendance, not quite obliterated), or Whiteread's four-shelf fragment of an absent library, the plaster tinged with dye from the missing books - while Richard Wentworth finds metaphoric potential in the mundane (a chisel nestling on a pillow in Nature, Mort).

But the installation at Kettle's Yard leaves them stranded; its juxtapositions are prosaic. It is not enough to hang a Ben Nicholson drawing of spanners above the box of spanners that he drew from. Perhaps when this exhibition is reconfigured at Newcastle and Bury, it may have the spark it now lacks; more likely it is simply misconceived.

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