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An artist's eye on the built world

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Paved with Gold At Kettle's Yard, Castle Street, Cambridge until 21 June

'Paved with Gold' takes a cliche - 'the complexity of the modern metropolis' - and explores what it might mean. Curator of this exhibition, Simon Wallis, describes the nine artists he has selected as 'expert witnesses to our everyday urban realities'. Their multi-media works (painting, drawing, photography, film and video) span the past century and, selectively, the globe.

What most characterises the show is the primacy of the built world over its inhabitants, the city over its citizens. The earliest of the images, etchings and a painting by Walter Sickert, set the tone in their attention to facade and shop-front details, a backstreet corner, the oversailing archway of Paris's Porte Saint Denis; people are just sketchy accessories to the scene. Then we jump to post-war New York and London, with a 20- minute film of life on an East Harlem street (1945-46) by Helen Levitt, and Roger Mayne's mid-1950s photographs of streetlife in North Kensington. Children's games are a focus in both - resourceful improvisation with limited means. Mayne must have been right in the middle of his handstanding, football-playing subjects but they seem oblivious to him. Here there is a real sense of people rooted in a particular place, albeit shabby and impoverished - of people at home in the city; an illusion, however, as Southam Street, where many of Mayne's photographs were taken, would shortly be swept away.

Only one other artist engages with human subjects - Dryden Goodwin, in a three-screen video installation, About (1998). He foregrounds the way that we perceive each other as we negotiate the city: a figure in a shop seen from a passing bus, a face on the 'up' escalator glimpsed from the 'down' - the briefest of brief encounters. Helped by a sometimes plaintive soundtrack, About is occasionally effective, but doesn't realise the potential of its three simultaneous screens.

In the contributions of the remaining five artists, human presence and activity are only implicit. Lisa Milroy (self-effacingly) paints frontal, flattened views of Kyoto houses, muted studies in geometry, the orchestrated planes and grids of the facades capped by rippling tiled roofs. Hers is a tidy and composed world. A frontal, flattened perspective recurs in John Riddy's photographs of Lisbon and Valencia. The buildings and streets that he presents are unremarkable - that is presumably their point. We see the impulse to urban order in a calculated facade, but also what accrues to blur or undermine it. In Lisbon's Avenida de 24 Julho, a meagre tree casts its shadow on a scarred wall: Riddy scrutinises the commonplace in an untidy world.

In Shopping (1995), Hannah Collins presents 240 images of Barcelona shop windows. Is this the city as a paradise for consumers? - perhaps not. The plethora of goods in these indifferent snapshots (stuck like specimens in ten large frames) is more likely to stifle appetite than satisfy it. Rut Blees Luxemburg shows the very opposite of snapshots, big colour prints mounted on aluminium, the most dramatic images in the exhibition. Her subject is the night-time city illuminated - a multi-storey car park, an intersection, a park; with a rush of vertigo in one plunging view. Beautiful but hardly benign, these could be stills from a glamorous film noir.

Last of all, Kathy Prendergast's pencil-drawn plans of various capital cities, small in scale and individually framed, bring map-making altitude to the show. They highlight differences in density and patterns of development but, tremulously web-like, the pressure of the pencil varying from one to another, are evidently drawn - not machine-made. There are no neutral documents in 'Paved with Gold'.

But if the artists' personalities are not erased (even in the 'detachment' of Riddy's photographs), there is a cumulative effect to these largely depopulated images; they suggest estrangement, as if we aren't at home in what we've made. Wallis writes in his introduction of the 'opulence' and the 'exhilaration' of city life, but the evidence on the walls of Kettle's Yard is less affirmative. Aren't cities much more fun than these artists allow?

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