Safe bets dominate at Glasgow Art Fair

WE LIVE in uncertain times, so we keep hearing, amid talk of a credit crunch and a looming recession. And in uncertain times, people play safe when it comes to parting with their hard-earned. Be it a house or a handbag or an oil painting, they tend to stick to what they know.

That in turn drives the products on offer. Glasgow Art Fair is all about selling art, so galleries put on show what they think will sell. To a greater or lesser extent, that must also shape the views of the selection panel, which plays an increasing role in determining who shows here. And, if I didn't know it already, after a couple of hours browsing the stands I would certainly conclude that we live in uncertain times.

Not that the fair isn't a kaleidoscope of colour in a rainy spring, as it always is. The overall calibre of work in the fair is high, higher than in the early years. But the unusual work stands out all the more because the dominant tone is traditional, representational oil painting. In uncertain times, we like to know what we're looking at.

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Of course, the art fair wouldn't be the art fair without Scotland's perennial favourites: Peter Howson, John Bellany, Ethel Walker, Jolomo, Elizabeth Blackadder. And there are a few fine Old Scottish Masters: Duncan Miller has a stunning dog painting by Robin Philipson, a gorgeous Cadell watercolour of Notre Dam and a Japanese-influenced still life.

There are Scottish landscapes aplenty from Peter Goodfellow's dramatic mountains to Andrew George's meticulous moorlands in egg tempera. But young artists are also in evidence, putting their own spin on traditional genres, such as Anna King, winner of last year's Jolomo LloydsTSB Prize for landscape painting, who seeks out forgotten spaces and derelict buildings.

While photorealists were out in force, abstractionists were scarce, and those galleries relying on abstraction largely stuck with prints by big-name modernists: Joan Miro, Patrick Heron, Henry Moore, Victor Passmore and so on. Aberfeldy's Watermill Gallery, new to the fair this year, added Picasso ceramics for good measure.

Banksy prints are demanding high prices on a couple of stands, the irony not lost on those who prefer his guerilla graffiti. David Lilford Fine Art from Canterbury is also showing work by Banksy's inspiration, French artist Blek Le Rat, and spin paintings by Damien Hirst with prices of up to 48,000.

Those doing something new stand out, notably Peacock Visual Arts from Aberdeen, in pole position at the door, with new prints by Barbara Rae, Rosalind Nashashibi and a series by sculptor Kenny Hunter, branching out into two-dimensional works for the first time. His text prints in bold primary colours, almost sculptural in their construction, are stand-outs in the fair.

Glasgow Print Studio is showing a brand new suite of eight prints by Moyna Flannigan, a continuation of the work she began at last summer's residency at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute, and two new prints by Alasdair Gray illustrating texts from his own poems.

Richard Demarco was still drawing when I visited his stand, though he took time to point out that he is the only Edinburgh-based gallery at the fair this year, as ever ploughing his own furrow, cutting fresh ground. This year, his theme is nautical, following a series of voyages with artists including Bill Scott, George Wylie, Frances Walker and others aboard former fishing boat the Glen Massan.

International galleries also bring a welcome freshness: brooding landscapes from Scandinavia and colourful ones from Barcelona, notably Willy Rojas's colourful, visually playful photographs (Villa del Arte Gallery).

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Highland Arts from Inverness has a youthful vibe about it, with Karen Moser's spherical sculptures made of paper and Jennifer McLaren's butterflies cut from sheet music. London's Capital Culture flies the flag for photography, largely absent elsewhere, and newcomer TAG Fine Arts brought welcome smiles with Kate Westerhall's cynical samplers, offset by the sweet papercuts of Rob Ryan.

The most different of them all was the furthest travelled, Artlore from Alice Springs, featuring aboriginal artists at the art fair for the first time. These classic non-representative depictions of landscape and livelihood, passed down for millennia, added a surprising note of gravity, quite different from anything else here.

A million pounds will be spent on art in George Square this weekend, which is good for artists, good for galleries, good for the city. Perhaps it does not matter if the emphasis tends towards known names or traditional styles.

But there is a bigger question here about how Glasgow's principal art-buying event relates (or doesn't) to the city's vibrant contemporary art scene. The art fair has tried to tackle this before. First there was an annex for the conceptualists. Then they were welcomed into the fold of the main hall. Now – despite several commercial galleries now working in this field in Scotland – they seem to have gone altogether. It's ironic that, as both worlds continue to flourish, the gulf between them seems all the more entrenched.

• Glasgow Art Fair runs until 30 March