'Superhumanism' is mainly technical tricks and self-conscious humor

The New York art world is being invaded by the Europeans.

First there were the West Germans with their oddly updated form of Expressionism, then the French with a cluster of shows that proved once again how artistically bankrupt that nation has become. And now the Italians have taken over the Guggenheim Museum to show us what they have been and are up to.

The British, not to be outdone, have sent over an exhibition to the Arnold Katzen Gallery here of something called Superhumanism. This is a peculiar and self-consciously gimmicky mixture of paintings and sculptures that borrows from practically every realist or figurative idea or style of the past 25 years.

All this borrowing has done very little good, however, for nothing of real interest or significance has been done with what was borrowed except to make it more precious, vulgar, technically awesome, or self-consciously clever. In fact, these works remind me of nothing so much as the worst excesses of the Pre-Raphaelite movement - only without that movement's idealism and good faith.

Even the name of the movement--Superhumanism--is a misnomer. These paintings and sculptures may indeed be ''super,'' if by that word we mean something excessive and extravagant, but by no stretch of the imagination do they represent humanism in any form or manner.

These works are no more humanistic than a wooden nickel is a genuine 5-cent piece. Their ''humanism'' is debased currency covered over and then served up with exquisite techniques, bright colors, and the kind of verisimilitude that triggers awe and envy in the viewer--but little else.

There is something awesome in the amount of time and labor that went into the execution of these works. And yet, all that hard work and endless straining for effect add up to little but gimmickry and a deadening effect on one's sensibilities.

I see nothing admirable, for instance, in utilizing a Saturday Evening Post illustrational technique to depict a young woman standing over another with a butcher knife, as in Paul Roberts's ''The Little Sister,'' or to spell out in precise detail a clutter of art-historical and current culture-objects and heroes, as in Chris Brown's ''God; Man; Antiquity; Lunchbreak.'' And is the pun on the word ''tears'' really clever enough to warrant the painting of Eric Scott's ''Self-Portrait in Tears''? (The ''tears'' are actually tears in a sheet.)

Unfortunately, that is the level of ''cleverness'' and ''wit'' that runs throughout this show--to the point where I began to wonder if it wasn't all the product of technically precocious 10-year-olds. There are a few quite marvelous pieces, such as Neil Moore's ''Not Lying But Dying'' and Graham Dean's huge triptych ''Striking Poses,'' but the exhibition as a whole is sophomoric and pointless. It exists, as a matter of fact, more on the level of the graffiti scrawled and smeared over so much of our urban landscape than on the level of genuine art.

This evidence of creative bankruptcy is made all the more worrisome by the fact that Superhumanism is not an organized movement, but represents the coming together through one gallery of many like-minded British artists.

On one level, the exhibition represents a set of symptoms pointing up a kind of creative decay--the sort of decay that covers itself in pretty colors and in an overly detailed semblance of life so as to hide the emptiness within. On another level, it represents a desperate eclecticism striving to hide its lack of creativity with technical tricks and a self-consciously perverse humor, and by borrowing from everyone.

It just doesn't work. I would suggest, as a matter of fact, that this ''movement'' change its name to ''Subhumanism.''

It's at the Katzen Gallery through May 1.

The Human Perspective

For a much better indication of what the word ''Humanism'' can mean in art, I heartily recommend the Galerie St. Etienne's current exhibition, ''The Human Perspective.'' Not only will the viewer find works of profound human significance by such artists as Kollwitz, Barlach, and Kokoschka, he will also see examples of genuine wit and inventiveness by artist-illustrators like Kubin and Mihaesco.

I was particularly moved by Kollwitz's magnificant mixed-media ''Shelter for Warming (Midday Meal)'' - one of the very few things of hers I've seen in color--and Kokoschka's 1918 lithograph ''Ivar von Lucken.'' Both are small and simple--but they tell us ten times as much about man and about ''humanism'' as does the show reviewed above.

At the Galerie St. Etienne through May 15.

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