From dull to d'ej`a vu in Dusseldorf. Eclectic, anything-goes show has dramatic flair, but little substance

``Is there anything that reminds us that your pictures date from 1988?'' ``Hopefully there's nothing of the sort,'' answers the German painter Michael van Ofen. An interview with him is published in the catalog for this ``Binationale'' exhibition of ``German Art of the Late 80's.''

Earlier he had been asked: ``Are you reverting to the painting technique of the early and late 19th century?'' He replied: ``The 19th century isn't at an end yet, and I work in a painting technique that simply comes of its own, dependent on the picture's topic and my abilities. That way I can learn from all periods of art.''

His paintings, with their atmospheric but broad brushwork, depict dramatic war-movie incidents in which soldiers loom out of the mist, or suggest waterfalls frothing down in slushy rushes of paint through washy greens and browns. You almost expect a Scottish piper - or a German hiker in lederhosen - to appear from behind a pine tree. These paintings are surprising because they defy our persistent expectations that contemporary art should look contemporary - or that it ought to confront or disrupt with its modernity.

But why shouldn't art escape the limitations of its own period or time by a conscious evocation of past styles or subjects? One answer is simple: If it results in art this dull, there's every reason why it shouldn't.

Actually, of course, artists have always looked back. The 17th-century Rembrandt looked back to the 16th-century Italians. The 16th-century Italians looked back to ancient Rome and Greece. But at the same time they forged their own vision and style, which in the hindsight of history can be seen to belong emphatically to their own time and by no means to the earlier one.

There are all sorts of shades possible in a re-use of past modes: clich'es can be revitalized or redeemed; a distaste for aspects of the present can be expressed; something satirical can be conveyed through pastiche. None of these approaches can be called mere nostalgia. But it is unfortunate and ironic that paintings as weak and old-fashioned as van Ofen's act as a challenge to what some now consider to be conventional - that is, modernist - art.

This irony remains considerable, even though ``post-modernist'' artists like van Ofen have been playing such look-back games now for a number of years. But the problem is that this is game-playing, and theatrical game-playing in the bargain. Van Ofen's paintings certainly are dramatic, but their sincerity is in doubt. And technically they are no more skillful than the work of a particularly competent schoolchild.

Although the selectors of this show (which after closing here crosses the Atlantic to Boston as a corollary exhibition of late 1980s American art, now in Boston, comes to Dusseldorf) avow they were open to any and all sorts of art, they ended by choosing work which fits quite recognizably into the general definitions of sculpture or painting.

In the case of sculpture this can mean anything from Werner B"uttner's wood carvings of primitive looking woman-figures on ceramic bases or Stephan Balkenhol's hacked and painted wooden figures - anonymous, minimally expressive chaps with dark trousers and vacantly staring eyes - to the large, heroically aggressive, abstract installations of Bruno K.. His rather improvised concatenations of enormous heating ducts and long arrangements of railings, or his giant contraptions that look like Marcel Duchamp's ``Bottle Rack'' (in one case draped and drooped over by a waterfall of fur coats) are eccentric, sensuous, and oddly exhilarating. But for all that, there is an air of d'ej`a vu to this quite adventurous use of ``found objects'' and fabricated structures. It is difficult to gauge why this is so. It seems strong and original stuff - infinitely preferable to oil-painty stags in the bracken - but once again its drama, it theatricality, seems to signify not much.

Another artist interviewed, Manfred Stumpf, makes wiry little drawings that have a concentrated idiosyncracy of vision and an intriguing obsession with Christian-symbolic palm-leaves. He touches on a paradox that seems to fit the overall tenor of the show. ``People nowadays,'' he says, ``have become more and more individualized, in spite of the ever-increasing loss of individuality.''

One searches vainly in this show for individual artists who obviously stand head and shoulders above the others. Instead there is considerable variety, a determined examination of the continuing possibilities of art, a generally professional level of technical accomplishment (or, if you prefer, craftsmanship), and a rather unquestioning acceptance of the museum setting as the context for art presentation. But there's not much highly individualistic daring.

The ``old master,'' as it were, of this diverse, anything-goes show is the political painter Jorg Immendorf. He has produced some very peculiar and daring work in the past. Here, alas, he is represented by a few rather small, though richly crude and provoking, works: not his boldest statements.

Few common themes or concerns seem to link the artists in this exhibition. But some share a surprisingly open interest of overtly Christian themes, without getting bogged down in its traditional imagery. A number are investigating one of the persistent concerns of 20th-century art, the relationship and use of words in connection with images. The archival photographs enlarged and captioned by Heiner Blum - they look like film-still close-ups - combine both interests. Four of his photographs show military men in extremis, variously expressing pain or suffering. In large white capitals at the bottom they are each named: JOHN, MARK, LUKE and MATT. Sound familiar?

At the St"adtische Kunsthalle, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, and the Kunstverein f"ur die Rheinlande unt Westfalen. Ends Nov. 27.

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