ART / Sort of, almost, in a way, nearly: Is 'Unbound' at the Hayward Gallery a groundbreaking exhibition or a hotch-potch? Andrew Graham-Dixon on the nouvelle vague

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The Independent Culture
The title, 'Unbound', suggests dangerous energies unleashed. But the Hayward's new exhibition of contemporary art also comes with a more prosaic subtitle: 'Possibilities in Painting'. This is the sort of phrase which is traditional Arts Council-ese for 'a load of modern pictures which don't have that much in common but which we like and hope you will come and look at'. Doubts are raised at the outset: is this to be a ground-breaking exhibition, or a hotch-potch?

The organisers, Adrian Searle and Greg Hilty, seem to want to have it both ways: to make large claims for the art which they have selected and then, immediately, to take them back. The exhibition sort of, almost, in a way, nearly identifies something like a Zeitgeist in modern art. But it hedges its bets and presents itself merely as a sample of some of the things that some of the painters working now are doing. This is a show that does not quite dare to be daring.

It consists of work by 14 artists of widely differing ages from here, there and everywhere, and it opens with an apparent collision of opposites. Jonathan Lasker, an American painter, paints enormously enlarged scribble-pad doodles which abut and overlap one another on fields of bright colour. The result is like automatist art redone without feeling, re-rendered in thick but deliberately dead paint: spontaneous and child-like arabesques that have been sabotaged, robbed of true spontaneity by the deliberateness with which they have been copied. This is painting which looks exuberant but which is really suspicious of exuberance, and of itself.

On the other wall from Lasker's works hang those of Swiss-born Olivier Mosset, who practises an ironical and exhausted high modernism, painting flat and uninflected grids and cruciform shapes vaguely reminiscent of paintings by Mondrian or Malevich. Mosset's work looks much less zany than Lasker's, but again this is painting which is suspicious of itself: art which is not unbound but bound up with the history of art, and which seems both more disillusioned and worldly than its sources. Mosset says he knows a painting is finished 'when it's sold'.

Jessica Stockholder, a young American, adds some crash-bang- wallop to the proceedings with her contribution, Fat Form and Hairy: not a painting at all but what it is customary and polite to refer to as an 'intervention'. She has sliced through the partition that divides the first and second galleries to create a gash from which spills, at one end, a mess of modern mass-produced objects including several roped-together second-hand fridges. They match her second- hand radicalism. It is not even properly messy, this too-tidy spillage of clutter, and its violence seems stage-managed: it has the quality of a public protest as reconstructed on TV, where the extras look too well- fed and contented to convey true rage and the handwriting on the angry placards they hold up is neater than it ever is in real life.

If there is a guiding spirit to the work in this show it is something closer to caution and reserve than Stockholder's strained and gung-ho attack: a mood of circumspection and introspection. Fiona Rae pillages the paintings of other artists to create mutant pictures deeply ill at ease with themselves: images possessed of multiple, conflicting identities, different stylistic tendencies fighting out colourful wars of splodge on the embattled territories of her canvases. These are pictures troubled by the anxiety of influence, dramatisations of the artist's divided attitude to the art of the past and to the enormous image- bank that is both her legacy and challenge.

Another youngish British artist, Gary Hume, after several years of painting mute and minimal pictures that looked like doors, has taken to painting bright and apparently bold, apparently Pop Art-like paintings alluding to small-time celebrities. Tony Blackburn becomes a mop of black paint framing a clover leaf, instead of a face, on an acid yellow ground; Patsy Kensit a pink and simplified ghost, a pensive diagram of a face. These are gnomic and withdrawn pictures, hard and glossy parodies of Pop icons: pictures of the vaguely famous painted in a style that is, itself, stridently vague, as if to remark on the absurd ubiquity in modern life of images of people whom we don't know and don't really care about. There are unexpected echoes, in Hume's ironic style, of the early art of two older English ironists of Pop Art manners and obsessions: Patrick Caulfield and Howard Hodgkin.

As you move through the show, any apparent coincidences, whether of mood or approach, come to seem like just that: coincidences. The exhibition quickly disintegrates and becomes, simply, a heterodox accumulation of stuff, some of it good or at least intriguing, some not. There seems to be no particularly good reason for placing Imi Knoebel's fatuous blank sheets of plyboard nailed to the wall - said to be paintings that refute the act of painting by presenting their backs to the viewer, or something like that - in close proximity to Luc Tuymans' arrestingly odd and bitter little still life paintings. The same could be said of many of the exhibition's other juxtapositions.

In the absence of anything like a meaningful structure to the show, the viewer ends up as a kind of tourist, briefly visiting the interests and obsessions of each selected artist before moving on to the next, and the next, and the next, finally filing past Zebedee Jones's abstracts (dense, dark pictures, their surfaces like ruffled fields or water), past Paula Rego's crowded narrative paintings (allegories of angst) and out, not that much the wiser, through the door marked 'exit'.

In the essay which he contributes to its catalogue, Adrian Searle, one of the two organisers of the exhibition, makes this all seem planned: not a failure, but a tactic. Modern painting, he argues, has no overall aim, no pattern, no structure: 'Instead of technique, we have techniques, instead of absolutes and essences, discontinuities, multiformity, differences . . . instead of new movements or revivals, a more heterodox way of thinking, a greater diversity . . . We wanted to show that there is no fixed viewpoint from which to look.' This tends to suggest that the 'Unbound' of the exhibition's title is not meant in the Promethean but in the literal sense: the 14 artists selected are unbound as scattered pieces of paper might be said to be unbound; no connection exists between them.

This is an ingenious defence of a show which turns out, indeed, to be more or less structureless: a way of saying that nothing makes sense and that the exhibition reflects this, that it has the courage of its own lack of convictions. But maybe it is really just another way of saying: 'Here is a load of modern pictures which don't have that much in common but which we like and hope you will come and look at'; of admitting that the show is, after all, just a hotch-potch.

(Photograph omitted)