EXHIBITIONS: Backwards at going forwards

The ICA's new shows imply that the avant-garde is looking to the past; Craigie Horsfield's photos suggest a more profitable direction
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THE FUNCTION of the Institute of Contemporary Arts is to represent new, experimental work; and visitors are currently invited to consider the state of the avant-garde by looking at Luc Tuymans' paintings and an installation by Abigail Lane. Doesn't it seem that the avant-garde is recycling old ideas? Everything Lane does is indebted to the conceptual art of 20 years ago. Nor is Tuymans an especially novel artist, except that he advances amateurism in painting.

He's a one-off, heedless of rules and belonging to no group or tendency. I remarked on his paintings when he showed at the "Unbound" exhibition at the Hayward last year. He looked rather forlorn in the company of other artists. The display at the ICA is much better for him, in the first place because we can see that he's genuinely forlorn. In fact, I can think of few other artists who so persistently and completely express a state of unhappiness. Whether he paints portraits, a park or a pile of pillows, every square inch of his rather small canvases contains a message about his morose feelings: not very clear messages, just as permanently unhappy people are often imprecise about their woes.

Tuymans certainly expresses himself, but you never quite know what he's getting at. His admirers, who turn out to hold grand positions in museums and universities, interpret him as a metaphysician. First they speak about the "disquiet" found in his paintings; next, they assume that he's a profound philosopher. This is over-interpretation, the bane of current writing about art. Tuymans is not a philosopher at all. On the contrary, his paintings succeed precisely because they are baffled by the thought of tragedy. He speaks for the lonely, the glum, the not-terribly clever.

Tuymans is a Belgian. He was born in 1958, lives in Antwerp and became known internationally when he showed at the "Documenta" exhibition in Kassel in 1992. Perhaps the Belgian liking for symbolism accounts for his enigmatic air. The most interesting thing about his pictures, however, is their closeness to inept or ham-fisted amateur art. I'd be interested to know whether he had any formal training (I do know that he previously worked as a night-club bouncer). His handling is weak, contradictory, or trails off as though in despair. This sounds like a criticism; but since his application is perfectly in accord with the mood of the paintings, it has its own justice.

The Walk is the most sophisticated of the paintings. It looks very North European, also rather old-fashioned. If you came on it by chance you might think it was painted 40 years ago. Tuymans likes the past and, I guess, broods about his childhood. There's an infantile rather than an adult interest in a painting of a breast. A picture of geese harks back to children's book illustration. Another is called Child Abuse. Tuymans keeps painting gas chambers. These helpless-looking canvases are dead right. Tuymans is saying that we think of such things, but that no imagination, least of all his own, can match the scale of the horror. The best painting in the show is a little abstract - at least I think it's abstract - called Insomnia.

In the ICA's upstairs galleries there's an installation devised by Abigail Lane, a Goldsmiths' graduate last seen in London in the Serpentine show curated by Damien Hirst and called "Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away". Her present work has little merit. Lane has made a wallpaper that covers all the gallery walls. Its design comes from bloody marks made by a murder victim in New York. There's a giant ink-pad on one of the walls, a cement cast of a Jack Russell terrier, and some human limbs cast in red wax. An accompanying soundtrack repeats an increasingly sinister, but shortly afterwards irritating, scratching noise.

The dog is the best bit. Otherwise this installation is vapid. The piece makes no artistic or social point. There's no emotion in it, not even the frisson that one might feel as a result of its lack of emotion. And how dated and clich-ridden the work is. I object to the way that the catalogue explains Lane's failure to invent anything of her own. "Contemporary art no longer defines itself in vanguardist terms," we are told (and of course this is true), ". . . artists of Lane's generation do not reject what's gone before. A father they refuse to kill is conceptual art . . . young British artists are infiltrating highways of information . . . to make viral interventions within structures of bureaucracy, institution or archive."

Well, the ICA and now this newspaper have received Lane's viral intervention and the result is no use to anyone. Newspapers, even bad ones, do more good in the world than neo-conceptual art. The ICA at the moment is much concerned with the results of conceptualism. Today (10.30am to 4.30pm, tickets £15, bound to be lots of room) it is hosting an open conference on the subject. Here's a question to the panel. Why, since conceptualism was so dependent on photography, did it contribute nothing to fine-art photography?

I ask this question because of Craigie Horsfield's impressive exhibition at the Frith Street Gallery. Horsfield (born 1949) is of just the generation that developed conceptual art, and he shares many attitudes with its first practitioners. In 1968 he was in the painting department at St Martin's School of Art, "though I detested the practice of painting at that time, its seeming indifference to the world which threatened to break apart". He didn't like sculpture much either. "Sculpture at St Martin's was a rigid, formalised system. I look back with bitterness on that time."

Now, whether or not this is historically true of fine art at St Martin's (I don't think it is true), Horsfield's reaction is significant. He didn't turn to conceptualism, unlike Gilbert and George, Richard Long, Bruce Mc-Lean et al, who had similar feelings about painting and sculpture. He looked towards pure photography. He also went to live in Poland, where he remained until 1979. (He did not show anywhere until 1988.) Perhaps "pure" photography is not the right term. For Horsfield's experience of Eastern Europe - still the basis of his art - made him wish to record long, grave historical changes as experienced by his own family and other ordinary people. That's his subject, but he does it through portraiture.

Paradoxically, given his earlier views, Horsfield's work with the camera has deep affinities with both painting and sculpture. Painting is present in his dignified observations of the nude, his lighting and tonal variations. Sculpture informs his monumentality and an insistent feeling in all his work that art watches over time and events. Nobody who thinks about politics in Europe today wants to erect statues for future generations to consider. Horsfield's photographs are the contemporary replacement of statuary. I add that his socialism is probably relevant to his art.

! Abigail Lane: ICA, SW1 (071-930 3647), to 23 April. Luc Tuymans: ICA, to 30 April. Craigie Horsfield: Frith St, W1 (071-494 1550), to 6 May.