EXHIBITIONS / To wow or not to wow?: That is the question raised by two sculpture shows on opposite sides of London - and art

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The Independent Culture
SUSANA SOLANO is 47, yet a relative newcomer to the international art scene. That is because she only recently converted from being a painter to making the kind of sculpture that now fills both floors of the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Her painting is said to have been a false start, since she really wanted to make environments. One or two of her sculptures have been shown in London recently and they impressed. Solano's present show also asks the viewer to take her seriously. Indeed, a personal reserve is matched by gravity of expression and, in her larger pieces, something approaching solemnity.

Like many another Spanish artist, Solano appears to be bound to the ancient rituals and observances of the land - in her case, Tarragona - as well as the memory of dark and ascetic cathedral architecture. There are other Spanish references too, of a more domestic type. Her relatively early (1985) piece in scratched plaster over a wire armature is reminiscent of Antonio Tapies and his interest in the texture of humble, everyday things. But Solano is not really interested in the home. She seeks more formal and disciplined subjects and is also concerned with size. All her sculpture, whatever its actual dimensions, seems to ask for a more than human scale.

This is why she adopted the conventions of minimal art which can so easily be enlarged. Solano's sculpture is evidently Spanish. But the symmetrically arranged squares and rectangles of steel, mesh, lead, glass and gravel are the same components used by minimal sculptors for the past 25 years. This does not seem forward-looking. Yet Solano is not as banal as artists who have preceded her in these areas. She is also able to complicate minimalism. Sometimes this doesn't work. The sight of one screen of mesh, for instance, cancels out the sight of another screen in the same sculpture. Perhaps she is inclined to add too much. But when the balance is right, as in the sculpture alone in a room at the end of the top gallery, the results are grand.

Several small photographs taken by Solano are placed in the catalogue next to certain sculptures. They are of unexciting Spanish places: a runway at Seville airport, a sort of portable building next to a lonely road. We are to take it that her art responds to such contemporary semi-urban phenomena. In a way the sculpture does have some of this feel and really does say something about the look of today's Spain. However, the best piece in the show is not of this sort and resembles nothing else on display. Pervigiles Popinae is a tall, dark iron structure placed flat against the wall, with a kind of fender around its base and a mysterious curved opening. It's not minimalism at all, much more like the work of another Spanish sculptor, Eduardo Chillida.

Solano's exhibition is uneven but memorable. Over at the Serpentine Gallery, Robert Gober offers a comparatively trivial experience. He has been seen twice in Britain in the past couple of years, at the Hayward's Doubletake exhibition and in a show of new American sculpture at the ICA. There he wallpapered a room with a design of his own; a sleeping youth next to a black man hanging from a tree, repeated many times. This paper turns up again at the Serpentine, where Gober has decorated four galleries with wallpapers; and certain personal trademarks - a sculpted log, for instance, or kitchen-sink drains - are repeated from Doubletake.

Gober gets his parts of the body by casting in wax from life. This gives the legs an eerie verisimilitude. Other objects include a giant cigar, an armchair, a bag of doughnuts and more of the kitchen plugholes, now inserted in the gallery walls. Taken by themselves, these are no good as art. So do they become more potent as part of the environment Gober has devised for them?

Only in the front room does the wallpaper make us pause. Here is a simulated forest, trees reaching the ceiling. The cigar, in Gober's words a symbol of 'straight white pigs who thought they were on top of the world' and 'Freud's cigar and a turd and all those symbols', may therefore be read as an intrusion from nasty civilisation. But Gober's work only becomes interesting if one strains to find interpretations. It craves attention, asking for an audience to enquire what it's about.

The difference between Gober and Solano is not simply one of personal talent. Here are different ends of the global condition of modern art. Gober, bright and brittle, a New Yorker of the 1990s, needs an environment that will talk his art up. If people say 'wow' to his wallpaper of male and female genitalia, that's good. The Kensington Gardens police have objected, so presumably that's good too. Solano is the slower artist, more interested in her own feelings than in the impression she creates. She's not yet on top of her influences. So it is with much Spanish art these days. But time will tell. Gober would be better if he were more bound to influence. At the moment he makes art as though he had never seen any.

Whitechapel, London E1 (071- 377 0107) to 2 May (closed Mon). Serpentine, W2 (071-402 0343) to 25 April.

(Photograph omitted)

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