Try to figure it out

The human form is back at the top of the agenda, which may surprise those who believe that contemporary art has been driven to abstraction. Adrian Searle on two artists with a head for figures
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The Independent Culture
A constant complaint against contemporary art is that it fails to engage with the time-honoured skills. Whatever happened, conservative-minded critics ask, to modelling and carving, to straightforward storytelling and naturalism, to solid, honest-to-goodness drawing, painting and sculpting? And, most importantly, where did the figure go?

The fact is that the vast majority of current art - good and bad - in painting, sculpture, in installation and in the new media, is figurative, and deals in one way or another with the human presence, with the body, with narratives about the self, human relationships and the messiness of life. Art still deals with human issues, but not always in predictable ways.

John Currin, whose paintings are currently on show at the ICA, began his career in New York at the end of the 1980s with a series of creepily saccharine portrait paintings of high school girls. He is a painter primarily concerned with the female form. His topless portrait of Bea Arthur of the Golden Girls is one of a series of paintings of middle-aged women, some with huge bosoms, others super-thin, disguising their anorexia with a brittle, angular elegance. He's painted beautiful girls tucked neatly in bed, seemingly waiting for Currin the master-stud to come and rumple the bedding. These women are depicted in a way that one thought was no longer allowed - they have eyes like Bambi, locker-room breasts and lascivious mouths; soft-porn cuties who wear nothing but their bedroom bruises and a ton of mascara.

These are the kinds of paintings, modestly scaled, and painted with an overcooked naturalism, which one might have thought only nerdy men would enjoy. Lately, Currin has taken to painting the nerds themselves: bearded, vain men inawful clothes - tacky blazers and floppy-collared shirts, racy neckerchiefs and chunky polo-necks. They fondle monstrous meerschaum pipes and have bad haircuts; they roll up their sleeves to do the washing- up alone in rented rooms, and they take trips to the country with adoring doe-eyed floozies. Currin hates painting men so much that he has to start by painting them as women, later sticking on beards, and re-arranging their proportions to fit some sorry apology for a male physique.

Currin is a problematic artist, in more ways than one. His paintings appear to belong not to what Harold Rosenberg called the "Tradition of the New", an art driven by society's insatiable demand for ever more novel effects, but to the tradition of the naff. It might be surprising, then, to find his work at the ICA, rather than in the Woolworths' print rack of 30 years ago. Yet Currin's work is nothing if not knowing, and he invokes, albeit in a somewhat cursory, parodic way, a whole pantheon: Bronzino, Parmigianino and Fragonard, Courbet, Renoir and Van Gogh, Picasso, Derain, Balthus, Picabia and 19th-century soft-porn academicism. He sees something trashy in his precursors, a way in which each of them, instead of trying always to make "good" art, flirts with the vulgarity of their age.

Currin's paintings, when they don't make you laugh, are toe-curling, embarrassing provocations, leading to knee-jerk accusations of sexism, ageism and misogyny. The usual let-out clause for art like Currin's is that it is ironic, knowingly kitsch, like the work of Jeff Koons, a hero- figure for the artist. Yet "irony" is a word the artist shuns. And bravely - or unwisely - Currin also rejects the notion that his work is a form of social satire. Worse, he says that he's sincere - amoral, but sincere. One of the taboo words of our time, "sincerity" is for the sad-sacks who win the praise of Modern Painters and are lauded in the editorial columns of Arts Review.

Contemporary figurative art isn't supposed to look like Currin's, or to assume the same historical lineage: that's why his work is both so refreshing and alarming. There's an assumption that the figure is supposed to follow on from the trajectory - as it does in Waddington's classy potboiler "Of the Human Form" show - from Rodin and Degas, through Picasso, Giacometti and Gonzalez, finally consummating itself in Barry Flanagan's bendy-toy bronzes of female gladiator Lisa Lyon. Elsewhere in this show Georg Baselitz and AR Penck pay obeisance to the German woodcarving tradition, although their work is a burlesque, neo-Expressionist replay of the uglified, tree- hacking primitivism which passed for tortured soulfulness in Expressionist sculpture during the earlier years of the century.

Stephan Balkenhol, showing at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, takes that tradition in an entirely different direction. Balkenhol's work is defined by its inexpressiveness. Although he chips and hacks his figures and heads from blocks of timber, leaving them satisfyingly chunky-faceted with chiselmarks, odd splinters and splits in the wood, they are naturalistically proportioned. The artist takes pains to render them in such a neutral and understated way that we learn nothing of the state of his figure's souls. One even doubts that these personages have souls: they are both generic and solitary, sculpted exercises in being, staring straight ahead, doing nothing very much. He finishes the sculptures in flat poster paint, washing on workaday outfits, blue trousers, white shirts, and matter-of-fact complexions, various shades of hair, blue eyes and brown.

The gargantuan, monumentally proportioned head of a youngish man, anonymous and bland, sits on a sturdy sculptor's worktable, and stares blankly across the room. The work seems to be a monument to the ordinary man, towering over the heads of a group of diminutive figures, each standing on its own plinth elsewhere in the room. The figures and their plinths are carved from single pieces of wood. A man in a white vest, a man wearing a yellow crown, a man in a blue shirt. There's something futile about these sculptures, expressionless, im-placable and oddly affecting.

Yet, as with Currin, there's a dangerously folksy element to Balkenhol's work - in the past he has given his human figures animal heads, or sat a small man on the back of a snail. Here, he shows a man holding a wooden boat, and a couple of shallow reliefs of mermaids. The undramatic, uninflected stillness and silence of these pieces lends them a gravitas at odds with their kitschy subject matter - in fact, it becomes apparent that this contradiction is the challenge Balkenhol sets himself, and through which his essentially melancholy comprehension of the world is revealed.

What we don't expect of new art is that it should look like the old stuff. Both Currin and Balkenhol set traps for the viewer. Their works only inhabit the husks of the outworn, aesthetically conservative traditions to which they pretend to belong, wrong-footing our expectations and upsetting our prejudices.

n Stephan Balkenhol, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London W1 (0171-494 1434), to 13 Jan; 'Of the Human Form', Waddington Galleries, London W1, 0171- 437 8611) to 22 Dec; John Currin, ICA, London SW1 (0171-930 0493), to 18 Feb