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One Exhibit That Roams Far Afield

August 04, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON

WASHINGTON — Europe used to be haunted by a small subculture of displaced souls who lived in shabby hotels, wore ascot ties or black turtlenecks and spent endless hours sitting in cafes nursing small coffees and reading dog-eared volumes of Proust or Camus. Places that used to be called home forwarded small monthly stipends in support of wan ambitions to become writers, artists or both.

The wanderer, lost in book or museum, was inclined to forget what country he came from and the town he was in as well as what century. Creative aspirations were confused as it was never clear if the role model should be Moliere or Gide, Picasso or Pisanello. Very little was accomplished.

One somehow assumed that subculture had been washed away in subsequent decades of mods, hippies, yippies and assorted punks, but an exhibition on view to Sept. 1 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden proves that the sensibility continues to go its curious, spectral way.

Titled "Representation Abroad," the show presents vest-pocket solos of 16 artists living mainly in Europe but stationed as far afield as Colombia, often as expatriates. Artists range from 85 to 32 years in age and almost as broadly in style. Superficially, the common cause that binds them is dedication to depicting the real world more or less as it appeared to the painters' eye after the Renaissance but before the invention of the camera. More profoundly, it examines the state of the lingering shade of the artist as Existential Humanist Intellectual heroically going his own way in splendid isolation that confirms his integrity.

Hold it. How can anybody say that about a show that includes the art of David Hockney, an undeniable superstar? How can anybody say that of an exhibition that embraces artists like Luciano Castelli, Wolfgang Petrick, Klaus Fussman and Arthur Boyd, who work in accents identified with currently fashionable German Neo-Expressionism?

The point is well taken, but the fact of a certain celebrity or longing therefore does not finally alter the fascinating spirit of this show or its disturbing implications. It was organized as an evident labor of love by Hirshhorn exhibits chief Joe Shannon, himself a representational painter. His catalogue essay insists that the main purpose of the exhibition is simply to show some first-rate figurative work that is little known in this country.

While we must take Shannon at his word, the viewer is free to garner his own insights. We live at a moment when classic modernism is comatose and chic new-wave styles are largely unsatisfying. In such circumstances, it is impossible to encounter an exhibition like this without some glimmer of hope that it might suggest a way out of the impasse.

What is the answer, oh oracles of the maul stick? Well, the majority of these folks seem to think that the way to solve the dilemma is to inhabit the corpse of a great dead artist. Virtually everyone on hand is wearing some emperor's old clothes. Even Hockney has fun making witty comments about late Picasso ripping off Francis Bacon ripping off early Picasso. Hockney is in such a good mood he even does an uncharacteristic skin-mag-style creamy female nude in his Cubo-Polaroid photo-collage style.

Everyone else, rest assured, is grimly serious--even when witty. The most obvious body-snatcher is Hungarian-born Tibor Csernus. He works in Paris but he lives in the husk of Caravaggio, painting flaccid or sinewy female nudes fading into inky shadows and doing kinky things--ambiguously of course.

Briton Leonard McComb and Italian Nino Longobardi both seem to want pieces of Egon Schiele, even though he was a minor Austrian artist. Maybe that's why they like him. After all, we are dealing here with artists who glory in being minor. The only thing that's better than minor is decadent and neurotic. Schiele is the very symbol of decadent neurosis. The only thing better than minor, decadent and neurotic is tragic. Schiele died tragically of the Spanish flu at age 28. No wonder they like him.

Some of these artists are so great-spirited they cannot fit into the the body of a single great dead artist. They need a whole historical epoch. Italian octogenarian Francesco Messina writes poetry and art criticism as well as making sculpture. He has squatted on the entire style of Hellenistic Rome. Occasionally he cuts loose with a sexy-decadent Lolitaesque bronze nude like "Fabrizia" but most work is awkward academic kitsch.

Speaking of academic, the veteran international Rodrigo Moynihan has shifted from abstract to figurative art and back again enough times that neither a great dead artist nor a grand past period will contain his work so it lives in land that has blended everything into a kind of universal and timeless neutrality.

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