The figurative painters Mamma Andersson, Peter Doig and Neo Rauch all share a fondness for staining, slathering on thick pigment, outlining, dribbling paint and more, all within a single canvas. Using multiple techniques breaks up the surface and makes the imagery visually discordant. Part of the aim is plainly to exploit painting's distinctive advantage over the slick, seamless and repetitive surface of photographs.
In the case of Rauch, who was raised in East Germany and learned a Socialist Realist aesthetic, the hybrid quality of the paint handling is turned toward an especially productive end. Familiar imagery -- athletes, industrial landscapes, zoo animals -- is rendered exceedingly strange.
The other first-rate paintings in the show are by Mark Grotjahn, the only L.A. artist in this year's Carnegie. Ten abstractions, each nominally monochrome, turn a long, narrow gallery into a light-filled chapel of luminous secular spirit.
Each vertical canvas is bisected by a wide band of color from which rays of similar hue emanate. The artist's name appears to have been carved into the pigment along one edge, revealing a different color of under-painting -- lime beneath violet, for example, or green beneath crimson. Light catches the uniform linear brushstrokes, enhancing the radiance.
The paintings are strangely moving. Grotjahn calls the odd composition a butterfly, which seems purely for the purpose of description. For me it recalls the "star gate" in the final segment of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey," where two seemingly infinite planes of streaming color open a perceptual entry into another reality. The difference is that Grotjahn's paintings let you know that there may be mystery hidden beneath the surface, but the surface alone offers sufficient wonders for a lifetime of discovery.
Among the other satisfying entries in the show are a touching suite of secular devotional paintings by Francis Alys, a hexagonal video installation on the theme of urban alienation by Ugo Rondinone and a "disco greenhouse" by Carsten Holler, which turns a Minimalist glass box into a walk-in laboratory experiment on visual and olfactory delirium. In all, only about one-quarter of the exhibition resonates.
More typical is Trisha Donnelly's "Night Is Coming," in which those portentous words, fading in and out of view, are projected above the museum's flamboyant Neo-Classical grand staircase; or Jeremy Deller's pop T-shirts and shopping bags in the museum store, each printed with a cliche such as "You are loved!" or "Wisdom is better than weapons of war." Trite, academic gestures of Conceptual art seem especially snotty in this disconnected moment, when unspeakable human suffering is expanding.
The curator means to chronicle a shared intention among diverse artists -- an objective she describes in the catalog as "the search for what it is to be human." But does that make sense as an organizing principle? For artists, shouldn't that quality be a given? Are there really artists of significance today, or in earlier epochs, for whom that search didn't matter?
The show's predicament resides in the divergence between artistic intention, which is privately held, and the viewer's actual encounter with art objects, environments and situations. Those don't always allow for the artist's private quest to go public, and that's what happens too often here.