11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 57

Carnival of impurity

Andrew Lambirth

Sigmar Polke: History of Everything Tate Modern, until 4 January 2004

Sigmar Polke (born 1941) is one of the most influential of contemporary painters. Along with fellow German Gerhard Richter, he has inspired countless artists and art students in this country and abroad. Yet this new exhibition at Tate Modern is the first major showing of his work in London. For that reason alone, one might expect to be offered a miniretrospective as the appropriate introduc tion to his work. Instead we are shown a display originally designed for Dallas Museum of Art, and marginally re-jigged for London, which consists only of work done in the past six years. And much of it remains in the hands of Polke's dealer. What an up-market profile for a commercial body of work! But the real question is whether a state-funded museum like the Tate should be putting on such an exhibition, seeing that it presents only a very incomplete picture of the artist's career and achievements, when it is, after all, part of the gallery's remit to fulfil an educational role.

The exhibition's organisers have cleverly got round the problem by devoting three rooms on Level 3 of the gallery (the floor below) to a whistle-stop survey of Polke's artistic development. It's not a bad solution, considering that they've been allowed to borrow from the Froehlich Collection in Stuttgart, which has substantial Polke holdings. So we get a good group of early works from 1963, when Polke was busy founding 'Capitalist Realism' (an ironic side-swipe at Socialist Realism and Western consumerism) with his mates Richter and Konrad Lueg. The drawings are deliberately rough, done in ballpoint or felt-tip on stationery paper, quirkily satirising advertisements for everyday objects. From the 1960s, Polke began to use commercially produced decorative fabrics to paint on instead of canvas or board. During the 1970s he concentrated on photography, sometimes painting over the photograph, manipulating the image in the darkroom or the studio. Then, in the 1980s, he returned to painting.

The Level 3 display is a bit thin on Polke's post-1960s work (there are only three items, though one is the beguiling drawing after Diirer's hare, done in stretched elastic), but one gets the general idea. And there are some really definitive images, such as the deadpan canvas entitled 'Sausages' (1964). So there is some attempt to supply context and comparison, provided people manage to fight their way through the crowds down to Level 3.

Meanwhile, in the spacious exhibition galleries on Level 4, the recent Polkes — though often vast — look remarkably at home. The first impression the show gives is of someone trying to capture the world in a net. Sometimes the net is more obvious than at others, appearing as a grid or mesh either on the picture plane or behind it. (Polke likes the grid of a painting's stretchers to be visible through its fabric; for him, this adds another visual layer, though I found it alternately distracting or irritating.) So, one of the effects of the exhibition is of pronounced linearity. Another is of the absence of full-blooded colour; predominantly the imagery is tinted black and white. A third is how overwhelmingly photographic the work is; there's a distinct documentary feel to it.

For instance, Polke is keen on newspa per sources, with a particular love of misprints and errors. He will project an image of distorted newsprint on to fabric, paint the enlarged design and coat the whole thing in resin. This gives a gel-like quality to the surface of his pictures, which occasionally modulates into an appearance of organic deliquescence, as it does in an untitled painting of this year. Or look at 'Structural Poetry', a monochrome but powerful design of shape-shifting Benday dots, a typical example of the reinterpreted printed image, all insistent pattern-making. (Polke, who relishes mechanical processes, paradoxically paints Benday dots by hand, frequently applying them with the eraser on the top of a pencil.) But what exactly are these pictures about? Everything and nothing.

It has been said that Polke makes allegorical history paintings. Certainly he is interested in past and present, in popular taste, in art history. In the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the writer Dave Hickey comments: Tolke's paintings have always been, quite literally, a mixed hag, a carnival of impurity and destabilised moral collage.' He stresses that confusion is essential to contemporary moral responsibility. Apparently Polke himself, while installing the works at Dallas, stated that these recent paintings were to do with intimidation, fear and the potential for violence. So we are shown images of the gun culture of the American West, but we are also shown paintings of balloons or naturists. A nudist guides a horse-drawn plough, a naked girl with a fork chases two grinning men. It's all good, clean fun.

In point of fact, PoIke's imagery is multilayered and impossible to decode corn

pletely. It is allusive and unstable, capable of making a rich and confusing appeal to the contemporary mind, surfeited already on mass media information. Its very lack of specificity is its chief allure. It could be randomly assembled, but it has been cunningly re-structured. Polke is a great organiser and composer of images, adept at interruption and interference, and at bringing different worlds into collision, for instance the homespun and the global. Is this then a commentary on our times, partaking equally of sense and nonsense, and thus effectively embracing the lunacy of the modern world?

Some see in Polke's work hope for the future of painting. From this exhibition, it emerges that, although deeply concerned with painting, he is not particularly interested in paint. He'd rather have a chemical reaction on the surface of a picture than a subtle modulation of pigment and texture, and he's no colourist. He's much more preoccupied with printing and photography. You could say that he cares so little about the actual activity of painting that he will allow a machine to do it for him, and this is partially true. He does tint and alter found images on computer and then photographically transfer them to large pieces of fabric. But he also maintains that these vast 'machine paintings' have no independent aesthetic life outside the installation for which they were made. (Are they destroyed, then, after the exhibition?) They are merely used to fill in the gaps and supply visual coherence.

PoIke's strengths are his drive to experiment and his ambition: he continually opens up possibilities for himself and other artists. But there are no rules, no limita

tions, and therefore there is no unifying intelligence to the work, apart from the considerable strength of his own personality. History of Everything? A history of fragments, more like.