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New Currents at the ICA

Currents, through November 24, at the Institute of Contemporary Art, 955 Boylston St., Boston (open Wednesday-Sunday 11am-5pm, admission $2.50, students $1; also Fri.5-8pm, admission free to all).

This season's first installment of Currents at the Institute of Contemporary Art continues a two-year tradition. It is a cross-section of the art scene with work in different media and widely varying styles. In line with tradition, most works are interesting and the overall effect confused. No single approach prevails: anything will do, as long as it is done well.

If, for lack of a better principle, I arrange artists by degree of extroversion, the Spanish painter Jos'e Mar'ia Sicilia ends up in front. His huge paintings attack the senses with thick layers of intensely colored acrylic. Organic motives -- tulips, to be precise -- wind their way through zones of violent articulation framed in geometrical backgrounds.

On the opposite end of the scale, Peter Halley constructs cool and rather austere geometric compositions of cells and conduits. They are done with a material called Roll-a-tex, which makes them glow like terminal screens stared at too long and too intensely. No doubt this goes well with their intended impact.

With Will Mentor, we enter the realm of figuration. By confronting distinct pieces of reality `a la Magritte or quietly juxtaposing them as in traditional still life, this young Iowa-based painter builds up puzzling compositions. At first glance they suggest the workings of the subconscious, but when I asked him about it Mentor himself deemed this inessential, a mere manifestation of his general interest in establishing the unity of inner and outer experience. In any case, ambiguity is enhanced by his eclectic style, which incorporates Surrealist and Cubist idiom with equal ease.

Similar problems beset the interpretation of Carroll Dunham's paintings. His imagery is less clearly figurative, and sometimes (particularly in his very recent works) not noticeably figurative at all. But for the captions, one would be at a loss to assign a specific meaning to any of these works. Yet it is hard to overlook the recurring presence of sexual symbolism -- phallic shapes in particular, which seem to constitute Dunham's pet motives. Add to this sharp colors and exuberant configurations and out pops something like a present-day Hieronymus Bosch

From Britain, Bill Woodrow brings us sculptural installations made out of objets trouv'es in the venerable -- if somewhat harsh -- spirit of Duchamp. As with most work in this genre, a certain facility of association on the viewer's part is taken for granted.

The photography component, finally, consists of work by Barbara Ess. She uses a pinhole camera: the film is put in a simple box with a tiny opening. This produces a rather soft image with a weird distribution of light. The apparatus has an unmistakeable tendency to yield schmaltz, but Ess knows how to avoid that. She comes up with eerie, hallucinatory shots in which the potential of the camera is strongly supported by a sharp eye for tilted lines and oblique angles. The result is a haunted, dreamlike world on the brink of consciousness.

The sculptural structure Atomic Time +/- Control by Howard Fried -- specially commissioned for this exhibition -- was not yet entirely set up last week, but should be completed by now. Another installation, made by sculptor Taylor McLean on the roof of his studio, is accessible by free tours organized by the ICA on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And, as usual, a visit to the ICA includes the option of watching art videos downstairs.

Michiel Bos->