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Great winter show at the ICA

This winter the Institute of Contemporary Art offers an exciting double feature. A new installment of Currents displays work by six contemporary artists; and Dissent, a series celebrating the ICA's fiftieth anniversary, takes off with a review of the ICA's first exhibitions, which introduced the Expressionist stream of Modern art to Boston and America.

As usual, Currents is vivid and diverse. As if to counter the sombre mood of its Dissent counterpart, several of its entries ostensibly sport an air of playfulness and humor. his may be deceiving, though.

Eric Bainbridge's large sculptures, for instance, look like upgraded teddy bears with their fake fur coating and toy motives. His Din-O-Saur carries on its spine a skyscraper, a boat and a branching structure reminiscent of arteries or coral reefs, and has an additional potato-like head above its tail. Trevor Winkfield produces similar effects in another medium and at another scale: He fills his paintings with (mostly) funny figures engaged in an intricate play of references and contrasts, both visual and conceptual. The cartoon-like effect is enhanced by the utter smoothness of the acrylic surface.

For all their superficial cheerfulness, both Bainbridge's and Winkfield's works reveal elements of uneasiness. A paradox here, an image of doubt there, and the general sense of chaos and dissolution ultimately convey bewilderment and distrust.

The content of David Carbone's paintings does not lack affinity to this, but his vocabulary is more explicit and his imagery more concise. In clear-cut compositions Carbone confronts circus artists and stuntmen with posters and playing cards, creating in the process subtle vibrations between reality and illusion.

Ross Bleckner's paintings on display reflect a tendency common to much of today's art. His 1980 Photosynthesis prominently features a grid-pattern ultimately derived from the formalist manners of the sixties; by contrast, recent works like Memory of Larry or the Turner-like 1984 Untitled exhibit a stronger sense of mystery and sensuousness.

As for the photography part of Currents, it consists this time of large-scale prints by Elliot Schwartz, as well as of El Dorado, a photo installation by German artist Lothar Baumgarten evoking the primeval beauty of an area gradually violated by civilization.

European Expressionism of the first half of this century had its major following in Germany. No "school" in the strict sense of the word, German Expressionism (in its broadest sense; as often, the name is a mere trivialization of a multi-faceted reality) was a conglomerate of artists pursuing similar aims. In contrast to the formal, abstraction-oriented approach which came to dominate the Paris scene, it generally adhered to figuration and a strong emotional involvement of the artist in his works.

From its beginnings (marked by the famous federation The Bridge, in 1905) German Expressionism was animated by a strong sense of existential tension. The impact of World War I and the general atmosphere of social hypocrisy, doubt and disillusion characterizing the Weimar Republic contributed to the predominantly critical, pessimistic atmosphere of this art. No wonder, then, that these works were seen as threatening and banned by the Nazis, whose ideology required devotion without reserve and the illusion of a smooth, superior, self-conscious German society. As a result, when they were first shown in Boston at the ICA (from 1939 onward), it was under the double banner of Modernism and anti-Nazism.

In this retrospective exhibition, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's angular, dynamic Portrait of Alfred (Berlin Alexanderplatz) D"oblin, Beckmann's Portrait of an Old Actress, Nolde's South Sea Islander and Barlach's Reading Monks show different aspects of the Expressionists' approach to the human figure. The main item in this section, though, is a complete edition of Otto Dix's The War (1924). Its seventy etchings in various styles form a gruesome kaleidoscope of the horrors of the trenches and their repercussions in society at large, a Dance of Death to the misery of the human condition.

Small separate sections present three major artists who remained outside or on the brink of the German Expressionist circles but were close to them in spirit.

Edvard Munch is generally considered the main precursor of German Expressionism. His mature work is singularly imbued with personal anguish. Dramatic perspective relates the featureless faces of the Girls on a Bridge to an ominous background, set against a green sky and lit by an eerie white sun. Kneeling Nude characterizes his later, less influential style, in which the psychological tension gradually dissolved.

The Belgian James Ensor stands apart; his style is perhaps best classified as an interpolation between Expressionism and French Symbolism (Redon in particular). His unique blend of the lyrical and the macabre is clearly displayed in The Infamous Vivesectors (sic). The earlier Still Life exhibits his often ecstatic yellow, red and white hues.

Austrian-born Oscar Kokoschka, finally, is represented by some of his many cityscapes. The magnificent 1926 view of London combines a powerful composition with intense coloration to evoke the congestion of the traffic and the stench of the smog. And in Two Nudes he reveals himself, perhaps not surprisingly, a frantic C'ezanne.

Michiel Bos->