THE FUNCTION of the Institute of Contemporary Arts is to represent new, experimental work; and visitors are currently invited to consider the state of the avant-garde by looking at Luc Tuymans' paintings and an installation by Abigail Lane. Doesn't it seem that the avant-garde is recycling old ideas? Everything Lane does is indebted to the conceptual art of 20 years ago. Nor is Tuymans an especially novel artist, except that he advances amateurism in painting.
He's a one-off, heedless of rules and belonging to no group or tendency. I remarked on his paintings when he showed at the "Unbound" exhibition at the Hayward last year. He looked rather forlorn in the company of other artists. The display at the ICA is much better for him, in the first place because we can see that he's genuinely forlorn. In fact, I can think of few other artists who so persistently and completely express a state of unhappiness. Whether he paints portraits, a park or a pile of pillows, every square inch of his rather small canvases contains a message about his morose feelings: not very clear messages, just as permanently unhappy people are often imprecise about their woes.
Tuymans certainly expresses himself, but you never quite know what he's getting at. His admirers, who turn out to hold grand positions in museums and universities, interpret him as a metaphysician. First they speak about the "disquiet" found in his paintings; next, they assume that he's a profound philosopher. This is over-interpretation, the bane of current writing about art. Tuymans is not a philosopher at all. On the contrary, his paintings succeed precisely because they are baffled by the thought of tragedy. He speaks for the lonely, the glum, the not-terribly clever.
Tuymans is a Belgian. He was born in 1958, lives in Antwerp and became known internationally when he showed at the "Documenta" exhibition in Kassel in 1992. Perhaps the Belgian liking for symbolism accounts for his enigmatic air. The most interesting thing about his pictures, however, is their closeness to inept or ham-fisted amateur art. I'd be interested to know whether he had any formal training (I do know that he previously worked as a night-club bouncer). His handling is weak, contradictory, or trails off as though in despair. This sounds like a criticism; but since his application is perfectly in accord with the mood of the paintings, it has its own justice.
The Walk is the most sophisticated of the paintings. It looks very North European, also rather old-fashioned. If you came on it by chance you might think it was painted 40 years ago. Tuymans likes the past and, I guess, broods about his childhood. There's an infantile rather than an adult interest in a painting of a breast. A picture of geese harks back to children's book illustration. Another is called Child Abuse. Tuymans keeps painting gas chambers. These helpless-looking canvases are dead right. Tuymans is saying that we think of such things, but that no imagination, least of all his own, can match the scale of the horror. The best painting in the show is a little abstract - at least I think it's abstract - called Insomnia.
In the ICA's upstairs galleries there's an installation devised by Abigail Lane, a Goldsmiths' graduate last seen in London in the Serpentine show curated by Damien Hirst and called "Some Went Mad, Some Ran Away". Her present work has little merit. Lane has made a wallpaper that covers all the gallery walls. Its design comes from bloody marks made by a murder victim in New York. There's a giant ink-pad on one of …