Visual Art: Just Join the Dots Up for 200 Years of Art History ; Sigmar Polke Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Darwent, Charles, The Independent (London, England)
To those of you familiar enough with Sigmar Polke to titter knowingly at the old joke about Polke-dots, the German artist's new show in Edinburgh may cause a twinge of unease. Yes, the notorious spots are still there, dabbed on with a brush with the perverse aim of looking like those pixillated ink-blots known in the print trade as half-tone dots. (Hand-painting made to look as though it's been done by a machine: how "Sixties" is that?) So, too, are the usual suspects from Polke's figural repertoire - the 18th-century gentlemen in tricorn hats, underwear models from old-fashioned magazine ads, Gilbert-and-Georgeish men in suits. So far, so Polke.
But there are other things in the artist's new 40-gouache series, "Musik ungeklarter Herkunft" (literally, "Music from an unknown source") that seem rather less predictable. Numbers six and seven in the series, for example, are straightforward abstract works, nearer to the 1980s' Abstrakte Bilde of Polke's friend, Gerhard Richter, than to anything we have come to think of as platonically Polke- ish.
The first, snappily entitled - let us skip the German - Sleep is an excellent beauty potion, known to humans and animals since their time as forest- dwellers - features a miasmic blob which both floats in a vaguely three- dimensional way and luminesces in front of the picture's black background, like something at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The second, Black with good memories, likewise suggests fish-like things floating in front of other fish-like things, with a bit of implied motion thrown in via a series of swooping, pink-blue brushstrokes up against the implied picture plane.
Were you to see these two works in isolation, you would probably mutter "lyrical abstraction" to yourself and pass on. You might, of course, worry over their titles, since these suggest a certain aboutness about the paintings: but then Polke is by no means alone in giving his works gnomic names. The problem, though, is that we don't see them in isolation. They're part of a closed sequence of images, produced in an implausibly short time in 1996 and intended to be seen - and therefore presumably to be read - as an interrelated series.
So what have this first abstract duo to do with, say, number one in the group, How long is a metre? This work is divided roughly in half, with the bottom field containing one of Polke's trademark frock-coated dot- men in purple. The top section, by contrast, is an ominous black abstract swirl, with a skeletal white motif - a recurring image in these new gouaches - floating ambiguously in front of it. …