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Is that allowed?
Schütte's art is not dependent on a single style, manner, material or touch. It has many strands. He makes watercolours and drawings and table-top architectural models: houses, a yellow Perspex garage, a mountain from a resin-soaked blanket, a brutalist grey factory rising out of a magenta fishtank, a big black building with an empty disco on the ground floor, with little disco lights winking on and off. He makes polychrome, wildly glazed, enormous ceramic heads and smaller glazed-clay "sketches" that sit on racks as though cooling from the kiln. He has built a nuclear power station. You can stand in the cooling tower and be thankful Schütte is not a physicist.
Taking his art as a totality, as we must, doesn't mean that everything is equal, or that there aren't better or worse pieces, major and minor works. Nor does the fact that Schütte does many things mean that his art lacks a centre. Rather, it signals a deeper sense that there are many paths and stories an artist might tell. Most artists only ever do one thing. In Schütte's case, the cumulative effect gets more powerful the more he produces, the more directions he goes in, the more he complicates things. This is rare. Most artists don't get better - they just get boring. Schütte, by contrast, is still interested in surprising himself.
The title, Crusade, makes the show sound as if the artist was on a mission. Schütte is fond of such small ironies, and is frequently self-parodic. One group of ink and watercolour drawings, depicting wilting flowers, is called My Private Kosovo. One thinks of a Balkanised brain at war with itself, a contested inner life; and also of the strangeness of Gus Van Sant's 1991 movie My Own Private Idaho, with its daydreaming, narcoleptic hero.
One might take Kreuzzug as celebrating creativity, but Schütte's art is as often melancholic. Among the long series of prints and watercolours there is an etching of a steamer on the horizon, the words "Wrong Boat" scratched on to the image. The tabletop architectures include a home-made doll's house, with a toy plastic figure standing in an empty upper room; a model woodwork den is beneath, and the entire house is set about with pots of dying ivy, the whole encased in a cheap gilded cage. Another group of table-top dwellings, called (roughly) Holiday Homes for Terrorists, have brightly coloured perspex walls and polished wood roofs like coffin lids, their chimneys set at rakish angles, which reminded me of the dorsal fins of sharks.
There is something sinister here in the optimistic modernist buildings. These are the kinds of houses that the middle classes might build for themselves in postwar, consumerist Germany, houses where history is repressed and where the kids simmer with resentment, growing up to be terrorists. Or is this a joke?
It has been said that the best critique of a work of art is not what any critic might write, but another work of art. This exhibition - with its jumps in scale, its abstractions and imaginary stage-sets, its toy cars and figurines and giant, lumbering figures (Michelin Man meets the bad Terminator) - allows us to see the extent to which Schütte has been engaged in a dialogue not just with himself, but with the past, with 20th century sculpture and its relation to architecture, the city, the world that we and the artist inhabit. His "public art" projects - including his forthcoming Hotel for the Birds for Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth - are themselves wary of the notion of public art.
Schütte's work is the product of the antagonisms between modernism and conceptualism, larger histories and the personal. His engagement with modernism can never be uncritical. Certain of his table-top works poke fun at brutalism, at functionalism, at the way we live. His etchings, funny and sardonic though they often are, show a man beleaguered, laughing things off, sending out images as love letters, as cries for help, as small celebrations of the individual human spirit. Mass culture always turns the intimate into voyeuristic spectacle.
At the same time, Schütte makes huge ceramic heads: some calm and Buddha-like, others devilish or baleful. Their gorgeous colouring and decorative surfaces, the twisted ears and heavy brows, make me think of dictators and gods. What's the difference?
More difficult, dangerous and daring still is his ongoing series of oversize, distorted steel and bronze women. With these works, Schütte has entered a territory that sculptors have, for all kinds of reasons, shied away from for several decades. Even as I look at them, I wonder whether it is still possible to make such monumental, deeply sexualised sculptures of female bodies - more importantly, whether it is still possible for a man to do so. But if not, why not?
The women's forms sometimes begin as almost academic, anatomically correct figures, but have been rollered, twisted and contorted in various ways, as though not just by the hand or by craft, but by the id and the libido. Their morphology, including their enlargements and extreme adjustments, owes as much to earlier sculpture as it does to Schütte's own imagination. Formally, they play every game in the book: they are squeezed, pummelled, extruded, made bulbous, deformed and accentuated. Different parts of individual figures are worked in different ways. A head can remind us of Lipchitz, Maillol, Matisse, Henry Moore (the holes! The poo on the plinth!), Louise Bourgeois, avant-gardists and academics alike. One curved, arching spine, ridged with vertebrae, cleaves the air as a keel braves water. The spine of another figure is a deep, smooth groove.
But Schütte hasn't just looked at other art; he has spent as much time looking at and remembering actual bodies. As I walk around the steel flatbeds on which these figures are raised, I come to one head that is a collapsed souffle of rust, and another who, in sleep, evokes a great tenderness.
Sexual desire performs impossible distortions on the mental image of the body of the beloved, and one's sense of one's own body. I think this is what Schütte has engaged with here, in these most physical of his works. If there is tenderness and violence in them, it is essentially sculptural. These women remind you, in intimate flashes, of moments on beds and beside beds, lovers' beds and deathbeds - but they never let you forget that they are images, as they slide from one state to another. This is where their liveliness is. I cannot look at them except as a man. Can I do other than accept my own looking? What matters more than praise is what an artist does to your thinking.
Kreuzzug is a brave, generous show. For anyone remotely interested in what sculpture can be, what art can be, I advise you to go.
· Thomas Schütte - Kreuzzug is at K21 Kunstsammlung, Düsseldorf, until September 19. Details: 00 49 (0) 211 8381 630.
12.12.2003: Pigeons and protest inspire bids for for empty plinth
12.12.2003: Adrian Searle: Schütte rises above a mixed bunch
12.12.2003: John Ezard on Thomas Schütte's sculpture, Hotel for the Birds
K21 Kunstsammlung, Düsseldorf
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