It's a fine line separating mischievous humour and pitiful wordplay, and Raymond Hains seems to have made it his duty to skip endlessly back and forward over it. It's a perilous but occasionally funny game, a low-key Conceptual Art that seems to appeal to a few artists working in France today. When an attempt was made to group together a bunch of young artists under the loose rubric of a particularly irritating French term indicating playfulness (ludique), it was clear that Hains, with his 40-odd-year career, was to be the designated leader. Age also seems to have rendered any critical debate over his work quite impossible. While Hains' work is second-rate when compared to his Nouveau Réaliste buddy Yves Klein - to whom he renders a witty homage (Le Monochrome dans le métro, Monochrome in the Metro, 1983-2001) - it is unquestionably more refreshingly alive than that of other contemporaries such as Arman.
However, there's often a sense that Hains' art is about success and failure: about ideas that are played around with and not always happily appropriate for sculptural or photographic works.
Hains' best quality is the fluidity of his work process, his encyclopaedic knowledge - a section of his monumental library, which is stored in suitcases, is presented in the show - and his ability to make wild connections. A poster for American Express, for example, viewed through distorted lenses is transformed into a banner bearing the colours of Brittany (the same colour as American Express) and renamed 'Armorican Express'.
With elaborate thematic displays and wall texts the exhibition went to great lengths to convey the 'only connect wildly' message that runs through his work, but in many ways it failed to do so successfully. While the books in suitcases and heaps of metal tubes taken from scaffolding structures (Echafaudages layher, Layher Scaffolding, 2001) efficiently conveyed the sense that his work and thought are always in progress, the organization of the show resisted the idea and favoured a formalist hang in which aesthetics were underlined perhaps more than is necessary. In this light it is the beauty of certain works, rather than their pertinence, that was revealed: the lyrical abstraction of his ripped poster paintings (such as La Gitane, 1968), the proximity to Pop Art of his wood-painted giant matchboxes (L'Ane vêtu de la peau de lion, The Ass Clothed in the Lion's Skin, 1967), or to Op Art, in the wonderful film he made in 1954 with Jacques Villeglé (Penelope, 1954-80), in which colours are seen through fluted glass. One of Hains' more complex ideas is that Conceptual Art needs a strong material presence. The inherent difficulty of such an approach was exemplified in the least successful pieces in the show. The series of works Hains has been developing since 1999, 'Mackintoshages' - images of several simultaneously opened windows shown on a computer screen - are as clumsy as a good idea gone wrong. Other photographic works give out a weird sense of scale: you wonder what really is the point of an extra large photograph of a sweet box (Les Vérités de la palisse, The Truths of La Palisse, 1987).
The relative mediocrity of these pieces was unfortunately emphasized by the display, which, instead of giving the viewer the pleasure of following a thread, encouraged a reading that obscured rather than clarified some of the artist's stories. Ultimately the entire exhibition felt a little like an in-joke.
Hains' best work occurs when he is given free rein to produce his own installations, and this is the paradox of a retrospective of an artist with a long career whose creative energy is still up and running. The work that came closest to giving out a lively and multi-layered experience of his process and inspiration was the website specially created for the show, which works like an obsessive personal encyclopaedia . It is quite rare for a website to be more of a thrill than an actual exhibition, but maybe that was why two computers were placed right at the intersection of the gallery's rooms.