BY Hans-Christian Dany in Reviews | 04 MAR 97

Set amidst a series of lakes, the East German city of Schwerin makes an ideal place for a weekend break. The old town has been smartened up and the steps of the museum afford a fine view of the castle opposite, one of the most important historicist buildings in Europe. As a further tourist attraction, traces of Schwerin's 40 years of real Socialism have now been largely wiped out. The heavy museum door bangs shut behind me, and reunified Germany seems strangely like Disney World - a country whose past is for ever being trivialised and cleaned up until the last suspicious speck has gone.

Polke has placed the picture Dr. Bonn (1978) just inside the entrance to his first exhibition in the former GDR. A beam of light illuminates a caricature of an office in which a faceless clerk is sitting. He is aiming a catapult at his own temple. 'Wanted' photographs of two top German terrorists are hanging above the desk. A few months before Polke painted the picture, the Rote Armee Faktion leaders Andreas Baader, Gudrun Enslin and Jan-Carl Raspe were found shot in their prison cells, shortly after employers' president and former SS man Schleyer had been murdered. Vital evidence subsequently disappeared, and the state's assertion of suicide was never convincingly proved.

Dr. Bonn's suicide story relates to the picture Hochstand (Raised Stand, 1984), which hangs opposite. In the background you can make out a negative photograph of a raised platform on the old border with East Germany. It is light brown, like a faded fax. Stylised hands are reaching through a grid and a 'special pass' is being shown. The atmosphere swings from nonchalance to calculation and hallucinatory clichés. Polke does not paint history from his own experience, but bases his transformations on existing historical images. Thus the large-format A Versailles, à Versailles (1988) shows a perspective view of a newspaper reader, with an engraving from the period of the French Revolution filtered through the print screen.

After these historical themes comes a gallery containing apparently empty structures. This is the series 'Druckfehler' (Printing Errors) dating from 1995. A microscopic reproduction error in a picture cut out of a newspaper mutates via an enlarged copy into a finished painting, ending up as a grid with blemishes the size of plates. Once more, didactically presented pseudo-abstractions turn out to be historical images. They are background details from photographs of the President of the United States. For a moment, I wonder whether Polke is contemplating how important this white spot flying through the air behind Bill Clinton's hammock might be in 200 years' time. It is followed promptly by two popular illusions from the post-war German fictional arsenal: Die Schuhe des Yeti (The Yeti's Shoes, 1994) - the yeti is a creature that regularly comes in from the cold in the tabloid press - and UFO (1988), which plays in a similar way with the theme of blurred amateur photographs of alien beings. The 'UFO' turns out to be an eagle owl - a German woodland bird. The animal as a metaphor for alien beings is also a recurring element in the continuing science fiction series 'Perry Rhodan'. Polke has been reading Rhodan for years - he picks up trivial ideas, spins them out and transforms them into planets in the Polke cosmos.

Despite, or precisely because of, this colonisation strategy there are often crude breaks in the work. Alongside two impudently large non-representational rubbish-pictures - a delicate balancing act between a delicious interplay of colour and something puked up on the floor - hangs a fourth picture, reproducing a photograph of a camp with barbed wire painted above it. Shadowy figures of children can be made out, bringing to mind images of a concentration camp. But the picture Camp (1994) is ambiguous; it could also be a refugee camp. When he was four years old, Polke escaped with his family from Silesia to Thuringia, and possibly saw camps of this kind. The hugely enlarged Thuringian motorway sign that is the subject of Aufschwung Ost (Upswing East, 1992) possibly has autobiographical connotations as well.

Polke's private history is thus always placed in a political context, and he regularly looks for political elements in private matters. A sweetly morbid picture of an interior shows an urn standing on a bookshelf. The urn contains the remains of a GDR leader who died in exile in Chile. His wife, Margot Honnecker, kept it there in the hope that someday she might be able to inter her husband in Berlin. Perhaps to avoid being categorised as an historical chronicler, Polke runs through a rapid sequence of painting motifs at the end of the exhibition. The spectrum runs from playful images seemingly created in boredom, elements of a familiar pictorial vocabulary repeated and placed in new contexts, to tremendous monotony and emotional outbursts ending in coarse scribblings. This broad spread suggests great potential for the two further retrospectives announced this year. On leaving the museum, I can think of nothing that I really feel like criticising. Ultimately every objection is answered by the complexity and contradiction in Polke's work - it fascinates me that he remains so seductive despite his relative impregnability.