Summing Up Doom And Gloom

If it were a movie, the poster line for the exhibition "Fever" would be: "If you see only one show this year, 'Fever' should be it." This exhibition might not make you laugh, cry or open your heart like never before, but its 200 pieces, by 47 artists, will give you a summary of art chic in the '90s. (The show is playing at the nonprofit Exit Art/The First World gallery in New York through Feb. 6.) If you're big on the New Alienation, it's a handy guide for further looking. If you're not, at least you can converse at artsy cocktail parties without having to see another contemporary art show until, say, the millennium.

The tour starts with the grubby street entrance, a lower-Broadway door marked by a stenciled yellow sign-no sleek '80s art-world glamour here. Up a narrow gray stairwell and you come into a cavernous gallery: thousands of square feet of plywood floor and ceilings a pole-vaulter could barely reach. In the front gallery, the work tries to move from the serious silliness of the '80s toward the silly seriousness of the '90s. The last decade was full of bright, trivial and very expensive paintings like Peter Halley's; the next one promises a crop of earnest, heavily symbolic sculpture. Take, for instance, Judy Fox's realistic figures of slightly feral children with multicultural names like Mohammed, Eve and Baby Jesus. (This work means we have to learn to live together.) There are Daniella Dooling's four pillow-size rubber bags hanging in a row along a wall. They're attached to gas masks attached to rubber lungs attached to hoses attached to pedals that the viewer can press to make the work heave in and out as if it's breathing. (This means pollution is getting to us.) And there's Rudy Royval's life-size drawing of a kneeling man, naked except for socks, with an artist's palette stuck in his mouth. (This means that artists shouldn't kowtow to the establishment in order to prosper.)

In the rear gallery of Exit Art, the message gets less explicit, while the art gets both funnier and scarier. Here, Annetta Kapon's 250 beat-up pastel bathroom scales, arranged in a grid, parody both the Slim-Fast generation and Carl Andre's '60s minimalism. Andrew Castrucci's collection of glass vessels, presumably filled with what would make them live up to their title, "7 Years-292 E. 3rd Street (Urine Bottles)," contribute to one of the show's leitmotifs: yucky bodily fluids. And Michael Yue Tong's "Red Sky at Morning" is a political-protest reprise of Dr. Hannibal Lecter's temporary cell in "The Silence of the Lambs." Instead of a serial killer, Tong's cage contains a coffin made of steel tread plate, with family snapshots from the Cultural Revolution inside.

Exit Art is an alternative space with an ambience that's raucous, unpolished and decidedly eclectic. It is run by Papo Colo, an artist raised in Puerto Rico by a white father and mulatto mother, and Jeanette Ingbermah, an art historian who is the daughter of Eastern European Orthodox Jews. Even though they founded it 10 years ago, their moment, in some ways, has just arrived. The bad wonder in "Fever" is that their new young artists-crawling out from under the money-grubbing sheen of the '80s into a recession-racked world-have gone into a kind of junkyard swoon. Much of their work has a defiant helplessness to it. It's a small surprise no one scrawled "Catch me before I make more" on a mirror somewhere.

But the good wonder is that Colo's installation makes such sense of their grungy rebelliousness. Almost every object in "Fever" manages to make its morbid point or reveal its ganglionic symptoms of social malaise. In the end, the show's jumble produces an odd, macabre cheer, as if to say the current situation is more absurd than menacing. To further lighten the mood, Exit Art has put in a Cafe Cultura and a gift shop called The Apartment Store. A gift shop in an alternative space? Well, Toto, maybe we're not quite out of the '80s yet.