In the dizzyingly expansive art scene of Dubai, one has to fight hard to stay on top. With one gallery opening approximately every 15 seconds, it doesn't take long before the spotlight is stolen by another new gallery. Carbon 12, which opened late last month, is therefore understandably eager to show off all that it can do. This may go some way to explaining Sneak Preview, an opening show which is more dynamic than it is lucid, bumper-packed but occasionally bewildering. The space itself, by the way, is rather good: a windowless bunker at the foot of the Marina View Tower, it has a laboratory-like atmosphere of focus and modernity. Beside the main exhibition rooms, there's a glazed and tapering corridor with a commanding view over the marina; it has an altogether flashier, more corporate ambience and has scarcely been used in the current show. The gallery owner, Kourosh Nouri, says he's looking for a really colossal canvas to hang on its spacious back wall. It ought to look splendid.
As for the current exhibition: the artworks are vibrant, the established names venerable indeed and the emerging talents sincerely promising. What they all have to do with one another beside the fact of their association with Carbon 12, I couldn't tell you. Still, there are enough family resemblances to keep things from getting too jarring, and enough individually engrossing works that one probably wouldn't mind much if they did. The show's introductory feuilleton declares: "Art now, Theory later" - a convenient piety if you happen not to have a theory to hand. It's a testament to the freshness and fun of this exhibition that it hardly needs one.
Twenty artists are showing, most of them with only one work apiece, and the vast majority of the work was created in the past couple of years. The range of work is international but with a strong German accent. It is divided into two halves, unofficially titled "art of today" and "art of tomorrow"; the artists in the second camp are all under 32 years old, sinking as low as 20 in one precocious instance. Painting, at least as it is loosely construed, dominates. And at this point, generalisation fails and one must follow whatever thematic threads one can grasp.
The most noticeable of these is a sensualist's fascination with colour for its own sake. With three works in the show, the Viennese painter Thierry Feuz is its best-represented participant; he is also the leader of this cheerfully decadent tendency. His glossy candy-coloured lacquer works on canvas look almost edible. By dripping and printing onto blemishless, lacquered expanses, he creates luminous flowers, submarine squiggles and deep-space anomalies. The piece from his Technicolors series crams bands of lurid colour onto a canvas box: it looks like a giant rectangular gobstopper and casts a hot-pink glow onto the gallery wall through the sheer intensity of its hues. Feuz churns this stuff out to keep up with demand. Remarkably, the formidable work rate doesn't seem to make the pieces any less pristine: they're manifestly luxury goods, albeit of a very strange sort. One only needs to wallow in them.
The same tonal sybaritism is in evidence in Bernhard Gernicnig's Spectrum, a hazily coloured square plate of aluminium which fades from violet on the left-hand edge through to vibrant blue and turquoise. It looks a bit like a blown-up section from a palette in Photoshop, but there's no denying its gentle magnetism, enhanced by a smooth, factory-fresh sheen. Markus Oehlen, not quite a household name but well established nonetheless as a founder of Germany's 1980s Junge Wilde movement, is one of the biggest stars to show at Carbon 12 so far. Like Feuz's contributions, Oehlen's piece is a somewhat abstract painting in lacquer, though it has none of Feuz's complacent prettiness. Untitled is a garish explosion of indistinct, superimposed shapes, phosphenes in acid green and bruised violet. Densely striped patches buzz at one another like broken televisions; antlike forms traverse the canvas and there are illegible traces of graffiti. The piece is full of punky energy - fittingly, since Oehlen used to drum in the revered new-wave band Fehlfarben - but it has a hi-tech, clubby twist, too. It dates from 2002; Oehlen's more recent work takes these clashing OpArt effects even further. It's heady stuff. One tends to want a bit of a lie down after looking at it.
The Norwegian painter Tor-Magnus Lundeby mines a superficially similar territory: his "psychedelic-bionic" painting titled Refugee Camp (2008) picks out technological forms in orange and black over a background of striated olive. The result looks like an alien circuit diagram; it also, to these eyes, wouldn't look out of place in one of those cyber-hippy shops that spring up wherever old-style rave culture is allowed to put down a tendril. As the gallerist conceded, it's rather a specialised taste: people who work closely with computers tend to like it, apparently. Indeed, this may reflect a certain market canniness on Lundeby's part. There are entire sub-departments of science fiction that are gobbledygook unless you happen to be a part of the increasingly rich and populous coding community. Why shouldn't they want their own art, too?
Returning to Feuz's more organic forms, a comparable brand of aquarium aestheticism is explored by the young Japanese artist Yuko Ichikawa. His illuminated duratrans image, Cosmic Contact, suggests looming submarine creatures emerging from a great purple cloud of celestial squid ink: a more soothing prospect than you might think. This aquatic sci-fi theme is picked up by the neighbouring piece, Gen-Himmel (Heavenward), by the 20-year-old German painter Philip Mueller. It depicts a barefoot, blue-shirted hipster riding a giant green grouper through a futuristic purple city. Gilbert and George look on in amazement, which is a nice touch; the teenage impulse to shock the bourgeoisie certainly becomes much more endearing when the latter are represented by England's most venerable provocateurs.
Since we've trespassed into the realm of landscape, a couple of emerging Middle Eastern artists deserve special mention. The Iranian painter Farzan Sadjadi is represented by two pieces in his Parodies of War series: scenes of Goya-esque atrocity swallowed up in roiling smoke and lit by foul suns. In one, a horse lies speared on its back in the bloody mire. Its legs waggle in the air like an upturned beetle, a touch of humour so black it took the title of the work to alert me to it.
More enigmatic are the desert vistas of Alireza Massoumi. These manage to marry the meaty, flayed look of Philip Guston's expressionist canvasses to a sort of bande-desinee Old West: lonesome prairies such as you might find Lucky Luke cantering through. Except, of course, we're in the East. In Untitled (K** Parastaan) a low building nestles in the lee of a hillock, tucked away almost out of sight. All the mystery, menace and fun of the scene crackle around its copper-green roof.
Suspense-filled vacancy is the watchword, too, in Remote Viewer, by the Portuguese painter Gil Heitor Cortesao. We find ourselves looking out over the empty auditorium of a mouldering theatre, by implication onstage yet unobserved. Indeed, perhaps we aren't there at all; the title alludes to CIA experiments in telepathic visualisation. The whole scene is placed at a further remove by a screen of Plexiglas. The viewer's reflection becomes the sole ghostly presence.
Theatricality unites a few of the other pieces in the show, too. Drama Queen, by the Mexican painter Alessa Estaban, shows a podgy, cherubic girl-woman throwing a tantrum on the floor; strings of Swarovski crystal tears dangle from her enormous eyes, a cloying touch of fairy tale whimsy that heightens the sense of manipulation: the girl is playing us. The painter Katherine Bernhardt has a new piece called Tinkerbell, an anxious female face picked out in great dripping slashes of acrylic. Parted fuchsia lips shine out of the dingy chaos: an expression at once seductive and tragic. And Bernhard Buhmann's Rope actually seems to be set backstage during a variety performance of some kind. A blandly handsome cavalryman cradles a fainting woman, hand-mirror slipping through her fingers, while a midget toys with a loop of cord and looks solemnly on. This is narrative painting in the high-kitsch mode - even the brushwork has the haphazard look of a stage backdrop - but that only makes trying to puzzle out the scenario more of a guilty pleasure.
It speaks to the diversity of the show that many of its pieces fall outside even these loose trends. Along with much else there are a couple of rather desultory sculptures by Mathias Garnitschnig and Florian Haefele - not bad work, by any means, but distant outliers within the exhibition. Poor Garnitschnig's chrome cast of a plastic bag is actually stuck all the way out in the lonely lobby; one scarcely registers it as a piece of art. "Theory later", goes the slogan. Here's hoping it arrives in time for the gallery's next group exhibition. For now though, this gallimaufry of contemporary styles provides more than enough to think about.
Sneak Preview, until Jan 15, Dubai Marina, Marina View Towers, Ground Floor (50 464 43 92).