Additions to the Saatchi Gallery suggest that there's life in young British art yet.
Charles Saatchi’s exhibition of work by young artists at his County Hall gallery, New Blood, shows that he has lost none of his ability to spark controversy. Saatchi’s Young British Artists hit the headlines with Marcus Harvey’s portrait of Myra Hindley composed of children’s handprints, and Chris Ofili’s picture of the Virgin Mary made out of elephant dung. For New Blood it has been Stella Vine’s portraits of Princess Diana, and of the student Rachel Whitear, who died of a heroin overdose – the paint drips down the canvas like blood, or a melting mask.
There is something repetitive about the way in which Saatchi exhibitions are received by critics. In fact, each one is an attempt at reinvention, necessary because of the short shelf-life of many of the works of art he exhibits, and the business-like need to stay ahead of the game. These attempts at renewal have had mixed success. Saatchi’s 1999 announcement of a group of British sculptors called the NRs (New Neurotic Realists) never quite caught on; the category bemused more than anything else. More productive has been the high-profile relocation in 2003 from the white walls at St John’s Wood to the wooden-panelled rooms of County Hall.
Saatchi’s role in the art world has always been that of tastemaker as well as patron. One half of the advertising company, Saatchi and Saatchi, Charles originally bought artworks to fill the empty spaces in his offices, before eventually opening his gallery in 1985. A major source of his collection has been the students at Goldsmiths College, London, who received commissions from him even before graduating. The rest, in the case of Emin, Hirst or Lucas, is history. In New Blood, Saatchi’s field of vision has expanded well beyond London, showing work from Europe, Japan and South America.
In the same way that County Hall’s layout prevents a coherent viewing experience – the small rooms, the two long corridors that don’t connect, the dispersal of artists’ works – so too the works on display defy any collective identity. New Blood may suggest a unity or bond between these artists, but they are connected by little apart from Saatchi’s taste.
The works in a Saatchi exhibition demand your attention, though not your contemplation – indeed, their very point (and their success rests on this) is to be memorable at a glance. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ‘Family Collection’, a darkened room of primitive figures and masks clutching McDonald’s cartons, isn’t meant for thoughtful engagement. The point is in the neo-imperialist gag.
Patricia Ellis’ written accompaniments to the pieces add to a sense of contempt towards gallery-goers. On dark scraps of paper blu-tacked to the walls, these read like overheard gallery talk, speculating pretentiously about deep meanings. Ellis’ label for ‘Within’ by Luc Tuymans, of a grey fence set against a black background, informs us that the artist is ‘a master of understatement’. A baffling tautology that sounds like a rebuke to anyone who might be silly enough to consider what the art means.
The excesses of neon light from Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Ben Mayman’s skeletal sculptures, Francis Upritchard’s moaning mummy – most of these pieces are about quick-fix ideas that disintegrate with too much thought. Nevertheless, among the clutter of New Blood exhibits some works reflected a stronger engagement with art history that wasn’t evident in the crass visual challenges of Sarah Lucas or the personalised beds and tents of Tracey Emin.
Matt Collishaw’s photograph ‘Burning Flowers’ is a romantic ode to still lives and majestic frames. Meanwhile, his mosaics (a material that was originally used to immortalise gods and martyrs) show lynchings and the Twin Towers – and from afar are reminiscent of pixilated digital photographs. Muntean and Rosenblum inscribe the apathy of today’s modern life on the Pop Art canvas (the art movement that had triumphantly announced the arrival of consumerism in the 1950s and 60s).
Another current exhibition of British artists is hidden away in the back room at the top of the East End’s Whitechapel Gallery. ‘Edge of the Real’ provides an opportunity to view art without Charles Saatchi as mediator, and the encounter is markedly different. In many of the works the revelation is in the detail – the meaning only becomes apparent with a closer look, and the craft involved is an important part of the final work. The scenes depicted at the Whitechapel are visions rather than images, dream-like but with recognisable forms: a house, a wood, the bold cuboid shapes of a hi-fi system.
Evidently there are artists working today who are struggling to understand the world around them, and suggest new ways of seeing and other possible futures. There were flashes of this search at County Hall, which managed to shine through Saatchi’s ad-man lens. Like Duane Hanson’s super-realist sculptures in the corridors of the Saatchi collection – the tourists, the hunched figure in the sleeping bag, the cleaner – such encounters are off-putting, they break with convention. Thinking the figures and the visions are real you try to comprehend them on already established terms, to speak to them even – then the possibility is snatched away. But still, they are a nudge, a suggestion of human life.
Emilie Bickerton is the editorial assistant at the New Left Review.