One has grown so used to the idea of young artists being revolutionary that it comes as something of a surprise to find that most of them are quite conventional in their concerns with craft and their ambitions to become professional. And why not?
The 2012 Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition at the ICA of work by the latest crop of graduates from art college is not an explosion of raw emotion. It’s rather conservative, in fact. The annual parade of young talent has been going since 1949. It has produced so many young artists who have gone on to make a success of their careers – Damien Hirst, David Hockney, Mark Wallinger and RB Kitaj to name but a few – that it is tempting to view it as a sporting event in which you can pick out the winners for the future.
Maybe some can, although there is a case that artists, like writers, should be paid not to publish or display their first works. Talent certainly shows in the arts at a young age. But there is really no reason why you should find your voice in your early twenties. It’s a 20th-century assumption that creativity comes before the craft rather than the other way round. Nobody in previous centuries would have signed up to that.
There are a handful of artists on show here – Max Ruf, George Little, Simon Senn and Tara Langford for example – whom one might pick out as particularly strong. But the most striking feature of this year’s show is the overall consistency and quality of the work. Whether it’s in a video of the artist clenching her fist for a fight (Anita Delany), or silicone pressed onto canvas (Jack Brindley) or steel, clam shells and a tea towel used to represent spaghetti alle vongole by Lauren Godfrey, little explanation is needed and none offered. These artists know what point they’re making and how to effect it.
Colour is back, one is glad to say, saturating the videos and photographic works as much as the canvases. Digital has made photography into a form of painting, as malleable and expressive as paint. But then painting itself to seems to have come back into fashion. Whether because of the preferences of the judges, working artists themselves, or the mood of our times, most of the works on display are two dimensional and concerned with materials whether it be oil, grout, silicone, solvent or collage.
All three of the judges were women, which may (or may not) help to explain the equal gender balance among the 29 artists selected. It may also (or may not) help to account for the fact that the majority of artists are concerned with the personal rather than public.
Of them all, only Simon Senn, a Swiss artist with a Masters at Goldsmiths, makes a really firm comment on society rather than on himself. His HD video Meadowlands Zone is set in the Soweto township in South Africa. A storyline is established in which young men are induced by the offer of a cash prize to participate in a competition to find the youth best able to express his anger and demands in a 20-second take to be filmed against the townships hostels. You follow them being chosen by a forceful fixer figure, reacting to the set-up, gearing themselves up for the show, discussing whether the prize should be shared. It’s a penetrating study in the views we on the outside impose on the deprived youth and their uncertain feelings of how they should perform for the money. We want them to be furious. They just want some money.
As sophisticated and as pointed is a pair of screenprints by Tara Langford, Circuit Reading 1 – It Happened to me Once in this Way in which the classical figure of a women is set against an athletic figure of a man on the left. The two are mirror images in their composition with superimposed words explaining multi-stable perception and cubes. It’s certainly intellectual and demanding, and yet it works.
The exhibition, spaciously arranged and lighted by the ICA, shows how easily photography, still or moving, still dominates figurative art. In Bryan Dooley’s photo solvent prints of athletes, The Last Self-Help Book, and Trak Star II and in Anita Delaney’s moving video of herself with fists raised, head covered and limbs scrawny, Untitled (Ready for a Fight), the digital image has a clarity and realism that painting struggles to match.
Two artists who do so are the Londoner George Little and the German Max Ruf. Little’s installation, Entrance to the Restaurant, is a powerful statement of place and time, the work going round the corner of a wall, the black/brown background embedded with the whisps and welts of food’s detritus. Ruf’s large painting , Untitled, is of toner pigments on linen in a seething complex of blue, brown and black. No German, it seems, can escape the influence of Gerhard Richter, but then the strongest presence in this exhibition is that of the late Cy Twombly. His swirls, his courage with colour and his readiness to mix words with the abstract are apparent in half a dozen of the artists.
Other works are less emphatic, using watercolour and mixed media to explore more personal concerns, whether wittily in Lauren Godfrey’s pursuit of her taste in Italian food or more neurotically in Nicola Frimpong’s watercolours of children or Jennifer Bailey’s jugs. You feel in all these works young artists well able to pursue a professional career if not to set the world on fire.
The selection of these artists is not necessarily wholly representative, let alone comprehensive. It leans heavily towards the London art schools, which introduces a certain homogeneity to the works. But one suspects that it is fairly reflective of the currents of the moment. Which makes it reassuring in terms of skill and application in these educationally questioning times and approachable for the gallery goer. What one misses is the anger you might expect from a generation that has every right to feel betrayed by its elders and fearful of its future. But then Simon Senn may be right: we have an idea of what the young ought to feel when what they really want is a better life.
Bloomberg New Contemporaries, ICA, London SW1 (020 7930 3647) to 13 January