Baddies with brushes

Has the pile-of-bricks, dead-shark aesthetic led to a naive backlash? Or have artists just forgotten how to paint, asks John Windsor
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The Independent Culture
Charles Saatchi, adman and art-market taste-maker, is collecting bad painting. What else, one might ask, is new? In London and New York, commercial galleries are also stocking up with bad painting. So is the Arts Council. And there is bad painting - or Bad Painting, if you choose to give it the status of a genre - on show now at the Hayward Gallery and next month at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford.

In the cafe at Habitat, on London's King's Road, fashionable young homemakers are dwarfed by a dozen cack-handed portraits in garish colours, the paint laid on with scrubby, amateurish strokes. The faces have misshapen noses, gashes for mouths and eyes crossed in manic stares. They are both banal and unsettling.

At first, Bad Painting such as this looks like some sort of mockery - especially as Martin Maloney, the 35-year-old Goldsmiths College graduate who is asking pounds 750 to pounds 1,250 each for them, says their awkwardness deliberately resembles adult-education-class art. A tasteless dig at working-class emanci-pation, perhaps?

Apparently not. The good news is that Bad Painting - should you consent to take it seriously - signals a revolt against Minimal-Conceptualism, the pile-of-bricks and dead-shark aesthetic that has dominated the teaching in various art schools, notably Goldsmiths, since the Seventies.

New York Minimalists in the late Sixties declared painting dead. Now it is back - and this time, it's personal. Self-revelation, emotion, gesture, all the subjective aspects of Expressionism that the Min-Con movement sought to purge, are being compulsively slapped on to the canvas. Never mind if the colours run or the subject matter is cheesy. It's queer, it's here. It's painting with a vengeance.

According to Maloney: "It's a reaction against the austerity, grandeur and sheer slickness of the Eighties, a return to making art rather than just re-presenting found objects. In the Eighties art was not supposed to be personal; artists were supposed to be conceptualisers, philosophers. Everything got bogged down in that cleverness.

"Bad Painting is not a mockery, it's a celebration. It is saying: 'The neck may be too long and the lips half-way up the face, but this is the best I can do and I hope you like it.' It is asking the viewer to be sympathetic, attempting to engage the emotions.

"In the past, radicalism meant cutting yourself off from art history. But this is a reconnection with traditional painting and traditional subject- matter. The most radical thing an artist can do today is paint. After all, all the other options have been taken up."

The London gallerist Victoria Miro, who shows Bad Artists, says: "It's infinitely pleasing to see the real hand and eye of the artist again. We've been deprived of it for so long. Thank goodness Bacon and Freud kept going."

And Emma Dexter, director of exhibitions at the gallery at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which has shown most American and British Bad Art in London, says of the 34-year-old American Bad Artist John Currin: "What suddenly struck me when looking at some of his paintings was that I had not seen paintings of heterosexual couples in years. That sort of thing seems to have been suppressed."

Like other Bad Artists, Currin insists that the artist, rather than art theory, should once again take centre stage. He says: "Picasso's Cubism was perverse when he first did it. People justify it by talking about looking at an object from three sides and so on, but it always seemed to me much more about seeing the arse and the breast at the same time. That's basically what Picasso used it for, and even after he gave up Cubism, he still drew the arse crack, the pussy and the breast on the front."

Charles Saatchi bought eight Bad paintings from the group show Die Yuppie Scum, curated by Maloney, at the cutting-edge gallery Karsten Schubert Contemporary Art in London in May. Schubert had seen the artists' work last year at another exhibition, Multiple Orgasm, curated by Maloney at his modest home-cum-gallery in Stockwell, south London.

Among Saatchi's finds: Maloney's truly awful yellow bowl of two purple hyacinths with the blooms cut off to fit the canvas (catalogued at pounds 950) and a series of five identical still lifes by Andrew Grassie in amateur, have-a-go style, of a toy windmill and wooden blocks, listed at pounds 2,500. This year, Saatchi bought from the established Welsh painter James Rielly an installation of 40 small canvases hung in slipshod fashion showing naive, family-snapshot-style portraits, titled Random Acts of Kindness. And he has five paintings by 32-year-old Goldsmiths graduate Liz Arnold who paints disturbing private worlds - such as The Lovebite, showing a humanoid fried- chicken leg with a bite taken out of it - in a style somewhere between nursery book and horror comic. Her prices: pounds 1,800 to pounds 2,000.

Saatchi and Maloney had a revelatory first meeting at the Schubert gallery, discovering that they had both visited a 1991 show of naff thrift-store and evening-class art mounted by the Californian "trash painter" Jim Shaw at New York's Metro Pictures gallery.

At Goldsmiths, Maloney became preoccupied with the work of Neil Jenney, a seminal American Bad painter of the late Sixties who made smeary, enigmatic pictures of just-happened events, such as a chain saw beside a sawn log. His tutors gave him an ultimatum: "Either learn to paint like Neil Jenney or give up." He stayed. Those awful pot-plants and portraits are the result.

Jenney's subversive figurations were no match for the slick new broom of Conceptualism. He resorted to meticulous but eerie "Good" painting. And the ruined reputation of the Big Daddy of Bad Art - the American Philip Guston, who coined the phrase - is only now being reassessed. Guston, a highly respected Abstract Expressionist, lurched into cartoonish Bad Art for reasons of conscience rather than aesthetics. In 1973, the year of Watergate and defeat in Vietnam, having loathed himself for "going into frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue", he painted the crude Painting, Smoking, Eating, showing himself as a fat, unshaven slob in bed with a plateful of sandwiches, puffing on a cigarette.

It is an amusing but uneasy picture, typical of the perplexity that characterises Bad Painting. We are unsure whether to laugh or cry at the painting - and equally unsure whether to laugh or cry at the artist's intentions.

"In my portraits," Maloney insists, straight-faced, "I was trying to make serious art." But Britain's own Big Daddy of Bad Art, Peter Doig - who does not count himself as a Bad Artist - cautions: "There are a lot of people out there making Bad Art on purpose, just as a matter of style. They say there's no irony in it, but it's almost a double irony to suggest that. Some of it is not only faux-naive but faux-sincere. Of course, there will always be those who make bad art because they can't help it."

Doig, a 37-year-old Briton brought up in Canada, is a John Moores first- prizewinner, a Turner Prize nominee and a Tate Gallery trustee who shows in New York and Germany as well as in London. He claims to have no followers but to have put his pupils - at Goldsmiths, the RCA, Chelsea College of Art and Design and Byam Shaw School of Art - on the track of the history of Bad Art.

His own paintings have little of the scratchy, untutored style that characterises Bad Painting, but they do epitomise the genre's perplexity and deep sense of alienation. People have difficulty relating to his banal, travel-posterish paintings of skiers. They hardly look like art - until you notice that a skier, contorted in mid-air half out of the top of the picture, is seconds away from multiple fractures and that the solitary knots of onlookers are not reacting.

When I visited him in his newly converted terraced studio-home, with its shiny, clanking metal stairs, near Spitalfields in London, a copy of the Canadian Nudist Yearbook for 1959 caught my eye. Its photograph, of a holiday cabin deeply reflected in a lake, under the heading The Pursuit of Happiness, is the subject of his three- by three-and-a-half-metre painting Camp Forestia. The cabin is dilapidated, the female nude in the foreground much smaller than scale, swallowed up by her surroundings. Everything in the painting is barren, motionless, full of foreboding. "They pursue happiness in that backwater," he remarked. Later that day, he telephoned to say that Canadian visitors to his studio had recognised the spot - and told him that a psychiatric hospital had been built on it.

A former pupil of his is 26-year-old Dawn Mellor, who graduated this year from the RCA. She paints obsessive, heavy-handed near-likenesses of film stars - as might a film fan at evening class. Bad enough - but some of the stars also display sado-masochistc open wounds and horrid anatomical abnormalities such as a homunculus growing from a breast. "The intention," she says, "is that via superficial humour, the work provokes anxiety by revealing the self's - that is, the fan's - fear of destruction by the star. The kitschiness, together with the badly painted image and the star's continuous smile, mocks the fan's projected pathologies." Saatchi has bought six in her ultra-kitschy Love Me, Love My Dog series of film stars with pet dogs.

Prices: around pounds 750.

Doig says: "Her work may look bad, but it goes beyond that: there's an incredible economy of means and direction that goes straight to the subject. A student in her class compared her to Picasso."

Mellor will be showing at the Miro gallery in April with fellow RCA graduate Chantal Joffe, 27, who paints tiny, comparably tacky and distorted portraits posed awkwardly as in family snapshots or soft-porn magazines. Saatchi has 17 of them. They sell for about pounds 400 each.

One is tempted to conclude from Mellor's and Joffe's paintings that figuration, having been dragged out of the time warp of art history, has ended up irrevocably twisted. The anxiety, pathology and alienation in them are precisely the dark forces that the Conceptual purists of the Sixties sought to exorcise. Did not Josef Albers, the ex-Bauhaus painter of geometric Op-art squares report to Harold Rosenberg in 1963 that "Angst is dead?" prompting the great American art critic to suggest: "Anxiety is no longer a reality in art, which is at last properly concerned with its own development. To mention anxiety is to arouse suspicion of nostalgia or of a vested interest in the past, if not of a reactionary reversion to the middle-class notion of genius suffering in a garret." Anxiety, he wrote, "was forced upon art as the experience that accompanies the rejection of shallow or fraudulent solutions".

An unwittingly prescient comment on Bad Art? Doig reports that today it is not anxiety, but "the sublime and spiritual things in abstract painting that are considered embarrassing to talk about. It is part of the reaction against the Conceptual."

Emma Dexter says: "In so-called Bad Art, people are allowed to be obsessive or quirky. It is not mocking or superior, it is autobiographical, informal in scale - anti-monumental, anti the Big Statement."

"This", says Victoria Miro, "is what seems to be important at the end of the Millennium. It has a very current feel. But people who want spiritual cool can't cope with it."

Those taking tea at Habitat amid Maloney's portraits appeared to be coping pretty well. Most of those I met bought art from time to time. Garvyn White, a clothes-shop manager from Notting Hill in his forties, said: "You're always drawn to new art, aren't you? I often visit the Serpentine Gallery. If I was given one of these portraits I'd confine it to a room I didn't use much, to maximise impact. I wouldn't put it in the garden - so you can interpret that as a compliment."

Karsten Schubert is phlegmatic about the prospects for Bad Art: "Every twentieth-century artist has tried to distance himself from the prevailing art of his day, but they soon become part of it again. Bad Art can be discussed only in that context."

Perhaps it is the successful Bad Artists who need to watch their anxiety levels. For some of them, alienation looms. Sean Landers, who works alongside John Currin in New York, produces artworks of handwritten screeds on exercise book paper. After his reputation-making show at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York in 1992, he wrote: "Last night I was an established artist saying 'Fuck you' to the loser artists. In a month I'm a sell-out trader. Now all the embittered whiners like myself are attacking me instead of Bickerton or Koons."

!Where to find Bad Painting. Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (01865 722733) - 'Absolut Vision', 10 November to 23 February; Hayward Gallery, London (0171 261 0127) - 'Ace!' Arts Council collection of new purchases, showing until 17 November, then touring Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham, Belfast; ICA (0171 930 0493); Boundary Gallery (Saatchi) (0171 624 1126). London commercial galleries: Karsten Schubert (0171 631 0031), Victoria Miro (0171 734 5082), Laure Genillard (0171 436 2300), Interim Art (0171 254 9607), Cubitt (0171 278 8226), Lotta Hammer (0171 636 2221), White Cube (0171 930 5373).

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