Exhibitions: Look hard at the photo below...

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The Independent Culture
Neurotic Realism

Saatchi Gallery, NW8

As one would expect, exhibitions in the Saatchi Gallery are enjoyable and interesting in many of the ways that advertising is interesting. They don't move you or last in the mind, but they are smart, well presented and just a little in front of the game. Charles Saatchi generates a lot of publicity, yet never says anything much to illuminate the motives for his operations in the field of new art. This is probably an ad-man's instinctive feeling for image rather than meaning. I don't wonder about his reclusive personality very much, but here's a question. Why don't we see more photography when he shows off his purchases?

One might have thought that camerawork would be a natural interest for a man whose fortune comes from glossy presentations. Apparently not. Anyway, the best work in the Saatchi Gallery's new show is photography by Paul Smith, who has a couple of dozen self-portraits as a lager lout, as a drug-taker, and as a soldier. He was indeed a soldier, and saw some action in the Gulf War. Smith has something to say, and although these are not pleasant pictures one shouldn't call them "neurotic."

This also applies to the other four contributors to the exhibition. Saatchi identifies them as belonging to a tendency he calls " New ," the title of the show and an accompanying book. The publication reproduces the work of other youngish artists who will be seen in the vast gallery spaces of Boundary Road later this year. Far from being neurotic, however, they appear confident, successful, inventive and more or less happy, just as "creative" people in the advertising industry usually are. The idea that they are contributing to some kind of new artistic movement is way off the mark.

I wrote about Brian Griffiths's sculpture when he appeared in a rather jolly "New Contemporaries" exhibition two years ago. He hasn't advanced very far in the meantime, so his work still looks like that of an art student. His sculptures are made out of a variety of materials, but are mainly composed from cardboard boxes held together with sticky tape. They mimic the control panels you find in television studios, flight decks or other hi-tech places. Griffiths has recently been trying to expand his method, tending towards big installations, and this is what we find in the back room of the gallery. It doesn't quite work, probably because the installation is too flat and pinned against the wall. In other words, it's not sculptural enough.

The large central room is occupied by Tomoko Takahashi, who was born in Tokyo and lives and works in London. She has devised an installation that is both grandiose and banal. It's made out of rubbish, vast amounts of rubbish, as though the artist had spent her adult life searching through skips. There are literally thousands of different bits of junk on the floor. The result is quite impressive. Takahashi has obviously been thinking about the end of the world and the detritus of civilisation. At the same time Line-Out has its playful aspects, and the accumulation of trash is neatly contrived.

On the floor there have been painted various markers or tracks, giving the impression that the artist began her activity by having some overall design. However, the paths one has to take while walking through the installation do not correspond with these tracks. The suggestion is that the world of rubbish has swamped and obliterated the rational activities of mankind. There are lots of connotations of landscape in the piece, particularly since it's so big and spreads in different directions. There are also obvious hints about the passage of time, and the end of time, for Takahashi has amassed a comprehensive collection of broken clocks.

One aspect of the piece seems to me to be a failure. Above our heads is a network of cables, in random-looking loops. These cables are obviously without a worldly function, but they don't have an artistic function either. The stuff on the floor has no relation to the loops in the air. You get the feeling that the artist only knows what she's doing when she's on the ground. And this must be literally so, for the work could not have come about if Takahashi had not made it by hours of crawling on her hands and knees.

Steven Gontarski's disappointing sculptures have a smooth and novel-looking way with materials. He uses pvc and often incorporates bits of synthetic hair into his variations on the human form. However, in sculpture it's the form that counts, and he doesn't make convincing volumes. Imagine his work without the sheen of pvc, and it would look very weak. Gontarski ought to make more use of the perspex plinths that accompany just two of his pieces. Furthermore, all his figures would be better if they were cased in perspex. Then they would become more artificial - and artificiality, not human reality, seems to be his goal.

Martin Maloney has a reputation at the moment as the inventive curator of fast-moving shows. His own work attempts the difficult task - impossible, some might say - of presenting pseudo-naive paintings when you're a grown up person addressing other grown ups. His canvases, which are mostly very large, have homosexual themes. They are blatant, both in subject matter and in manner. But these pictures lack character. At 37, Maloney is the oldest artist in the show, and at an age when most painters realise that there is little future in pretending to be boyish.

Maloney, we suspect, adds lots of fantasy to the circumstances of his own life. So also with the photos by Paul Smith. With technological trickery, he makes every person in his pictures into his own self-portrait. So here are three drunk youths, and they are all Smith. Or a group of soldiers, and they are Smith again. Perhaps he owes something to the ironic self- dramatisations of Cindy Sherman. But she's wistful in comparison. Smith lives in the brutal here-and-now world of military action and tabloid newspapers. And his photographs are so carefully contrived that he gives an ironic aestheticism to his view of that world. I hope he stays an art photographer and doesn't get a job in advertising.

'': Saatchi Gallery, NW8 (0171 624 8299), to 4 April.

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