No laughing matter

EXHIBITIONS The first four artists in the Saatchi's 'Young Americans' may well be youthful, but they are overly preoccupied with death and futility. Meanwhile in Frith Street, a modest Italian takes to the trees
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LOOKING at art is generally a serious business, so for a diversion I quite like going to the Saatchi Gallery. There one can be sure to find lightweight work, often in great quantity. The latest display is called "Young Americans". There are in all eight of them, but only four are showing at the moment (the next part of the exhibition opens 27 Mar). Nothing is particularly good, but that isn't my main complaint. I thought it wasn't lightweight enough. Seriousness kept creeping in.

Here's Janine Antoni, for instance, who exhibits a 600lb block of chocolate and a 600lb block of lard - or at least that was the original weight of the materials before she started licking and chewing them in order to reduce their rectangular forms. The spectator can see that someone's been eating away, but why didn't Antoni put her activities on a video? That might have enlivened the work. Instead it's rather dull, with a tendency toward the solemn. One often wishes that Saatchi would buy artists with more of a sense of humour. Perhaps, however, they don't exist.

The last American in the Saatchi Gallery to make one laugh was Jeff Koons, who must now count as a middle-aged master, having been born in 1955. Both Antoni (born 1964) and Sean Landers (born 1962) derive ideas from Koons, but they lack his sublime zaniness and super-accurate eye for kitsch. Antoni has devised a big display cabinet reminiscent of those expensive booths you find in airport shops. On its shelves she has placed heart- shaped packages that - we have to be told this - are made from chocolate bitten from her other sculpture. Also in the cabinet are lipsticks. They are made from chewed lard, though obviously a scarlet colouring agent must have been added.

All this is par for the course these days, and so I fear is the portentousness. Apparently the artist of Gnaw believes her work is a new form of Catholic ritual and fur- thermore that the chocolate and lard represents male and female or paternal and maternal principals. One asks why there is a new wave of artists who all make such claims. The metaphysical explanations don't fit the ephemeral nature of the art. Surely it would be cool- er to look toward comedy rather than tragedy, especially since we know that tragedy is for mature artists?

Alas, mock tragedy has taken its hold. All the presentational art of the last few years - with its stage sets, videos, sound loops, scattered bits and pieces, lighting effects - has been made by young people who, time and again, are concerned with death. Fear of Aids is an obvious reason. At the same time, everyone who wants to make a success in the art world is constantly pressured to be novel, dramatic and controversial. Hence the curious feeling that one often has at the Saatchi, of art that's all dressed up with nowhere to go, and with an underlying message of sadness and futility.

As for instance with Sean Landers. He has too little of the comedian in his character. One video shows him with his clothes on and off. It's called Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture (Landers is a Yale graduate); you quickly realise that he's mimicking, with sexual overtones, the poses of classical statuary. This is not really very striking, nor original. Landers also contributes a sculpture of two monkeys, rather Koons-ish but not so sharp, and a series of big pieces of linen on which he has written the deliberately empty-headed thoughts of a would-be artist who's a dope. These are quite enjoyable at first, but the effect soon wears off.

Landers says that he's trying to portray emptiness of mind and that "what we all normally spend our day with are utterly banal thoughts''. He owes as much to Warhol as to Yale, and this is true of many people who have recently come out of American art schools. I do think that British artists born in the Sixties have more wit and style than their American counterparts. Certainly most of them can do better than the thoroughly unsatisfactory sculpture by Charles Long. But the Americans often have the edge in professionalism and presentation, even when they are engaged in something both trite and dingy.

This is so of Gregory Green's fantasies about a terrorist bomb-maker. Near the entrance to the gallery is an unexplained, old-fashioned suitcase. Further into the show there's a room that's supposed to be the killer's bomb factory. Here are more suitcases, open, and their contents are deadly. Green's merit is in the steely craftsmanship with which his bombs are fashioned. Similarly with the contents of the terrorist's daily or nightly life. Green resembles the American Cady Noland, who also strews things around in a more precise manner than one at first imagines. But he's self- indulgent and derivative. His room is not more gripping than those made by Ed Kienholz 30 years ago.

At the Frith Street Gallery are some modest, ruminative pieces by the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone. The large sculpture in the front room doesn't work, mainly because it is too regular, is of wax and steel, and is too far away from Penone's best subjects, trees and himself. There are some sweet little drawings and a larger, more demanding one in eye- liner. It seems to be of Penone's eye. He has also drawn his fingerprints, and the sheet wobbles under a layer of water. One beautiful little tree- trunk is of glass. A real tree has been brought into the gallery. In its branches is a photograph, again of Penone's eyes. The idea is that it will flower before the show is over, characteristic of the artist's pleasant inconsequentiality.

! 'Young Americans I': Saatchi Gallery, NW8 (0171 624 8299), to 3 Mar. Giuseppe Penone: Frith Street Gallery, W1 (0171 494 1550), to 16 Mar.