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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital