Visual Art: The trouble with Saatchi

He created an art movement. He built a gallery. He made the visual arts a talking point. But as Charles Saatchi's new exhibition reveals, he's overly fond of the brash, the violent and the twisted. And heaven help any artists over 30. By Tom Lubbock
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The Independent Culture
Justice to Saatchi. He's bought and shown (and sold again) some good art from time to time. He's built a fine gallery, the whitest walls in town, which can make even the most hopeless piece look briefly plausible. And he has half-created, and sustained, a whole art movement - and accidentally named it too.

The Young British Artists, of course. When that Nineties phenomenon finally found its coolly neutral label, it derived from the (merely descriptive) title of a series of six shows at the Saatchi Gallery. It wasn't a purely Saatchi project; there were artists in the movement who were never in those shows, and vice versa. But it wouldn't have happened without him.

Of course, there's a problem too. Saatchi's influence on British art has been a very mixed blessing. He's put the stress on youth so much that artists can feel washed up if they're not famous by 30, and that's absurd. And while his tastes are broad, he obviously has his particular penchants. Understandably, he likes art which is like adverts. He also likes art which is violent, crass, yukky and pervy. So maybe some artists, trying to turn themselves into a Saatchi type, have become worse than they might. Unquestionably some bad artists have got more famous than they should. I think the artist-bursaries he's initiating will be a dubious benefit. But none of this touches the real problem.

The problem with Saatchi is simple, and no fault of his: he's the only one. If there were a few other British collectors, equally rich, equally keen, equally confident, equally ambitious for their fame, and pursuing their own lines, the situation would be very different. The art world, like others, is a world where money and enterprise speak. What it lacks is competition. In this country, there's only one big art voice speaking.

Therefore, Saatchi is king. He's a king in the old style, credited with a magic eye and a Midas touch. What artist doesn't dream secretly, or openly, of his favour? What art institution dare stand aside from the general superstition that where Saatchi moves, the age must follow? What visitor to his gallery can resist the aura of force majeure that bathes any work displayed there? It may not always seem much good, but no matter, it is surely the great happening thing. And, with all this, it's quite hard, but quite important, to remember another simple point: that Saatchi has bought, and continues to buy, some real dogs.

Now he's just invented a new art phenomenon. With "Sensation", the Young British Artist rubric had done its job. Time to re-brand. Time for some more active-history management. So a new series of shows are in the offing, explicitly packaged as a movement - an art movement that on this occasion (by a happy chance) consists entirely of artists recently purchased by Saatchi, 30-odd of them. And a name? Last year a glossy catalogue was issued, entitled The New Neurotic Realism. But this year - because no longer new? - it's just called Neurotic Realism.

When I first heard it, I thought of a curious artist who, years ago, used to send lengthy Roneo-d communications to arts journalists, announcing that he had, in his time, invented no less than 119 separate art movements, and why wasn't he more famous? There was a list of the movements, which I've lost, but they were often devised on a straight combinatory principle - inspired by Abstract Expressionism, presumably. So you'd have Abstract Surrealism, and Cubist Impressionism, and Pointillist Mannerism. Neurotic Realism sounded like it might have come from the same mind.

But it would be futile to ponder the "thought" behind this, or to worry about whether the artists so grouped have anything in common. I daresay they themselves find it an irksome label. Perhaps it's meant as annoying or silly, simply a talking point - and, you notice, I've been talking.

So now there's the first batch on show at the Gallery: Neurotic Realism Part 1. And it's a measure of the wonderful power of Saatchi's name that the exhibition has a sponsor. Please savour that astonishing fact for a moment. Here is a private collector, showing work from his own private collection, in his own private gallery - and some other business is paying him; paying him in cash or kind, so that... well, for the usual motive of publicity by association, but here without even the flimsiest pretext of the public good. It's like sponsoring Barclays Bank. The sponsor in question is what we in the press call "Another Newspaper".

Good heavens, I'm in no position to be high-minded. Look what I'm doing myself. I mean, I wouldn't normally devote a main art review to a group exhibition of five, so modestly gifted artists. And in any other gallery, I wouldn't be obliged to. But at the name of Saatchi, every ear shall bend, and tongue wag. Still, let's try at least to keep our witness true.

This is a proper dog show. The main reason it doesn't look immediately ignorable is that, in some parts, it's also physically enormous. For example, the entire space of the main gallery, a lot of square-footage, is covered in rubbish.

Tomoko Takahashi's installation is a late addition to that popular genre, a whole-lot-of-the-same-kind-of-thing-all-over-the-floor. In this case it's miscellaneous junk, huge quantities of it, arranged in an archipelago of tableaux-dumps, and in each dump there's an electric gadget, like a TV or a tape recorder or an adding machine, still working away, but pointlessly (nothing on the TV, no tape in the recorder). It seemed likely that a single, absolutely enormous pile would be more effective. But it would still be a techno-dystopian vision of our culture of consumption and waste - and that won't do, will it?

Martin Maloney's paintings are also extremely big, and might - in different hands - be up to something. The naive, the dumb, the cack-handed, these are modes that some painters, like early Hockney or early Baselitz, have made good with, and others have at least made funny. Not here. Crude manner is matched by crude imagery: gay night life, with rimming, felching and arse-burglary. It's art that has "rude stuff for rich mugs" written all over it.

Paul Smith's photos are Cindy Sherman plus digital manipulation. Something that looks like a photo-document of a lads' drunken night out turns out to be a fiction with all the parts played by the artist. The work is vaguely knowing about masculine oafishness and social-realist photography. To be interesting, it would have to be much funnier.

Steven Gontarski's sculptures - obscene, mutant humanoid figures, made from transparent PVC stuffed with nylon wool, hey ho - were what specifically reminded me that the Saatchi Gallery can make even the most hopeless pieces look briefly plausible. And I have temporarily forgotten what the fifth thing was. Oh yes: a kind of Nasa control room, life-size, made Blue Peter- style, out of cardboard, with the instruments, knobs, dials etc represented - at first glance, deceptively - by bottle tops, paper plates, dog-bowls, hosepipes, plastic drainers and laundry baskets: quite amusing for a moment. By Brian C Griffiths.

Later Neurotic Realist shows may be a bit better. As for the present one, it's not really worth having a view about. And perhaps that's the hardest point to take, because it's where the Saatchi spell has its strongest hold: in the thought that, like it or loathe it, you've got to have a view. But you don't. This show at the Saatchi Gallery - let alone this "art movement" - is among the many millions of things in the world you don't need to think about at all.

Neurotic Realism Part 1: Saatchi Gallery, 98A Boundary Road, London NW8; open Thursday-Sunday, noon-6pm, until 4 April; admission pounds 4 (concs pounds 2)