Leading artist stages protest at the 'destabilising' power of Saatchi

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The Independent Online
A PROMINENT British artist has completed a work of personal protest against what he calls the "pernicious" influence of Charles Saatchi, the country's foremost collector of modern art.

John Keane, who was appointed by the Imperial War Museum as official war artist in the Gulf, even invokes the power of voodoo ritual to make his point. The sheer buying power of Mr Saatchi's gallery, and its owner's astute use of the media and self promotion, have led to a modern art establishment that gives a far too narrow view of the work by current artists, says Mr Keane.

The touring Sensation exhibition, which features the likes of Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili from the Saatchi collection, recently caused legal wrangles between the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the mayor of New York, who wanted to ban the show. Amid arguments of free expression on one side and sacrilege on the other, one accusation set flying was that the museum board had been involved in promoting the value of Mr Saatchi's art works.

Mr Keane's new work is a series of 12 canvases showing Mr Saatchi blinking, and will join similar portrayals of Rupert Murdoch and Diana, Princess of Wales in an exhibition under the working title of Making a Killing, to open in March. "I have likened Charles Saatchi to the George Soros of the art market," says Mr Keane. "He does exert such enormous buying power, that in the same way that Soros can destabilise economies, I think Saatchi has that kind of disproportionate effect on the world of contemporary art. This influence has loaded the whole public perception of art very much into one rather narrow area."

By focusing on such powerful individuals, the aim is to wrest back a bit of control. "It's a sort of voodoo deal, where you make an image of your demon," says Mr Keane. Portraying these figures blinking shows them in a vulnerable light, with the closed eyes even carrying connotations of death.

A play on "blinking", with its use as a mild swear word, is also supposed to evoke a feeling of frustration, particularly in reference to Mr Saatchi. "Without wanting to sound resentful or full of sour grapes, it can be dispiriting for people who are not within the favoured coterie," says Mr Keane.

The wider project came out of paintings he did of Mr Murdoch. His efforts redoubled after he discovered Mr Murdoch had bought one of his early portraits.

Mr Keane said he was "flabbergasted" by that purchase. But the same thing will not happen in the case of Mr Saatchi, who was not available for comment yesterday.

Mr Keane's agent has been given specific instructions in the event of the Saatchi Gallery wanting to buy any of his work. He said: "I have told him: just say two words, and the second one is 'off'."

n Hot on the heels of the fuss over her unmade bed at the Tate, bad girl Tracey Emin is at the centre of a new art row, writes Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles. A Detroit museum has abruptly shut down a show that included a video of the artist in a menstruation ritual, to the consternation of patrons and organisers.

The religiously and sexually provocative modern art show, which also included a baby Jesus doll wearing a condom in a bathtub, was to open over the weekend at the Detroit Institute of Arts. But the museum's director Graham Beal, who took over seven weeks ago, decided to withhold it from the public. Museum-goers who turned up over the weekend found the exhibition rooms padlocked.

"It's a slap in the face, it's censorship," said Jef Bourgeau, the show's curator, who spent two years developing his series of retrospectives of 20th-century art.

The centrepiece was to have been a vial of the urine used to immerse a crucifix in a notorious photo session by the artist Andres Serrano.

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