There are two titans in the world of contemporary art who are better known for their absence than their presence. One is the painter Lucian Freud, who has always been in the habit of leaving any room about five minutes before you arrive. The second is the voracious, Baghdad-born, art collector Charles Saatchi, who is said to swoop on the young artist at dawn or thereabouts, leaving the studio bare of all but its damp stains on the floor. The abiding evidence of his presence is the fat cheque. Neither of these men is particularly happy to be interviewed.
The closest we have ever come to a biography of Saatchi is a tiny book of quotations called My Name is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic, puffed up to look much more than it is, which was published at the end of last year. Much of this book consists of some of the quite testy answers that he has given to irritatingly simple-minded journalists over the years.
Question: "I know very little about contemporary art, but I have £1,000 to invest. What do you suggest?"
Saatchi: "Premium Bonds."
Freud, now in his 88th year, paints on. Is Saatchi, too, still a kingmaker and a shaper of new visual landscapes? Because once upon a time that seemed to be the case. Back in the mid-1980s he opened a gallery at a former paint factory in Boundary Road, North London, which was unlike any public gallery we had ever experienced in London. Its aircraft-hangar-like space of soaring white walls with a strange, mid-way kink to the space's flow – it felt like a blank canvas waiting to be smothered with marks – was an environment which seemed to welcome not so much the past as the sheer unpredictability of that which was to come: the wayward future of contemporary art as defined by Saatchi himself.
Saatchi showed classic international modern – Guston, Katz, Serra, Richter, Kiefer – beside the newest of the new in British art. For Saatchi, the new came to be defined as the YBAs (young British artists), whose work he collected in those years with such eagerness, and which would be shown in great quantity at The Royal Academy Sensation show in 1997.
After Boundary Road came Saatchi's relatively brief occupation of County Hall, the former home of the Greater London Council on the south bank of the Thames, which began in 2003 and ended, rather messily, in 2005. Saatchi was ordered out, it was alleged, for having violated the terms of his lease. He'd stuck art in places where it wasn't meant to go, and done too much lavish self-advertising on the outside of the building. Truth to tell, that rather over-hasty departure was a good thing for all concerned. County Hall was essentially an unwelcoming space for contemporary art. The smaller rooms were too fussy, too boxy, too drearily institutionalised – much of the space was overburdened by finicky architectural detail, including roll calls of once famous old councillors, and the corridors were grimly reminiscent of some dingy old boarding school where you never, got enough to eat, visually speaking.
But that change of venue from north London to the south bank of the Thames seemed to coincide with a change of attitude, and even a change of self-image. A major three-part show, hugely broad in scope and patchily successful in outcome, called The Triumph of Painting, marked a significant shift. Saatchi the collector began to change into Saatchi the curator, chronicler and charter of the nature of the modern. He began to transform himself into something grander and more ambitious than the breathless collector of old.
That transformation has continued. Saatchi, once the eager beaver, has become an institution, and nowhere is this change more apparent than in his new choice of building for the Saatchi Gallery itself. Is it entirely coincidental that the former home of the Territorial Army that he now occupies in Chelsea resembles the British Museum – just marvel at that ponderous, new-classical portico! – more than it resembles almost any other building in London? Does this change indicate that Saatchi may be losing his edge as a talent-spotter? The question hangs in the air, scrawled in pink neon.
Next month the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea will throw open its doors to the first part of a spanking new show called Newspeak, which promises to redefine the nature of young British art now, and perhaps to do all over again what the Sensation show did in 1997. Could that Orwellian title prove to be dangerously hubristic? Is it likely to explode in your face if you're not careful? Think of how the coining itself was used in the novel, first published back in the dreary days of 1949. In 1984, the word "newspeak" was defined, quite succinctly, as "the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year". When used by Saatchi, on the other hand, it is meant to suggest, quite tongue-in-cheek-ily, the polar opposite: that the various languages of British art are still expanding on all sides, nearly 15 years after the Sensation show brought the YBAs to national attention, and shook the Royal Academy, one of England's most fuddy-duddy institutions, to its core. Can this really be true? And, more to the point, does Saatchi's choice of art prove as much?
The show, which will open in London at the beginning of next month, had its first outing at the Hermitage in St Petersburg in October last year. The two-part London show will consist of many of the same works – with new additions. The man at the Hermitage who decided what was to go into their version of the show was Dimitri Ozerkov, that museum's recently appointed chief of the department of contemporary art. He chose a selection of hitherto unseen works from Saatchi's collections of young British art to give the Russian public an opportunity to judge the range and the quality of work being made over here now.
Not all these artists are particularly young, though the great majority of them are. Ged Quinn, for example, the strongest artist in the show, is in his forties. The show's title whisks us back to the days of totalitarianism, of course, with the double-speak of deception: two plus two equals five, that sort of thing. Yes, it seems to promise something dangerously edgy, politically charged, perhaps even promisingly offensive. That promise, alas, is not fulfilled. The title is a bit of damp-squibbery. This is not a show edgy with political art at all. In fact, and if anything, it is fairly easy on the eye, and politically unchallenging. There's almost nothing that would give the least offence to anyone, no blasphemy, no two-fingered salutes of any kind, no snarls in the direction of any political establishment. There is no equivalent whatsoever to some of the more memorable moments from Sensation: the Chapman Brothers' gruesome, three-dimensional recreation of Goya's famous etching from The Disasters of War, for example, or that image of Myra Hindley by Marcus Harvey. Or Ron Mueck's horribly small Dead Dad.
The show divided roughly into five thematic units – the pervasive influence of pop art; architecture and utopianism; the unconscious; images of nature; and revisiting the Old Masters. What is there that feels especially British about most of this art? Very little. Much of it felt, at the Hermitage, by and large, like an often fairly slick trans-national exercise, work which happened to have been made in the UK but which could just as easily have been fabricated in many other parts of the world.
This was not to say that there were not local references, paintings based on local scenes, nods in the direction of the history of British art. But these local references didn't make the show feel any more British. The examples could have been chosen from anywhere else in the world. There was a great deal of what you might call tiresome photoshopping in the show too, the layering of images from a multiplicity of sources in order to prove that the artist had travelled far, emotional and intellectually. It proved nothing of the kind, of course. It simply demonstrated that he or she happened to be adept with a mouse.
There are two artists whose works stood out from the rest, those of Ged Quinn and William Daniels. Quinn's best piece is a kind of Netherlands-ish still life which took us back in our minds to the 17th century. A fairly gritty-looking cake lays on a fluted platter, but the shape of the cake disturbs us. It looks more like a surprisingly familiar architectural model than a cake. And it is, indeed, the ghost of an architectural model. The cake's shape is that of Spandau prison – the title of the painting. The mood of the piece is understated, inveigling, disturbing.
William Daniels, on the other hand, has taken a portrait of the painter/poet William Blake, remade it in the crudest of materials – sticky tape and cardboard, for example – and then done a painting, in oils, of this newly made object. The finished portrait feels like a fractured homage to the past.
Back in 1997, Sensation felt like an anthology of aggressive responses, a collective lashing out, and this was true of the grungey YBAs in general, whose work emerged from the social wasteland of the Thatcher years. This show, on the other hand, taken as a whole, felt like pick-and-mix, pre-crash, globalised art, born of international prosperity, not really British – in so far as that means subject to profoundly local geographical or cultural influences of various kinds – at all.
So where do we go to find the best of the new? Not to anyone like Saatchi, I suspect. This show seemed to suggest that Saatchi is somewhat played out as a talent-spotter. So let's leave him to his international anthologising of the art of the world, the kind of thing that he has done relatively recently in such popular shows as: Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East or The Revolution Continues: New Art from China.
To find the best of the new, we do what Saatchi himself has always done, and visit the student shows for ourselves. But we must do more than that. We must reach as far as the places where Saatchi's green Rolls Royce never ventured, look out for the converted-garage spaces, the alternative venues. They are everywhere, announcing themselves on Facebook or Twitter, there to be sought out in a pop-up shop near you.
The talented Northern Irish painter Gemma Gallagher (an example of a real political artist), who graduated from Camberwell College of Art last summer, created one quite recently, a gallery for her own work and that of her friends, in an empty city-centre space in Belfast. It may not even be there by the time you read this. That is the nature of so much of the new. It is so provisional, so here-and-gone. And artists don't really belong to categories any more. They use paint, cardboard, glass, ceramic, animation, a digital camera. Then they use something else. The work of Annie Brooks, for example, a recent graduate in performance and visual art from of the University of Brighton, is a combination of puppetry, dance and mime.
You can also find some of the best of the new in the established galleries because good students are often talent-spotted even before they put on their final degree show. So look out for the work of the wonderfully exuberant Ryan Mosley (one artist who has been spotted by Saatchi), a non-stop play of grotesquerie. Mosley has just enjoyed his first solo show at the Alison Jacques Gallery.
Quite different in mood and manner is the magnificently sombre photography of Idris Khan, who shows at Victoria Miro. Or consider the work of the painter David Webb, who can make a painting out of something as fecklessly evanescent as a monarch butterfly, shown a few months ago at the Jerwood Space. How he can place it, with such poise and judgment, within its painterly environment is all so very simple, so beautifully judged and poised – just like a fecklessly evanescent butterfly, in fact.
This is young British art at its best, moving in all directions at once, too slippery to be easily categorisable, as eclectic and exciting as it comes. There is nothing that could be called a common agenda or a cohesive movement, no fist in the face, not even a gloved one. That may have to wait until the next political hate-figure comes skirling along, rousing the young to a state of naked fury.
Newspeak: British Art Now, Part I, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (Saatchi-gallery.co.uk) 2 June to 17 October
Ones to watch: the pick of saatchi's new crop
Daniels recreates images of the past in the stuff of arte povera – stick tape, cardboard – and then painstakingly paints his own recreations. The work is all about mistrusting the painted image. Nothing is a representation of the real. Every image is open to question; all versions of reality are open to re-examination and re-assemblage.
Quinn's paintings are artful, beautifully meticulous, neo-classical assemblages, incongruous juxtapositions of objects, landscapes, painterly mannerisms. A fantasy landscape seems imbued with the anachronistic spirit of Claude Lorrain. In one example, a cake's shape and general appearance are at odds with our idea of that yielding tasty thing which we generally get offered to eat. In Ged Quinn's hands this kind of subject looks too solid, too blockish...
Farmer makes tiny, fragile, almost evanescent sculptures. The insects in "Swarm", all hand-crafted, and the filaments by which they hang suspended, are almost too small to grasp or even just to perceive visually. When we get up close, they can exceed our most bizarre expectations.
Mosley (whose work will appear in the second part of the Saatchi show) is the free-ranging fantasist amongst younger British painters. His work (including "Here Lies the Artist", 2009, above) has a humour and exuberance which make him seem like the natural heir to an entire galaxy of remarkable talents, including Léger, Picasso and the entire Dada tradition. For all that, he is out on his own.
Macuga is an artist who is at play in variety of mediums. This time she has created a full-scale sculpture of Madame Blavatsky suspended between two chairs – a playfully apt way of evoking the character of a woman who dabbled in the spirit world.
Evans is into the grandiose, bathetic, pop-art, sculptural gesture. A giant black wave, fashioned from silicon carbide, glitters and glisters as it makes its curvaceous dying fall. About the floor are strewn fag-ends and beer cans.
Reigate makes over-excitable kid-ult variants of Pop-art painting. Their surfaces are a frenzy of mark-making – scribbles, splotches, blobby cartoon faces. Infantile psychedelia of this kind makes us laugh until we scream.
Baldock lampoons the tradition of the elevated classical portrait head. The work is crazily clownish in its choice of detail, the mood sexually anarchic, over-larded with weird decorative festoonings; the plinths are made from tacky wood-chip.
Holmwood reworks late 19th-century paintings in her fluorescent, Munch-like images of peasants. They peel potatoes; they croon over babes; they fry fish in front of a fire. It is all very stylistically retro.
Anderson is one of the few artists represented in the Saatchi show who does root us in a Britain which is recognisably of the present. When he paints the lonesomeness of a barber's-shop interior somewhere in the Midlands, never has sitting for a haircut seemed so fraught with desolation or existential anxiety.
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