Post Pop: East Meets West, Saatchi Gallery: A rare chance to compare the work of Chinese and Russian artists with their Western peers

A show celebrating post-1960s Pop art - but you have to look hard for the gems among the shiny and shouty pieces

Karen Wright
Sunday 07 December 2014 15:14

The thesis behind the Saatchi Gallery’s latest ambitious show – more than 250 works from 112 artists – is the lasting and varying influence of Pop art. Rather then looking at the original proponents in the US and Europe, the curators chose to look at the movement post 1960s. In order to shed some order on this plethora of work the three curators have displayed the show thematically rather than by country or even continent. The result is like a Christmas cracker: the look is great but you have to search hard for the few prizes worth keeping.

It all starts rather coherently with the rooms themed as Habitat. Pop, we are told, looked to the home and its immediate environment. In the first room, Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s Sofa in White (2011) has a scruffy, squashy-looking surface that on closer inspection reveals itself as stony marble. It vies with American artist Robert Gober’s splayed and wall-mounted sink, unusable in any context, while British artist, Rachel Whiteread turns her attention to quietly casting discarded mattress and shelves with books and objects. So far so good.

Turn the corner and you are in the mad minds of Russian artists Iliya and Emilia Kabakov. One of my favourite works in the show, Incident in the Corridor near the Kitchen (1989) contains two recognisable Kabakov lyrical paintings enlivened by what appears to be the contents of their entire pots and pans cupboard. It’s followed by another of the duo’s humorous works, Unfinished Installation (1995), a homeowner’s worst nightmare: coming home to unfinished building work, plans scattered around with not a builder in sight. British artist Richard Woods’ installation Nature Making (2014) is the stylish antithesis, a nod to Modernism, artificial grass and all. Easy to overlook is the Russian artist Irina Korina’s poetic work, a colourful chapel made inaccessible by impermeable gates. This is the first of the many missed opportunities in the show to draw some meaningful comparisons between the continents.

The next section, Advertising and Consumerism, should be a gift to the curators and there are some colourful works here. American artist Tom Sachs’ bravura piece Nutsy’s McDonald’s (2010) is a re-creation of the consumer’s dream or nightmare. You can almost smell the burgers in this evocative model. Tatty in part, Sachs’ message seems to be that this is what we deserve. The fact that it now resides in a blue-chip collection is just another layer of irony to add to the mix. Well represented in this show, Russian artist Alexander Kosolapov’s graphic Malevich – Black Square (1987) is a riff on the familiar red and white Marlboro cigarette box along with perhaps Russia’s most famous single work, the black square by Suprematist artist Malevich. It stands powerfully near to a painting by Chinese artist Wang Guangyi, Great Criticism: Benetton (1992), a nod to the brand’s usurpation of political arguments for their advertising campaigns. As the artist says: “If the American Imperialists think of us in this way, we should react in a certain way; if the enemy launches missiles at us, this is how we should protect and defend ourselves.” Less politically engaged is the work chosen here of the Americans of this period. Jeff Koons’ Three Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Two Spalding Shaq Attack, One Spalding NBA Tip-Off) (1986), a humorous and poetic homage to Americans’ sport obsession.

The themes continue. Ideology and Religion, includes British artist David Mach’s powerful crucified Christ, Die Harder (2011). It’s made entirely out of coat hangers and steel. Mach says he uses the most humble materials to send out the most powerful messages. Russian artist Sergei Shutov’s mechanical figures bob meaninglessly in front of the quasi altar by his compatriot Anatoly Osmolovsky, who uses wood to carve out his majestic representations of bread.

Exhausted, the viewer gets to Sex and the Body, and what a cacophony this is. Paul McCarthy is not an artist that we think of as subtle and here Spaghetti Man (1993), a large bunny rabbit with its endless – and from the look of it useless – penis, stands abjectly. The artist explains: “It has to do with the loss of sanity”, and McCarthy’s powerful ongoing use of mannequins allows his play between what is real and what is not. If you want graphic then these are the section for you. Some of the work is semi-pornographic but not arousing in this setting.

The top floor contains the section Art History. John Baldessari once told me that “all art comes from art”, and this floor is testament to the artists for whom art is unashamedly the inspiration for their work. British artist Glenn Brown is well represented here, with three beautiful paintings, the largest, The Aesthetic Poor (for Tim Buckley) after John Martin (2002). Brown says, “I love the notion of appropriation, and the fact that we can’t escape appropriation. All of the knowledge of all the art we’ve ever seen is with us when we paint, or when I paint.”

Russian artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid’s Post Art No. 1 (Warhol) (1973) comes from a series of six where the duo took on the masters of Pop art with their own interpretations. I also particularly like Rostislav Lebedev’s A Dream Comes True (2008). The top half is painted flawlessly in the American Pop style, with Lichtenstein planes, and the bottom in true Russian style, bathers on a beach (this is truly a painting where East meets West). Also in this section is a chance to compare Glenn Brown with Komar and Melamid, whose Nostalgic View of the Kremlin in a Romantic Landscape (1981-82) is unabashedly kitsch. That, I feel, should be the joy of this show – the ability to make comparisons of style between continents and peers. It happens only rarely.

By the time I am in the last section, Mass Media, I am satiated with images. There’s another piece by the overly clever Mach, M&M (2014), re-creating Marilyn Monroe entirely in postcards (and collage) on board. It’s a case of technique over end result. I find myself diligently peering into the rear quarters of a cow in Oleg Kulik’s Deep into Russia (1997), to see a video of a young Lenin (one of the few in the show) spinning around, while saying to myself, phew, tick, my work is done.

From the title of the show I was hoping to see proof that Pop art is alive and well and influencing generations of artists around the world. The sad thing about this show is how little likeable art there is here. It is an opportunity to see work by Russian and Chinese artists that is not often seen in this country and that mines the Pop ethos of both colour and image. There is an chance to see work by the fashionable Gary Hume next to those not usually included in the narrow pantheon of talked-about artists – David Mach, Lisa Milroy and Bill Woodrow, whose deconstructed work Hoover Breakdown (1979) reminds us how good he is.

Shiny, brash, large and shouty might be the best descriptions of most of the work within it – and if that is the effect of Pop it is a disappointing one.

The audience, mainly young, seemed to enjoy it, or at least to find it photographically appealing – I was endlessly tutted at for entering a shot. When he was at the height of his collecting, Charles Saatchi infamously bought entire shows by young artists. It was a Hoover-like approach to collecting; in the dust bag there will be some gems. And there are some great works in this show but you have to look hard.

It is ambitious and it is free, and was thronged with viewers. Bravo to the idea that it is OK to have not one, not two, but three curators employed on one show. It is clear that thematic shows are too expensive for many of the public institutions to take on, so perhaps one should be grateful to the Saatchi Gallery for building a partnership with the Tsukanov Family Foundation who have funded a show that can be treated like a colourful pick-and-mix display – one of those, two of those – before we retreat to Santa’s grotto, strategically placed outside the gallery.

Post Pop: East Meets West, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (020 7811 3070) to 23 February

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