You have to give the Saatchi Gallery credit for what has done for contemporary art. Ever since it opened its first gallery in north London in 1985 it has bought, succoured and promoted new art from the US, the Middle East, China, Russia, India and wherever else it felt something was happening that needed to be brought to the attention of the British public. Now, 20 years after it first launched a new generation of home-grown artists and coined the moniker YBAs (Young British Artists), it has chosen to make another push with young artists making their way with New Order: British Art Today.
Another Sensation, the RA show of Saatchi collections that wowed and shocked gallery-goers in 1997, it is not. Then you could talk of a generation of young college-educated artists bursting with new enthusiasm and novel ways. This exhibition, as the gallery admits, represents artists who “are not an evidently coherent group”. Where the Britain of the YBA generation was exploding with economic growth and confidence, the latest show reflects, in Saatchi's words, a country “somewhat nebulous in its identity, somewhat uncertain of itself”.
Given that downbeat introduction, one's first reaction is to say, “In which case, why bother to gather them together?” And indeed it is a good question. Not that the art is poor. “Proficient” is the overriding impression they give, displayed as they are across the full second floor of Saatchi's spacious rooms in Chelsea. They are at ease with their art, confident in their handling of materials, whether it be metal, paint, photographs or video, and open in their communication with the onlooker. Theirs is not a difficult art nor an introverted one.
The Britishness comes in terms of current location. In fact, seven of the 17 artists on display were born outside of Britain, although all are working here or in Ireland. Half are in their thirties, the rest still in their twenties. As far as one can make out, all, or nearly all, have come out of art college or have been trained in one way or another. What they don't add up to, despite the title of the exhibition, is a “New Order”. Far from it. They sit quite comfortably in the world of conceptual art and post-modernism mapped out by their elders. Thickly gouged paint à la Kossoff, finely wrought sculptures in the tradition of Calder, applied materials in the manner of Arte Povera, caricatured figures in the style of Kitaj, narrative videos after the Düsseldorf school: they're all here, not so much derivative as unambitious.
Some do unsettle. James Capper places the massive pincers of heavy machinery on the floor, brutish and aggressive in their purposefulness. There is a spooky video by the Spanish-born Greta Alfaro, In Ictu Oculi, which has a hillside feast descended on by a flock of vultures, who devour the food and then fly away, leaving a single bird to contemplate the devastation and then flap away itself. It says something about greed and plenty and mass behaviour, with the obvious allusion to the Last Supper, but is too staged to quite convince.
The most interesting art is the most concerned with process. Another Spanish-born artist, Alejandro Guigarro, has photographed the blackboards of the lecture halls of Oxford, Berkeley, Stanford and other high seats of scientific learning and framed the life-size prints. Only a mathematician could possibly understand the meaning, if any, of the equations chalked on the boards. Some are half wiped off and one has been cleaned altogether, leaving the scratch marks of the working once written upon them. As a way of communicating the brainpower and the inquiry of the modern times it's extremely effective.
The French-born Nicolas Deshayes is, to me, the standout artist with his sculptures made from vacuum-formed plastic and patterned polystyrene that do cause you to think anew about the material world of the city about us. Soho Fats a series of white panels, looks at first as if it could be made of cloth. Coming closer, you realise it is of packaging polystyrene shaped into waves by a hot wire cutter. The title is supposed to refer to the congealed fats found in sewers, and the catalogue would have you believe that the artist “evokes both the bodily remainder and rippling water of the hidden core of the city”. Leaving aside that curatorial clap-trap, the panels work, as indeed do Deshayes' in the manner of post-war Italian collages both the raw industrial and the human.
Sara Barker achieves some of the same metallic humanity with her wiry sculptures of steel and aluminium. Their skeletal shape may not be new in conception – sculpture has been here before and for long – but they do succeed in their geometric lines in creating a rhythm that suggests they are about human life as much as geometric space. To add to that impression and perhaps to take her art a bit further, Barker has coated the metal at various points with paint and pigment and installed one work on a mirror plinth. Try as I might, however, I couldn't really see that this textural fiddling did much for them or for the viewer.
There's much to please in this exhibition as you tour the rooms of encaustic heads of the Popes by Rafal Zawistoski, the dolls of Wendy Mayer, the fond portraits of friends paired with graphic structures by the Israeli-born Amir Chasson and the ever so self-conscious parody photographs of Dominic from Luton and the bright pastiches of past caricatures of Charlie Billingham.
What one misses is any sense that art matters. For that you need to go down to the two floors below where Saatchi is showing new art from Russia, with the ironic title of Gaiety Is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union. It's not great art. The catastrophic consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union seem to hang too heavy over Russian artists to allow them breathe anew. But it is challenging in its fearsome violence and profound despair, particularly in the art photography of Boris Mikhailov, Vikenti Nilin and Sergei Vasiliev. This is art from which there is no escape in its fury and its nihilism.
You can't altogether blame the British artists in the floor above for the lack of passion. A generation that saw Maggie Thatcher replaced by Thatcher Mark II in Tony Blair and then by Blair Mark II in David Cameron is hardly conducive to the grand statement or moral apoplexy. Irony is the English vice. It enables detachment and avoids commitment. In place of passion there are puns, dozens of them. “Intercourse”, “Everyone is de Trop”, “Royal Wedding”, “The World's Local Nomad”, “Wigged Bum”, “The Semen”, “Myth Interrupted”, “Shoes off If You Love Luton”, on they come, thick and fast, until you feel that the only real sign of youth in this exhibition are jejune titles.
The artists of Sensation – Richard Billingham, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Gary Hume, Jenny Saville, Chris Ofili, Gavin Turk and Mark Wallinger – didn't necessarily have greater political commitment. Indeed, one of the criticisms that could still be levelled against them is their artistic detachment. But they did have the feeling of young bloods flexing their muscles and sensing their future. The new lot seems as canny in their sense of the commercial market but too comfortable in what they were doing to go on and develop their art.
Give it another decade, and a new generation may arise feeling fury and with plenty to be furious about in a country stripped of pretensions and growth. But then again maybe the expectation of youth, and the assumption behind Saatchi's succession of shows, is wrong. Art may not prove the natural medium in which the young generations will express their feelings. Certainly not on the evidence of this show.
New Order: British Art Today/Gaiety Is the Most Outstanding Feature of the Soviet Union, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (saatchi-gallery.co.uk) to 9 June
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies