It is hard to know what Anthony Blunt would have made of Martin Maloney's latest painting, a six-by-eight-foot canvas produced for "Die Young, Stay Pretty", the show Maloney is curating at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. On the one hand, the picture, Hey Good Looking, is a transcription from Poussin's The Choice of Hercules: so far, so Blunt. Maloney is also, like Blunt, scythingly intelligent, intimidatingly well- read, and gay. But the trouble is with the painting itself. The mythological subject-matter and sculptural forms of Poussin's painting trumpet the fact that it is not merely High Art but also about High Art; Maloney's Hercules aims its cultural arrows rather lower. His Hercules, a skinny but impressively bikini-bottomed Boogie Nights extra, chooses between Vice - dressed in a bunny-wool tanktop - and an Alice-banded Virtue, who bears a noticeable resemblance to the young Lady Diana Spencer. ("I made her breasts bigger than I'd meant to," observes Maloney, moodily. "After all, you have to feel there's some genuine element of choice at work.") The tableau is painted in a lurid palette - sunburn pink and ice-lolly purple stick in the mind - because, says Maloney, "Poussin's colours were all pretty Technicolor, when you think about it." You can almost hear Blunt wince. What is this all about?
Among much else, it is about the latest thing - perhaps the Next Big Thing, if press handouts are to be believed - in contemporary British art. The 11 artists in "Die Young, Stay Pretty", all hand-picked by Maloney, are being touted as a fully-fledged new movement: self-styled enfants terribles who will displace those no-longer-quite-so-young (or affordable) Young British Artists at the top of the international art tree. Five of the "Die Young" artists - David Thorpe, Michael Raedecker, Steven Gontarski, Peter Davies and Maloney himself - will also appear in a series of shows at the Saatchi Gallery, beginning in January. (Maloney's offering will be a 70-foot wraparound sex-room picture which conflates Poussin's bacchanal paintings with his Seven Sacraments. Expect publicity.) Always keen on spotting new trends (not to say unmarketed brands), the Saatchi Gallery pipped the ICA to the post in summer by publishing a book that included the Maloney "school", presumably in the hope that its title - New Neurotic Realism - would stick.
Before we look at the attributes of New Neurotic Realism (hereafter NNR), something of its history. In 1995, Martin Maloney held a series of shows - "Multiple Orgasm", "White Trash" and others - at his flat in Stockwell, London, reinvented as a gallery called Lost in Space. Like the YBAs before him, the 37-year-old Maloney is a Goldsmiths graduate, as are the majority of the Lost in Space artists. The first whiff of fame came when the Karsten Schubert Gallery awarded them their own show ("Die Yuppie Scum") in 1996. This grew to a positive reek when works by Maloney and Davies were selected for the Royal Academy's "Sensation" show of new works from the Saatchi Collection last year.
Handily for Hegelian-minded critics, Maloney has worked out the dialectic of all this. First, he is doubtful about the conventional wisdom which sees the NNRs as an aesthetic antithesis to the YBAs. "I'd been doing this kind of work for three years before anyone picked it up," says Maloney. "There's always a tendency to see one thing in opposition to another, but I don't think our work is a negative reaction to what went before. Ask most of the artists [in "Die Young, Stay Pretty"] and they will say that the YBAs were the biggest influence during their time at Goldsmiths. But we can afford to be relaxed in a way they couldn't. You only have to describe yourself as "British" when you're surrounded by foreigners. They were in the difficult position of having to prove that they were international, sucking in their cheeks and wearing black all the time."
And Maloney also claims the YBAs as a more direct source of inspiration. "However influential they were, there is no point in being the fifth Gary Hume," he notes. "Outside forces dictate that." Leaving the unspoken word "Saatchi" hanging in the air, Maloney adds, "I was in Cologne recently and I went into this gallery and there were these really whooshy abstract pictures hanging there and I thought, yuck. Then I looked at them again and I thought, well, they're not so bad when you see what they're doing. It's like Blondie was incredibly clever to package that whole blonde siren thing when she was actually an intelligent woman in her thirties. The least expected thing is the thing with most potency."
Cynical? Perhaps a touch. On the other hand, it might be argued that - in an age in which the prime arbiter of good taste in contemporary British art is an adman - marketing has become a part of the whole aesthetic experience. Press Maloney on whether New Neurotic Realism really exists and he will say, "No, not really: but then just about everything is marketed with a label these days. People just don't like to see it done with art because it denies the whole Romantic thing. But 'marketing' is just shorthand for 'movement', and 'product' is just shorthand for 'work'." Movement or not, it does at least seem safe to assume that the work in "Die Young, Stay Pretty" is intended to represent a current voice in British art. Whether this is the voice of the Zeitgeist or of Martin Maloney (or whether Maloney is the Zeitgeist) is a matter to ponder. "I don't see any conflict between being a curator and being an artist," says Maloney. "The majority of time I make things, but I'm also using the skills of an artist in being a curator. This is my choice, my taste. It's not a consumable art work in the sense that you can wrap it up and sell it, but the experience is still up for grabs." The inconvenient corollary of this is, as Maloney allows, that "the work [in "Die Young, Stay Pretty"] could just as easily be taken out of this exhibition and recast as something else." Given this, the fact that Maloney is a decade older than most of the other artists in his show and that these same artists have a habit of deferring to his critical opinion, the easiest way of deciphering the voice of the NNRs is through Maloney's own work.
The first thing to be said about Maloney's work is that it is very obviously hand-made. Whether or not you subcribe to Maloney's views on art-historical dialectics, the studied amateurishness of his painting does seem to define its position as the "least expected thing", against the factory-assembled, antiseptic aesthetic of YBAs like Damien Hirst. (There is a wee bit of snobbery going on here: "When BhS begins to look like a minimalist pad, you realise the Hirst-design thing has been overdone," says Maloney.) This wilful hands-on-ness seems endemic to the "Die Young Stay Pretty" team: Dutch-born Michael Raedecker shows it by using embroidery in his paintings, Jane Brennan's flower paintings by the obsessively close-worked quality of their images. The PVC skins of Steven Gontarski's curiously repellent humanoid figures - Henry Moore meets Baron von Frankenstein in the soft furnishings department - are laboriously hand-stitched, playing some sort of unpleasant word-association game with the whole idea of creation.
Also apparently anti-YBA is the fondness of Maloney and his team for suburbia and its supposed beauties. If Hirst's implied world is Notting Hill Gate, David Thorpe's is Peckham, its tower blocks reproduced in elegant cut-paper nightscapes; and Maloney's, it seems, is Albert Square. "Poussin is really just like soap opera," says Maloney. "It's all about things like, Tiffany's having a baby and Grant doesn't believe it's his. [RIP, Anthony Blunt.] It was one of the most difficult things to explain to the ICA, that this show really is about the triumph of suburbia, about its beauty. Beauty wasn't something you talked about much with the YBAs, but it's the only thing I'm interested in now. And I'm not saying that as a 17-year-old looking at Monet, but as someone who could talk about performance art in California in the 1970s. You can approach suburbia either by decrying it or by making something that could fit into it, and that's what I'm doing. It's far more radical to give your granny something she might like than giving her another Donald Judd."
You may, of course, patronise the old lady by doing so, although Maloney thinks not. "Of course, my art is meant for a sophisticated crowd who know," he says. "But it's also got bright colours that anyone can appreciate, so it's a popular cross-over. People say it's faux-naif because it's flat, which really pisses me off. They think you're some kind of retard, when what you're doing is making your painting decorative in a different way. If the legs don't look round, it's because you don't want them to look round. It's been a convention since the 15th century; I know it exists. Faux-naif is tricksy; it's Kylie Minogue singing 'I Should Be So Lucky'. My work is not faux-naif.' Certainly not naif, anyway.
ICA, SW1 (0171 930 3647): Friday to 10 January. 'New Neurotic Realism' (Saatchi Gallery) is out now.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies