The Triumph of Painting - Saatchi Art Gallery, London


AOehlen.jpgBack in 1999 when Guiliani was still mayor and not yet a national hero, a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art entitled “Sensation” (made up of works from the Saatchi collection in London) blew the roof off America’s lingering cultural Puritanism. All kinds of unartsy folks got their knickers twisted over a work of art that used elephant dung in depicting the Virgin Mary. That the artist was of African origin, that elephant dung might have had ritualistic significance in his culture, and that he used it in a whole series of works, made no difference to those who would censor art under the twin banners of decency and reverence.

The culture wars have since taken a back seat to greater evils (the invasion of Iraq, torturing prisoners of war, etc.), but since I found myself in London visiting family recently relocated there, I thought I’d drop in on the Saatchi Gallery to check it out. Adding to its attraction, my Irreverent Guide to London informed me that this was the place to see “the young Turks of the British art scene,” which turned out not to be the case.

The Saatchi is located in a very grand, very huge former government building on the south side of the Thames, across from Big Ben and the elegant Parliament buildings—a lovely site, right in the immediate vicinity of Madame Tussaud’s and the Planetarium. When I arrived at 10 AM, there were few people in the large echoing halls of the Saatchi. The current show is entitled “The Triumph of Painting” and includes mostly German painters born in the 1960s—none of whom are as wild as Damien Hirst (with his sliced cow corpses suspended in formaldehyde) or Chris Ofili (the dung champion).

What is most amusing and annoying about the current show is actually the wall notes that accompany the paintings, written in the post-modern discourse of contemporary art-curator-speak, a language filled with claims of subversion and transgression. Nothing is what it seems. Everything has a hidden, nihilistic agenda. Looking at the works and reading the descriptions, I was struck with how impossible it was to know if the curator’s remarks in any way came close to describing the actual paintings in front of me. They could be true. They could be false. More often I found them ludicrous and actually an impediment to really looking at the art.

Starting with the works of the first artist on display, Dirk Skreber, born in Germany in 1961, I am informed that Skreber “dehumanizes the familiar.” I’m not exactly sure that is the case, since he tends to look at large commercial spaces (like a shopping mall from above) that are innately dehumanized. I’m also told that his large paintings “monumentalize the banal” and that he “presents trepidation as a normalized condition of collective consciousness.” But if, as is also said, “his work is concerned with the architecture of the hyper real” (whatever that is), then isn’t it the architecture itself that bleeds into our collective consciousness, and how can we identify a mood of “trepidation” in a large flat painting in tones of beige, gray, and muted green? Might the mood not also be boredom? Or longing? Or even satisfied indifference?

Anyway, it’s the next artist, Albert Oehlen (also German, and born in 1954), who really gets the curator-speak into overdrive. Of course Oehlen helps in this process, by describing his style as “post non-representational,” an interesting concept since one can hardly be sure where the artist has arrived once he goes beyond the non-representational. Of his first “untitled” (see painting above) canvas on view, I read that it is “teetering on the razor edge between misfortune and masterpiece”—a rather exciting place to be, I would imagine. But the high-strung language is more sensational than the painting, which is a large, splotchy, expressionistic piece in bold colors (electric green, purple, red, orange, yellow). At an appropriate distance (say about 25 feet), it is rather lovely (a word never used in curator-speak), although neither misfortune nor masterpiece—just something compelling in the glowing colors and the bold construction. If I were to say it had “the power of an exploding video game arcade seen on acid,” I’d be as spot-on as the wall remarks – although, sadly, it lacks the intense vibration that LSD would provide. In fact, viewed thus, it’s a great distance from a masterpiece (a word we might all be a little chary in using).

Of another “untitled” Oehlen work, the wall notes claim, “his paintings are elaborate strategies of provocation.” I immediately think: and whose are not? Isn’t that the role of both the modern and the post-modern artist? James Joyce provoked. Picasso provoked. Andy Warhol provoked. Art is one long strategy of provocation—from the Roman mimes who offended the early Christians with their mockery down to our own time with Mapplethorpe’s sexually explicit homoerotic photographs and Karen Finley’s outrageous performance art. Sure, Norman Rockwell may not have put a lot of energy into provoking, nor does the shopping mall mystro Thomas Kinkead. But then we have to wonder sometimes about the use of the word “artist.” Sunday painters and greeting card verse writers may actually be some sub-genre, not in the category of art at all (however judgmental that might seem), but rather, say, “hobbyists” or “jolly amateurs.” I actually have to thank the note-writer for reminding me of this. By acting as if Oehlen’s work is unique in its mission, the curator makes me remember just how much of the best art throughout history has stood firmly in the position of provocateur.

In fact, I’m growing fonder of this exhibit as I realize that curator-speak provokes me to argue with its over-hyped claims. I read of this same “untitled” work that Oehlen “subverts the authority of the avant-garde, creating an abstraction of dumbed down abjection.” Really? Is that what I am looking at? I begin to suspect that some of this commentary has a commercial motivation: find a buyer who would enjoy owning a work that others might not realize is actually a form of “dumbed down abjection.” They might think that it was merely an “abstraction,” or merely a depiction of “abjection,” but not realize that it was “dumbed down.” Looking for the dumbing down, I spot a white fabric-like thing near the bottom of the canvas, perhaps, I decide, a discarded Pamper—a receptacle for shit, an embodiment of both extreme youth and old age, a marker for loss of control. Of course it might not be a discarded Pamper; it could be the veil of Mary Magdalene, or the detritus of a lost football match. Who writes this stuff? Clearly, it’s not the paintings that are ludicrous but rather the prose they have (perhaps in all innocence) provoked.

Artists generally don’t like to “explain” their work. They believe the work explains itself. In fact, if it needs to be explained, then it is not working. Critics like to explain.

By the time I become aware of my own labyrinthine mental wandering, I start to notice just how silent the place is (the sort of gallery where Michael Caine as the cross-dressing psychotherapist should be stalking the lubricious Angie Dickinson in Brian DePalma’s masterwork Dressed to Kill). The place is creepily quiet. People walking about whisper or are silent (stunned perhaps by their own inability to grasp “the self-consciously brutal surfaces,” which “seem to be corrupted from within, a perversion of the paintings they might have been”). Clearly I have grown all too fascinated with the verbal gamesmanship of curator-speak. I have to keep reminding myself to actually look at the paintings, which rarely prove half so fascinating as their descriptions.

Actually, the six painters in the exhibition are quite intriguing. And occasionally the wall remarks are helpful or illuminating. I read again and again about appropriation and subversion, but it’s their graphic skills that take me; it’s the colors; it’s the sheer size of many of the works that grabs my attention. They are all the children of Andy Warhol on some level; and Warhol may turn out to have been the most significant artist of the twentieth century, or certainly of the second half of the century. He opened up the world of viewing and the meaning of what we call art, what constitutes art.

As I leave the gallery, I am pleased to discover that the postcard some outdoor tout handed me before I entered entitles me to a free tee shirt. It’s of a big red bleeding heart and says “Saatchi Gallery.” Now I can tout the place. I just wish it were more provocative. But it’s a sunny day and the Thames shimmers before me like the brightest postcard. I have entered the world of hyper reality. - Victoria Sullivan

victoria.jpgMs. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.