Let's Get Serious
Sue Hubbard, The Independent
Charles Saatchi has done an about-turn from the frivolity of Britart. As Sue Hubbard finds, 'deep and meaningful' is back.
Contemporary critics, art historians, and artists alike must often seem to those outside the art world, when talking about painting like family members gathered around the bed of a terminally ill relative, discussing them as if they had already kicked the bucket.
But, if painting is in its death throes, it's refusing to go quietly. For down on the South Bank of London, at the Saatchi Gallery, just when everyone had got used to dead sharks and things in formaldehyde, The Triumph of Painting Part 2 follows on from the recent Part 1. You have to hand it to Saatchi. Whatever you think about him, he keeps us on our toes, for who would have thought he would move so seamlessly from Britart flippancy to German angst? Suddenly, "deep and meaningful" is back.
So, what is this new painting about? Well, it seems, just about "the end" of everything: the end of history, the end of painting, the end of ideology. Take the paintings by Dirk Skreber, born in LŁbeck in 1961, working in DŁsseldorf and New York, which are the first you see as you walk into the gallery. Skreber is keen on car crashes. There are smashed VWs wrapped around posts, and another vehicle that has collided with a motorbike, lying across a desolate stretch of motorway like a piece of roadkill.
There is something of the necrophilia of J G Ballard's Crash here. Skreber's canvases are well painted, in a detached sort of way, and have an alluring, sterile beauty. He seems to be portraying the end of some not clearly definable road, a space where hope, ethics, emotion, even technology appears to have run out of steam and ended up as so much scrap.
It is, perhaps, no coincidence that for those arch-Modernists the Italian Futurists, the car was a metaphor for everything that was positive about the modern world: speed, technology, a forging of new horizons. In his book on America, the French critic Jean Baudrillard claimed, "All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behaviour." America is unthinkable without the car. So that's, perhaps, another end highlighted in these mutilated car carcasses: capitalism on the skids.
There is something bombastic about the work of Albert Oehlen, the oldest of the artists, who was born in 1954 in Krefeld, Germany, and now lives and works in Spain. Oehlen studied with Sigmar Polke in Hamburg in the Seventies and emerged in the Eighties, along with Martin Kippenberger, who featured in The Triumph of Painting Part 1, as part of a newly iconoclastic generation.
His canvases are large, insisting that we take them seriously and that they have something to say. There are plenty of visual tropes that make reference to recent art history, to the Abstract Expressionists, to Picasso, to Philip Guston. It's all rather navel-gazing stuff, very concerned with the "consequence of painting in a post-painterly era" rather than anything in the real world such as politics, injustice, love or death. Although he has a prominent space in the gallery's rotunda, none of his images adhere to the retina, none lingers in the mind or touches the heart, for they all seem unstable, in a state of flux. The rather pretentious blurb talks of "raw confrontation with the deficiencies of visual language". So that's presumably another "end": the inability of paint to evoke authentic emotion.
Wilhelm Sasnal is the only Pole in this predominantly German group. Born in 1972, he lives and works in Tarnow. Factory, taken from a famous propaganda image, depicts two white-coated women on the production line, though detail of the original photograph has been erased, leaving them stranded, as it were, in history - an irrelevance from a bygone age. Sasnal is one of the more interesting painters in the batch and is particularly good at spare, emptied images. In Portrait of Rodchenko, Lady, he resurrects a vision of utopian socialism, though the face of the young pioneer looking out into the future has been reconstituted in dark black and white shadows like some sort of death mask. So that's another "end", then; the end of Communism.
Thomas Scheibitz, born in Radeberg in 1968, and Franz Ackermann, who was born in Neumarkt St Veit in 1963, both live and work in Berlin and combine the language of figuration and abstraction with oblique architectural references. Ackermann is described as something of a perpetual tourist. He searches out 21st century exotica in Asia, the Middle East and South America to exemplify cultural difference and describes his paintings as "mental maps". Each kaleidoscopic canvas depicts his experience of a place. Appropriating imagery from pop and mixing it with brash colour and package-holiday poster promise, he creates psychedelic models of collapsed utopias that have become non-places, triumphs of marketing and consumerism over the real.
Scheibitz blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture and has often been described as a "post-cubist". Taking images he collects from a variety of media, he uses them to construct recognisable elements of landscape, architecture, and still life within his abstract canvases. His subjects are recognisable locations - bland suburban houses, a ski lift. His Cťzanne-like mountain in Skilift looks as if it has just landed from cyberspace. Framed by the glass entrance to the lift, nature seems to have been boxed, commodified and pushed to a safe, sanitised distance. This is the architecture of illusion. With his geometric shapes and flat, colourful planes Scheibitz deconstructs the language of abstract painting and reconfigures it to create edgy visions empty of all feeling and of any form of personal engagement.
The most accomplished and interesting painter of the lot is Kai Althoff. Althoff engages with the history of German painting, appropriating the language of Egon Schiele, Georg Grosz, Otto Dix and Georg Baselitz to explore the dark underbelly of German Romanticism. On top of that, he can actually draw. Male domination and the sensuality of violence are played out against backdrops of war and male ritual. Prussian soldiers attack another soldier within a barely veiled homoerotic subtext that suggests secret societies, blood-brothers and other transgressive activities. Althoff reminds us of the potency of nationalistic ideas and their dangerously seductive appeal of "blood and soil".
Central to his enterprise is a longing for reconciliation with German history. From historic war-zones to clubland raves, he explores the essence of masculine experience; the pack-mentality of the soldier and heroic youth. He touches on the longing, the romanticism, the guilt and desire for some sort of redemption. The line of his drawings and the application of oil paint display a provocative sensuality. His work is a mix of tender eroticism and carnal cruelty.
Perhaps the most surprising image is a collage of Christ and a repentant sinner. Here, German Catholicism, Thirties-style fascism and homosexual taboos are elided on translucent paper, suggesting, perhaps, that repentance is often only paper-thin.
What the exhibition does, I think, is reveal a world fraught with anxiety, where image and sign matter more than ethics, where style, form and theoretical dogma count for more than emotional eloquence or engagement. If art is a barometer of the psychological health of an age, then this exhibition suggests not so much the end of painting as a practice, but more of the humanistic agenda that has largely informed it since the Renaissance. Painting may still be alive; it is the human spirit that I am worried about.