NEW LIFE SPRUNG FROM THE DEAD
The Painters in Saatchi’s latest show look for meaning in the throwaway images of newspapers, says Ben Lewis
Ben Lewis, Sunday Telegraph
There are two back stories to The Triumph of Painting 2 at the Saatchi Gallery (until October 30). The first is Charles Saatchi’s change of direction: Britain’s most influential collector has tidied away his Britart toys and dramatically unveiled a new horde of international work which he has been amassing secretly for the past few years. Over the course of this year Saatchi is showing off his new purchases in a series of shows that began with the established older guard and will progress to increasingly less recognised talent. It’s a strategy designed to boost the value – financial and critical – of the work that we’ll be seeing at the end of the year.
The other back story is the revival of painting. Until recently painting really was “out”. Of course, there were important painters working in the 1990s – in Britain notably Chris Ofili and Peter Doig – but critics didn’t talk about painting, and curators didn’t mount exhibitions of paintings. The thinking was that skilful painting was a self-indulgent and pointless display of self-importance. Why paint an unmade bed when you could put the bed itself in a gallery? The fashion was to produce colourful conceptual work that lacked a sense of individual creativity – it could have the oomph of an advertising image, as in Damien Hirst’s shark, or the objectivity of commercial photography, like Andreas Gursky’s panoramas of globalisation, or the generous interactivity of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s cookery (currently at the Serpentine).
Nowadays it’s open season on Charles Saatchi – he’s fallen out with Hirst; his shark is rotting; he’s become a follower of art-world fashions and lost his collecting touch. But why criticise someone when a back-handed compliment will do? This dazzling show is the one with which Saatchi should have begun his year-long run of exhibitions of painting.
Saatchi’s first eclectic show combined the predictable giants of the 1990s – Martin Kippenberger, Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans – with the 20th century’s worst artist – Hermann Nitsch. This new show introduces the British public to some of the important new generation of 21st century painters – some of which Britain’s museums should have introduced us to long ago.
I am always charmed by the boyish enthusiasm of Sir Charles’s shows. They look slick enough to have been put on in a public art institution such as the Serpentine, or a top international gallery such as Gagosian. But there’s always something that gives the game away. With Saatchi, it’s the gallery labels, which, as convention dictates, describe each painting, but in the most exuberant language I have ever encountered.
I found myself staring at Dirk Skreber’s deadpan paintings of a car crash, in which oil paint squelches like crushed metal, and searching for the “empty spiritualism, transfixing the viewer with its awesome and ethereal presence”, which the text next to it promised. Often - I am ashamed to admit - I lingered longer over the labels than the paintings. Albert Oehlen’s very complicated oils are constructed as layers of messy mistakes he then paints over, in a ghastly but deliberate confusion of styles. The label told me that his work “occupies a space between representation and abstraction, his forms and textures converging not to create an illusion, but a suggestion of invention”.
Now artists and critics are revelling in the personal touch and imaginative digressions possible in painting. This isn’t simply a revival because people are bored with conceptual art, and the art market needs something new to sell. In art history, the different disciplines learn from each other: just as Florentine Quattrocento painters copied and then outdid the elaborate drapery and athletic poses of their fellow sculptors, so today's painters have learnt from photographers and conceptual artists.
Today’s important painting is post-conceptual. Take Dirk Skreber. Like conceptual art, his paintings quote from other two-dimensional forms of representation. There are moody portraits of trains that look like 1970s postcards with backgrounds recalling Yves Tanguy’s surrealist landscapes. Another work of submerged houses looks as if it comes from new images, but Skreber’s brush has flattened it into a combination of Japanese screen and abstract painting.
The work of the immensely successful Polish painter Wilhelm Sasnal shows how the new painters are looking for important symbols in the throwaway images of newspapers and magazines. Fashion photographs, a section of a futuristic car from a motor show, and a police photograph of a suicide bomber’s kit are all the subjects of his paintings. But Sasnal’s work also indicates the shortcomings of one part of the new movement: derivativeness. With his eclectic photos and his washed-out monochromatic palette, he is also excessively indebted to Tuymans.
Just as conceptual artists use “found” objects to create installations, the artists in this exhibition use “found” painting styles to create works. Kai Altboff’s images of fighting soldiers are so reminiscent of the German and Austrian artists of the early 20th century, such as Egon Schiele, Max Beckmann and George Grosz, that he almost seems to be painting someone else’s painting.
While Sasnal’s and Skreber’s answer to the bombast of old painting is modesty and photography, Albert Oehlen’s is mess. Every arch of Saatchi’s rotunda is filled with one of Oehlen’s disorganised and difficult paintings. The self-assurance of the old guard has been carefully replaced by calculated layers of half-erased mistakes and a mixture of techniques from post-war art. And then there is Frank Ackermann, whose tedious psychedelic constructivism peppered with fragments of modernist architecture, billboards, factories and sunny tourist destinations have made him one of today’s most highly regarded artists.
One talent in this exhibition towers over the others. The Berlin artist Thomas Scheibitz who occupied the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year, is not learning from conceptual art but developing something newer from something older. Scheibitz’s large oils sweep up the whole of 20th century modernism in their makeshift planes of colour. In “Untitled 2002” you can see it all at work. The geometry of the characterless houses typical of Rhineland suburbs echo Cezanne’s French towns and Cubism. There’s an arrangement of flat rectangles at the bottom, which may be a fence along a roadside but which also recalls the abstract paintings of Constructivism and Minimalism.
These echoes of art history have been applied to subject matter that is bang-up-to-date: grey motorways snake across flat green plains in the background, a dull sun hangs over the landscape. Scheibitz has cast a fresh eye over the banal uniformity of this semi-urbanised world and come up with a little shopping-list of objects that symbolise simple and uniform pleasures.
Most difficult of all, the painter has managed to develop his own signature palette - a mix of pinks, light blues and muddy reds and greens, colours that are sometimes insipidly pale and at other times garishly fluorescent, and which also relate to the new coloration of modern life, with its grey skies, dayglo safety wear and dark-stained wooden fences.
There are few things harder nowadays than inventing a new style of painting. There is a general feeling that everything that can be done with the formal properties of painting, colour and composition has been done. But Scheibitz may have found a way through the maze.