Look at the States we're in
Sue Hubbard, The Independent
Charles Saatchi's real motivation for collecting art can only be guessed at but he is never predictable and keeps the punters guessing. It's hard to believe that USA Today comes out of the same stable as the Royal Academy's 1997 exhibition Sensation, which showcased the work of the Young British Artists. For USA Today consists of new work by 38 young American artists from the Saatchi stable and there's hardly a jot of irony in sight.
Instead, the exhibition is (mostly) a passionate engagement with the issues of the day. It asks questions about cultural identity, consumerism, the environment and global warming, about American hegemony and culpability. It is full of rage, invective and despair but it's doing just what art should do; it confronts, not out of some infantile desire to shock but in order to engage and challenge. To see this work is a reminder that not everyone on the other side of the pond is an automatic apologist for Bush's behaviour in Iraq and his stance on the environment.
The work is eclectic.
There is painting, photography, sculpture and installation. What links them is a refreshing engagement and critical self-awareness. The very efficacy of America's political institutions is questioned by Rodney McMillan's painting of the marble faÁade of the supreme court in which the canvas sags and collapses on to the floor as if under the weight of its own corruption, while Jules de Balincourt's astringent faux-naif maps are re-ordered to change the balance of power, so that each brightly coloured American state is enormously larger than countries such as Turkey or Guatemala.
The mood is apocalyptic and dystopian. The frozen body of a white stag lies trapped and broken on a pavement apparently covered in ice. Erick Swenson has created a beautiful and tragic image that not only nods in the direction of Caspar David Friedrich and the sublime but suggests some sort of environmental Armageddon.
Terence Koh, an artist born in Beijing but who lives in New York, has created a powerfully ambiguous work, Crackhead, which consists of 222 plaster and wax heads stained with charcoal set inside a series of glass vitrines. Here his vocabulary of melancholy and desire has been expanded from that of personal obsession into a language that obliquely and movingly speaks of genocide, torture and death.
No less engaged with current debate is Jon Pylypchuk's installation that draws on the tradition of the outsider. In his floor-level scenario populated by strangely poignant cuddly creatures he has, in Hopefully, I will live through this with a little bit of dignity, created a war zone where both horror and compassion are played out with the artless simplicity of a child's game. Elsewhere, the Pakistani born Huma Bhabha uses non-art materials to re-examine issues of cultural stereotyping and identity. Her black bin bag with a pair of protruding clay hands and tail is both absurd and highly disturbing, suggesting not only someone bowed in prayer but also a body stuffed into a sack.
Painting takes many forms, from Christoph Schmidberger's erotically post-coital painting of a woman lying languidly with her dog, which suggests not only bestial practices but also something of the Hopperesque loneliness and disconnection of so many American lives, to Barnaby Furnas's visual carnivals, which slip between abstraction and a realism and mirror, with their edgy anxiety, some of our concerns with the glamorisation of violence.
If only this exhibition represented the majority American view, for it is not only multicultural - many of the artists have their origins elsewhere - but it is also engaged and questioning. At a moment when international opinion of US politics and customs is at an all time low, these young artists show that not all Americans or American culture is myopic, separatist and paranoid.