Danger - American artists at work
Richard Dorment, The Daily Telegraph
Charles Saatchi's 'USA Today' exhibition sees a new generation thrillingly take on their country's woes, says Richard Dorment
It's a pity that the Royal Academy has already used the title "Apocalypse" for its millennium show of contemporary art, because it's much better suited to USA Today - Charles Saatchi's sprawling, wildly uneven, and highly enjoyable survey of recent American art.
Particularly in the downstairs galleries at the Royal Academy's exhibition spaces in Burlington Gardens, themes of environmental catastrophe, racial and social inequality, warfare, sexual politics and religion are all very much to the fore.
But, unlike the curators of this year's Whitney Biennale, who set out to capture the disillusionment and cynicism so many Americans feel about their government right now, Saatchi's exhibition isn't thematic.
If a lot of the art in it is politically charged, it is simply because that is what is coming out of the US at the moment. A much more balanced and inclusive survey than the Whitney's (though with no film), USA Today also includes plenty of work that belongs firmly in the category of art for art's sake.
Somewhere between the two is Erick Swenson's sublime white-on-white sculptural tableau of a white deer whose frozen body is half submerged under ice. Your first thought is of the Victorian painter Edwin Landseer's images of trapped and doomed animals in the wilderness, but the icicles that have formed on the poor creature's antlers also evoke the fairy-tale illustrations of an artist such as Charles Dulac.
Look a little closer, however, and you see that the deer hasn't died in some arctic wasteland but on a brick pathway or street. This wouldn't make sense unless the artist meant us to see the work as science fiction, a poignant little tragedy set in a post-nuclear ice age.
Opposite, a swollen river of scarlet paint sweeps across a vast canvas by Barnaby Furnas. As an example of painting as hysteria, it belongs up there with the catastrophe paintings of the English visionary painter John Martin.
And what catastrophe do you suppose these artists have in mind? In a spectacular wrap-around mural, Adam Cvijanovic paints what I believe to be a fairly accurate depiction of what actually happens when the back draft of a nuclear explosion reaches the suburb you live in.
Ranch houses, Toyotas, drive-in restaurants, shops, signs, clothes, toys, furniture, and fridges with their contents are all seen at the instant when the blast lifts them off the ground and blows them to smithereens.
It's a triumph of illusionism, painted in a pretty palette of light blues, greys, violets and pinks - the architecture and vehicles shown from below in extreme foreshortening in imitation of the sotto in su effects of baroque and rococo ceiling decoration.
Here in Europe we no longer expect art to address political issues head-on (look at how apolitical the artists shortlisted for this year's Turner Prize are), but in America no subject seems to be too dangerous to tackle.
When Andy Warhol silk-screened shocking newspaper photographs of the Alabama race riots, they became iconic images for liberal America, instant history paintings as critical of American society in the 1960s as Gťricault's Raft of the Medusa was of French society in the 1820s.
I'm still not sure how to read a triptych by Kelley Walker, who appropriates one of these very images - showing a white policeman setting an attack dog on a black man - then pours and spatters white and dark chocolate syrup over it before digitally printing the results on to canvas.
The fact that Walker is a white Southerner is part of my difficulty. By turning these images into parodies of very expensive abstract expressionist canvases, he seems to mock the pieties of liberal America and Warhol's pretensions to history painting.
Even more outrageously, Karachi-born Huma Bhabha shows a witty wire-and-plastic sculpture of a Muslim man praying to Mecca. Seen from the front or side, the work is simply amusing. Walk round the back and you see a trail of dirt coming out of his backside.
John Pylypchuk's adorable little figures made out of black socks, wood, sticks and scraps of fabric are conducting an obviously unsuccessful small-scale guerrilla war from their very own Tora Bora, an anthill. Some are maimed; others are vomiting. Are we meant to see these furry Muppets as animals or insects - or are they black soldiers caught up in some endless and futile African war?
Dan Colen is showing his own version of the sort of commemorative memorial that sprang up spontaneously after 9/11.
He makes a giant collage out of photos, newspaper cuttings, tabloid headlines about the terrorist threat and the war in Iraq, cereal packets, contact ads, and flyers about missing children and dangerous criminals. It is only when you step up close that you realise that each separate element is painted by hand in a trompe-l'oeil technique.
And Banks Violette covers electric guitars, keyboard instruments and amplifiers in salt, then places them around shards of black wood in an installation that looks more like the scene of a crime than a concert.
The instruments were in fact used in an actual heavy metal performance, so by covering them in white, corrosive salt, the artist makes them look as though they are suspended in time, like Lot's Wife in the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, memorials to an event that was loud, bad, violent and destructive.
The subject that usually interests American artists most is America, and Jules de Balincourt uses oil and enamel paint on wooden panels to paint maps of the US that remind you of a famous map of the US by the cartoonist Saul Steinberg, and of ones painted by Jasper Johns 40 years ago.
But, unlike either predecessor, Balincourt's work addresses issues of social inequality and of corporate greed. In one map, beautifully painted in shades of red and orange, he includes statistics of how many K-marts, Wal-marts, Targets and Home Depot stores there are in each state, and how much each of these companies donated to the Republican Party to ensure that any resistance to their planning applications were brushed aside.
As I walked through Saatchi's pitch-perfect installation of the work in the downstairs galleries, I kept nodding my head up and down.
Upstairs, where the quality falls off dramatically, the direction changed from side to side. What an odd man Charles Saatchi is. What was he thinking when he acquired Dash Snow's F*** the Police, an arrangement of framed newspaper clippings about corrupt cops over which the artist has apparently masturbated?
Or Ryan McGinness's awful painting of a horse with a giant penis? Or Gerald Davis's soft focus pastel-coloured pornographic cartoon paintings? I guess these are supposed to be funny, but let me tell you, they aren't.
Christopher Schmidberger's photo-realist painting of a half-naked lady lying on a bed with her lapdog should be as sexy as a Boucher, but the handling of paint and the nasty colours make it repellent rather than seductive.
There are whole galleries full of artists who aren't exactly bad but who, deep down, you don't feel have anywhere to go. From the technical point of view, Ellen Altfest's two paintings - a jumble of tumbleweed and a close-up study of male genitals - are tours de force, but they are also a dead end.
Dana Schutz's grotesque paintings of mutants and weirdos are well made and fun, but they don't have the darkness that I think characterises the best American art today.
For what is happening in the US is so traumatic and so far-reaching that when artists ignore it, even the most talented of them start to look irrelevant.
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