Bold new Portrait of America
Fisun Güner, Metro
The curators of the Serpentine Gallery's current show, Uncertain States Of America, scoured the country east and west for 18 months in order to come up with a clutch of artists who supposedly represent the best of contemporary American art post-9/11. So how could they have come back with so feeble an offering?
Fortunately, that exhibition's failings simply brings into sharper relief the vitality of USA Today, an exhibition featuring 38 artists from Charles Saatchi's considerable collection of new art from artists based Stateside. Beautifully displayed in the former museum of mankind, behind the main Royal Academy building, it manages to be many things Uncertain States failed to be: politically engaged and engaging, intelligent and bold. Well, at least most of the time, and 'most of the time' seems good enough to create the buzz of a hugely enjoyable rollercoaster ride - one in which spectacle, light-hearted provocation and scathing rhetoric each play a part.
Particularly noteworthy are Wangechi Mutu and Huma Bhabha, artists who grew up in Kenya and Pakistan respectively. Mutu's clever and arresting collage paintings, executed on and incorporating illustrations torn from pages of medical books, focus on the black female figure. Tackling issues of race and racial identity, Mutu exaggerates features and creates disturbing associations that are visually stunning and provocative.
Huma Bhabha offers the most resonant sculpture in the show: a figure completely covered by a black bin bag in which only brown outstretched hands, at one end, and tail-shaped rubble at the other end are visible. The figure, disturbingly half man, half rat, is hunched in prayer, or is perhaps cowering.
In an exhibition as big and baggy as this one, there'll be a fair share of the forgettable and the banal - indeed, some of the paintings are a bit ropey. But sometimes the bulk pick'n'mix approach can create a tremendous energy.