Sue Hubbard | Kritik
The Triumph of Painting - Part II
The Saatchi Gallery
County Hall, London SE1
Until 30th October
It Rocks Us So Hard Ho Ho Ho 3 2002
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, when, in fact, they are still breathing, albeit on a life support machine. The debate about the death and the viability of painting has been going on ever since the advent of photography and seems set to keep us all occupied for several decades to come. But if painting is in its death throes, its making a hell of a racket and refusing to go quietly. For down on the South Bank at the Saatchi Gallery, just when everyone had got used to dead sharks and things in formaldehyde there is another painting show. The Triumph of Painting Part II which follows on from the recent Part I. You have to hand it to Saatchi. Whatever you think about him he keeps us all on our toes, for who would have thought that he would have moved so seamlessly from Britart flippancy to German angst. Suddenly deep and meaningful is back.
And 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 Lübeck in 1961 who works in Düsseldorf 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 which has collided with a motor bike lying guts spilled across a desolate stretch of motorway like a piece of road kill. There is something of the necrophiliac eroticism 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 appear to have run out of steam and ended up as so much bent 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 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 rather bombastic about Albert Oehlen’s work, the oldest of the artists who was born in 1954 in Krefeld and now lives and works in Spain. Oehlen studied with Sigmar Polke in Hamburg in the 1970s and emerged in the 80s, along with the likes of Martin Kippenberger, 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 and very concerned with the “consequence of painting in a post-painterly era” rather than with anything in the real world such as politics, injustice, love or death. Although he has the prominent space in the gallery’s rotunda none of these images adheres to the retina, none lingers in the mind or touches the heart. As you walk away it is hard to remember a single canvas, for they all seem unstable, in a state of constant flux. The rather pretentious blurb talks of a “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 a production line, though any detail from the original photograph has been erased leaving them stranded, as it were, in history; an irrelevance from a bygone age. Sasnal is certainly one of the more interesting painters in the batch and is particularly good at spare emptied images such as the two children in white T-shirts set against a grim modernist building. Entitled Gym Lesson it suggests the joylessness and lack of individuality that is the downside of the collective approach. In Portrait after Rochenko, 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.
Mental Map: Evasion VI 1996
Thomas Scheibitz, born in Radenbery 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 authentic and the real.
Thomas 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 sky lift. For his Cezanne-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 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 Gross, Otto Dix and Georg Baselitz to explore the dark under belly 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 homo-erotic subtext that suggests secret societies, blood brothers and other disquieting transgressive activities. Taking place amid a clearing of silver birch 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 club land 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 the desire for some sort of redemption. Both 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.
Charles Saatchi has now been collecting art for more than 20 years. He makes no great claims for what he collects other than that he buys the art he likes in order to ‘show it off in exhibitions.’ But whatever one thinks of Britart – and, of course, the variety and quality of the artists involved varied enormously – it undoubtedly caught something of the zeitgeist of late 20th century Britain. And this exhibition? Well huge and often rather bombastic claims are made for much of the work; certainly many of the phrases around the gallery would be up for candidacy in Pseuds’ Corner. How about “he freeze-frames the supersonic blur of twenty-first century zeitgeist for intimate contemplation?” What, it does do, 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 psychic health of an age, then this exhibition suggests not so much the end of painting as a practice but 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.
Sue Hubbard is a poet, novelist and art critic for The Independent where this article was originally published.
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