Whither British Art? Embroidered Veils and Humping Dogs, According to Saatchi's "Newspeak" Show

Hot on the heels of the British Art Show 7, the Saatchi gallery has just launched "Newspeak," the second part of its survey of young British artists. There is much to say about the subtitle — the blunt and definitive "British Art Now" — but first, the title itself is baffling. The exhibition takes its name from the fictional language invented by George Orwell in his novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four," a reduced form of speech that resists nuance and reinforces the totalitarian state's power. Why and how such a reference is suitable for a large exhibition of UK-based artists who try, with varying degrees of success, to share original ideas is anyone's guess. (The press release doesn't clear things up either, only mentioning Orwell's newspeak to disavow it.)

Conceptual finesse has never been Saatchi's forte. His recent exhibitions made grand statements about this or that art scene ("The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today" in 2010, "Unveiled, New Art from the Middle-East" in 2009, "USA Today" in 2006, etc.). With "Newspeak," the collector and his team have gone back to the spirit of the now legendary, 1997 "Sensation" exhibition in an attempt to prove that Saatchi is still good at what he has been known for since the heyday of the YBAs: spotting and nurturing the best British art.

 

And there are some fantastic pieces on display at Duke of York's HQ. It's a shame, though, that in order to access them, one has to endure endless walls of gaudy paintings. "Newspeak" has its Bacon rip-off with Robert Fry's fleshy semi-abstractions, its Basquiat rip-off with Dan Perfects brash scrawled panels, a Matisse-ian Nicholas Hatful, and a Day-Glo Luke Rudolf, who gives a decidedly 90s twist to the Abstract Expressionism and geometric abstraction crammed onto his canvases.

Ansel Krut's 2010 "Arse Flowers in Bloom" — depicting, as advertised, a bunch of bottoms, atop stems, mooning the viewer — could be amusing in a cartoonish kind of way; and Juliana Cerqueira Leite's large skin-like ball "Oh" (2010) could be alluringly indefinable. But placed next to each other the two pieces are simply a crass combination of an oversized testicle and a childish picture of assholes. Tom Ellis's painting of two dogs mating ("The Dogs," 2010) is coupled with a white statue by Alexander Hoda ("Shoehorn," 2008) that shows a small pack of headless monsters involved in the same activity. Thoughtful curating.

Painting isn't totally lost, though. Maaike Schoorel (who was selected for the British Art Show 7) presents a potent antidote to all the smudgy and loud art on display. Her figures are so faintly painted that they come close to disappearing altogether. Sometimes discernible, sometimes not, they are as fleeting and all-absorbing as a daydream. Toby Ziegler's use of digital media to transform found shapes (later turned into paintings or sculptures) is a deft appropriation of what is for many an everyday reality: the continual absorption of degraded Web images. The cardboard statues of two schematic dogs "The Liberals (3rd Version)" is at once immense and shallow, overbearing and fragile — an apt metaphor for the very nature of digital information.

The show has some true successes. Clarisse d’Arcimoles's series of family portraits is one of them — and a very promising debut for the French-born, London-based artist. She has precisely recreated family snapshots (of herself, her mother, her brother): d'Arcimoles, age five, is laughing in the bath with her mother; the artist, age 23, is laughing in the very same bath, with the very same expression. Her brother is first shown as a little boy wearing a purple paper crown and then as a young man with the same crown, childish gestures, and bemused air. D'Arcimoles's idea is simple but efficient. The series is a potent portrayal of the first years of adulthood during which one struggles to deal with childhood memories for good.

Another fantastic discovery is Maurizio Anzeri's work. He embroiders geometric patterns onto old photographic portraits, often highlighting the eye as the composition's center. "Round Midnight" (2009) is particularly unsettling: a black-and-white picture of a naked young girl in tribal jewelery whose face and breasts are obscured by a black veil that Anzeri sewed into the image. The symbol of a fantasized and sexualized Orient is overlaid — and thus negated — with an image conjuring issues related to contemporary Islam.

Anthea Hamilton is among the better-established artists of the selection, but although familiar, her work doesn't fail to delight. Her 2007 piece "The Piano Lesson" functions like a stage. A pair of female legs, cut from a wood plank, serves as the main character of a static drama involving fake mosaics, a pastry, abstract wooden shapes, bamboo-stick fans, and a roll of tape. The ensemble calls on de Chirico's surrealist landscapes and the sexually loaded atmosphere of a gymnasium: alluring, mysterious, and tense.

With fifty-odd artists on display, "Newspeak" is a demanding show. And time is needed to separate the wheat from the chaff, but it's worth the effort. The good works on display here are not just good, but really strong, smart, and subtle. They articulate visual languages full of the very nuances excluded from Orwell's newspeak. Saatchi may not have a great feel for titles but he still has a decent eye.