Neurotic Realism: Part Two

The Saatchi Gallery 16th September – 5th December 1999

There comes a point in the life of any innovative, ground-breaking product, when what was initially the brand’s Unique Selling Point is adopted by the innovator’s slow-to-catch-up competitors.  Whether it’s bagless vacuum cleaners, Graphical User Interfaces, the Conservative party or young British art, loss of market share soon follows and, as any advertising guru will tell you, no amount of slick marketing can halt the decline.  For a lost leader, no longer the sole player in a rapidly expanding field, the experience of seeing one’s innovation become the norm, whilst still being congratulated for the great discovery is as disorienting as it is contradictory.  And whilst the brand can buy itself some time by reminding consumers of its long standing reputation and pivotal role in market history, the problem of redefining brand identity to meet the ever-changing demands of the present poses a more pressing and intractable challenge.

Hopefully, there still exists a distinction between contemporary art and, say, breakfast cereals or toothpaste. But all the same, the Saatchi name remains just as much a brand as Weetabix or Colgate and, looking at recent performance, the name we most associate with young British art seems to be having some trouble regaining brand definition. Reluctantly acknowledging that it could no longer maintain the unique status it had enjoyed in its glory years, before new British art had become a cultural commonplace, the Saatchi collection has taken all the necessary steps to write itself into the history of yBa. First with Sensation, at the Royal Academy in ’97, then more recently, with the publication this summer of the monster Young British Art: The Saatchi Decade.  But whilst this has secured the modern Medici’s name for the long-term, the Saatchi brand’s route through to that posterity seems, if only for the short-term, far less than obvious.

Neurotic Realism, now in its second instalment, is at its most basic level an attempt to recapture the momentum of the Saatchi gallery’s seminal ‘Young British Artists’ series, which petered out with the lacklustre ‘Young British Artists VI’ in 1996.  As new product lines go, Neurotic Realism has been thoroughly market-tested, with the New Neurotic Realism book as the concept proposal and Die Young Stay Pretty as its prototype model. Its significance lies in the fact that rather than maintain the looser agenda of the Young British Artists exhibitions, the Saatchi gallery has felt the need to import a self-contained movement, not as a theme for one show, but as a new model for the gallery’s coverage of young British art. If Neurotic Realism had remained a one-off then we could have at least looked forward to other shows dealing with other tendencies, other groupings, other interests.  But with part 2 and – who knows? – maybe even part 3 on its way, the hardening identification of the Saatchi collection with its Neurotic Realism shows risks exposing  for what it really is- a cynical attempt to maintain the collection’s profile by declaring the exclusive rights to a movement that doesn’t really exist as a specific grouping, but if anything, only represents a narrow range of the concerns of British artists working today .

The sense that Neurotic Realism is trying to force the work it presents into the Saatchi’s proprietary packaging, is reinforced by the work on offer in the current exhibition.  Compared to the bedlam of Part one, Part 2 looks remarkably restrained, and only just manages to satisfy the neurotic realism criteria.  Indeed without the Neurotic Realism branding it would look like any other mildly enjoyable blue-chip gallery group show.  Mark Hoskings’ sculptures fall furthest outside the ‘neurotic’ tendency. Based on UN blueprints for third world agricultural equipment, they might remind you, if your knowledge of post-war art history was very second-hand and very fragmentary, of certain bits of late-modernist sculpture in metal…like, you know, Caro.  This is supposed to make us feel perhaps uneasy about how fine the line is between practical functionalism and disinterested aesthetics, and also then a bit guilty about the fact that ‘we in the west’ can look at Hoskings’ sculptures as art, whilst someone ‘in the third world’ will be using them for farming so that they don’t starve. That this illiterate reading of failed modernism can hang out at the Saatchi only confirms how easily such notions have become received ideas in journalistic artworld chitchat. If the likes of Art & Language set about digging the grave of late modernism, it was at the cost of having three decades of artists like Hoskings getting drunk at the wake.

And the guilt doesn’t stop there.  Tom Hunter presents several big photographic prints from his Holly Street Tower Block Project series, portraits of a number of residents of a soon-to-be demolished block of flats in east London.  His subjects sit very still in their front rooms.  They are undoubtedly very fine photographs.  The sitters look like nice people and I’m sorry their homes are going to be knocked down.  But I’m not sure whether I should continue drinking the champagne or write a letter to my MP.

If all that sound a bit worthy, we’re on more familiar territory with the paintings of Peter Davies and Dexter Dalwood.  Davies presents two of his text paintings and six abstracts, which suffer from the same second-hand curiosity for late modernism that besets Hoskings’ pieces. Davies seems to expect that by casualising the enterprise of ‘painting an abstract’, the paintings should come out ‘energised’ and ‘spontaneous’.  Perversely, by rejecting the cliché of the expressing modernist subject-as-artist as impractical, Davies seems to want the paintings to do the magic for him, so that he maybe doesn’t have to try as hard as Bridget Reilly.

Dexter Dalwood doesn’t try too hard either.  Like the Lloyd Grossman of new British Art, Dalwood invites us to wonder ‘who could live in a house like this’.  Except that on this show you get the answers first, with titles like Robert Mapplethorpe’s First Loft and Che Guevara’s Mountain Hideaway.  You don’t have to work too hard to get the point; although we think we have access to the world of media mythology, all we in fact possess is a shaky construct of clichés and archetypes.  But then what? Having seen Dalwood’s paintings doesn’t stop me from wanting to know if I got the celebrity right on ‘Through the Keyhole’. As if trying to escape the show, the rats of David Falconer’s Vermin Death Stack spiral upwards towards the ceiling.  They are kind of unpleasant and a bit funny, and haven’t changed much since they were first exhibited at Chapman Fine ARTS.

The Saatchi Gallery plays a contradictory role; its status as a quasi-public gallery has allowed it to realise some remarkable exhibitions that might not have seen the light in London otherwise.  Conversely, the Saatchi Collection remains nothing other that a speculative enterprise with a regular turnover of assets, whose considerable market weight is capable of defining the commercial success and visibility of those it buys into.  There’s nothing wrong with the private benefactor as such, just as there is nothing inherently right about publicly funded museums.  But with Neurotic Realism, the Saatchi collection has furthered its egoistic desire to remain the bellwether stock in Young British Art, whilst the gallery has attempted to monopolise public attention with what has in effect become a year long publicity campaign.  What remains to be seen is whether this latest crop of not-so-young hopefuls can come up with work that can justify the Saatchi seal on its own merits, or whether the art-going public will have to be slipped second-rate goods under a further campaign of hype and spin.



Published in Art Monthly no230, October 1999 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated