August 2011

Arts & Letters

‘Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide: British Art Now’ Art Gallery of South Australia

By Terry Smith
'Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide: British Art Now', Art Gallery of South Australia, 30 July to 23 October 2011

Saatchi Gallery in Adelaide: British Art Now is another instalment in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s effort to re-badge itself as a contemporary art space. Already this year audiences have been treated to strong shows by Tracey Moffatt and Patricia Piccinini, both original and provocative Australian artists. Last year only three out of eight temporary exhibitions were devoted to colonial Australia and European old masters – the themes for which the gallery is still best known.

Charles Saatchi, the English advertising guru whose agency became the largest in the world during the 1980s, won fame as the ad-man for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party. He went on to distinguish himself as the leading collector of contemporary art in Britain and, for a few years, the world. Saatchi, along with such masters of self-promotion as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, defined the ‘YBA’ or Young British Artists movement in the late 1980s. It is the first example of art terminology coined by a collector that has stuck with art historians. Explaining the movement, Saatchi once asked rhetorically: “What is it about the life cycle of flies, someone’s old bed, a portrait of a child killer made with children’s handprints, mannequins with knobs on, someone sitting on a toilet holding a cistern that makes British art so different, so appealing?” Viewers in Adelaide will see Tracey Emin’s iconic My Bed (1998) an installation of her double bed replete with all the detritus of a disordered life.

The exhibition consists of 122 works by the current generation of artists working in Britain. To go by this selection, the YBA’s typical recipe of outrageous subjects, mad medium mixtures and a conservative aesthetic is alive and flourishing. Take, for instance, Spartacus Chetwynd’s stunning costume sculptures or Steve Bishop’s bizarre juxtapositions. The YBA are part of the historical background for these artists but are not alone among the references acknowledged: 1950s abstraction, 1960s design, 1970s political art, 1980s postmodernism – each period is evoked, by artists such as Matthew Darbyshire and Anthea Hamilton, much as one might rummage for retro in a cast-off shop.

These British Art Now artists also differ from the YBA in that a number of them are not British born, and bear the influences of other cultures. Few make a virtue of that, however two exceptions are Ximena Garrido-Lecca, whose installation The Followers is a large-scale, carefully detailed recreation of a burial wall from her native Peru, and Juliana Cerqueira Leite, who evokes the work of Brazilian predecessors such as Mira Schendel with elegant subtlety.

This exhibition represents quite accurately the contemporary art Saatchi finds congenial: that which extends and updates modernist painting, sculpture and graphic art, leavened with echoes – mostly rather tame – of the confrontational installations of the YBA. There is little evidence of other major tendencies in art today. Ironic engagement with contemporary realities is in short supply and the only place where social media may be found is on the Saatchi Gallery website.

Terry Smith
Terry Smith is an award-winning art historian and critic, a professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh and a visiting professor at the University of New South Wales. His books include What is Contemporary Art? and The Architecture of Aftermath.

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