Saatchi's USA Today At The Royal Academy Of Arts London

By Caroline Lewis | 05 October 2006
image with the words cold war in the top section surrounded by snowflakes and hot stuff in the lower half with radiating stripes

Aleksandra Mir, Cold War, 2005. Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery, London.© The artist, 2006

Caroline Lewis sees what young American artists are up to at the Royal Academy of Arts.

USA Today at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) presents a new generation of American artists, with about 150 works by artists based in the US. The exhibition, running until November 4 2006, has been curated by Norman Rosenthal of the RA in collaboration with collector Charles Saatchi, marking a departure from his spotlight on Young British Artists.

The gathered paintings, collages, drawings, photographs and sculptures are largely colourful, often with an emphasis on ornamentation and complexity. A number of them make political statements, particularly with modified pages from newspapers and magazines (USA Today is an apt title) and comment on American culture – consumerism and black identity, feminism and post-9/11 tensions all rear their heads.

“In this selection of the work of young artists, each confronts not only their own fundamental existential questions, but also global poverty and inequality and population migrations,” says Rosenthal, “not to mention the gigantic environmental problems that confront the USA and the world as a whole.”

Jules de Balincourt’s paintings pose concerns about America clearly and brightly. US World Studies II has a map of the US as an island, with the states chopped and changed around; below, an unimportant bank of small countries make up the rest of the world. US World Studies III has a portion of each state coloured according to the proportion of certain stores there, like Wal Mart and K-Mart.

painting of a woman reclining on a bed with one breast showing and a dog with a ribbon round its neck lying across her

Christoph Schmidberger, Resist me - thats all I need, 2005. Courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery, London. © The artist, 2006

“Jules de Balincourt entitles another provocative and highly charged, angry painting People Who Play and the People Who Pay,” explains Rosenthal, “depicting the archetypal Miami beach hotel scene, the white middle classes lounging by the pool, complete with palm trees, while in the bedrooms in the background black servants passively make up their beds.”

The room that houses works by Dan Colen is dominated by a large montage of painted newspaper covers and 3-D ephemera. The headlines scream about the Hitler-figure of modern America, Saddam Hussein: Fair Game, Bush Gives OK To Kill Him says one, with a target placed on the dictator’s face.

Amongst the other illustrations pointing to America’s new fixation with terrorism born in the Middle East are nods to pornography – a PVC-clad woman on a National Geographic and a little figure with a phallus sticking out. Colen juxtaposes an American tabloid view of politics and ‘degrading’ western culture so that neither the US nor its terrorist opponents come out well.

painting of a map of the United States but completely innacurate

Jules de Balincourt, U.S World Studies II, 2005. Courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery, London. © The artist, 2006

Violence and pornography are repeated themes in the exhibition, as they seem to inescapably be in US culture – especially in Hollywood – in general.

Jon Pylypchuk’s installation, Hopefully I will live through this with a bit of dignity, is comprised of lots of small black creatures in army uniforms, in a post-battle scene complete with wounds and vomiting. Barnaby Furnas’s three paintings are also blood spattered, with bullets flying between men in suits, or a crashing red sea of spilt blood.

Kelley Walker’s manipulation of a photo taken during a Civil Rights protest, with a white policeman holding a black man by the collar, has been splashed with brown stains that look like dried blood, too. Dash Snow frames a collection of newspaper reports about corruption in the police force in Fuck the Police, another unabashed swipe at the land of the free.

photo of a woman with a lit match in her mouth

Josephine Meckseper, Pyromaniac 2, 2003. Courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery, London.© The artist, 2006

Consumer culture also takes a hammering in works like Inka Essenhigh’s Shopping, where almost human figures are occupied in a cold, futuristic hall, their hands adapted into prongs that pick up homogenous, steak-like goods.

And into this less than charming world comes the child – sexualised in the painting Monica by Gerald Davis, featuring a young girl licking a boy’s penis, poking out of Superman print underpants.

There are plenty of genitals on show, indeed. Ellen Altfest’s intricate Tumbleweed painting is given a new meaning by its juxtaposition with her detailed study of a penis; a fantastical pale horse trotting in a misty landscape is attributed with a long tube of a member in a Daniel Hisidence’s surreal, Untitled FARM Painting.

Wangechi Mutu brings a black feminist twist to surrealism, influenced by the likes of Moholy-Nagy, in a series of collages on found medical papers illustrating female genitalia. Uterine Catarrh has labia held apart by a speculum sitting between the eyes of a black woman’s face, her close-cropped hair a shape of black glitter. Is this vagina a third eye?

collage with a black female face and a vagina between her eyes with a speculum inserted into it

Wangechi Mutu, Uterine Catarrh, 2004. Courtesy of The Saatchi Gallery, London.© The artist, 2006

Ryan Trecartin is on board the outlandish bus, too. His crazy sculptures have a cat half buried in a woman’s abdomen (Vicky Veterinarian) and a tribute to his shattered hometown, New Orleans in the form of a busy structure entitled World Wall.

Waves engulf the roof of the ‘wall’, books cascade over its tiles on the reverse, a gaping hole in brickwork reveals broken glass within and a spewing of debris comes from one end of the thing, which appears as half house, half vehicle of some sort.

Vehicles and houses, plus their contents are whipped up into the air in Adam Cvijanovic’s Love Poem (10 minutes after the end of gravity). Three-sided painting depicts the suburbs flying in the air, the contents of refrigerators and living rooms all in free float.

In the chaos of all these works that shout for attention and reflect the brashness we associate with American culture, one work has a quiet, haunting brilliance. Erick Swenson’s sculpture of a deer fallen in ice, contorted and frozen into the snowscape with icicles on its antlers, is one of the few less hectic pieces in USA Today.

Take time over the aesthetic works in USA Today as there is a lot to explore. It may not be all American Dream. Fortunately, there are few dull moments.

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