Saatchi Gallery goes after the national zeitgeist in New Order: British Art Today

By Mark Sheerin | 02 May 2013

Exhibition review: New Order: British Art Today, Saatchi Gallery, London, until September 29 2013

Oil painting in which three human bananas dance in a circle
Steven Allan, We’re All In This Together (2012)© Steven Allan. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
It is less than three years since the last survey of British art at the Saatchi. In 2010, a two-part show, Newspeak, encompassed 75 names. Although there was plenty of talent, the artists have not exactly come to shape our cultural landscape; in the current show, you get a sense of revisionism.

This time the focus is tighter. There are some 18 artists form what the gallery is calling the New Order. But the selection is once again a variegated affair. Despite the curators' best efforts there is little in the way of coherence and it would be a surprise if we were to one day look back at this show as an art movement.

A case in point is the room containing both a set of giant hydraulic claws by James Capper and the delicate 3D tracery of Sara Barker. The former looks like it could noisily punch a hole in your midriff; the latter presents you with some delicate grid-like window tracery.

The inclusion of seven of Barker’s empty frames do hold their own against Capper’s mandibles. And in truth all the work in the show is of interest, even Guy Rusha’s lone, small but obscene oil painting of his girlfriend’s bum. None of it looks out of place in a blue-chip gallery.

Colour photo of a bare arm holding a training shoe aloft
Dominic from Luton, Shoes Off If You Love Luton!, 2012© Dominic from Luton. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London
But visitors are not invited to linger. At every turn in New Order there is something louder, bigger or simply newer competing for attention. You move from Rusha to Amanda Doran’s painted bawdery, and from there you cannot resist Rafal Zawistowski’s toxic portraits of popes, and so on.

Nearly half the artists in the show are indeed painters, so perhaps that does tell you something about British art now. The gallery appears to favour work with a self-conscious dumbness. Just take Steven Allan’s grubby banana people or Nathan Cash Davidson’s naïve historical portraits.

The best 'paintings' in the show, however, are a set of photographs. These are the work of Alejandro Guijarro and were taken in the physics departments of various top universities. Each one shows a blackboard complete with mysterious equations and painterly smears from a board rubber.

Another engaging photo, by Dominic from Luton, shows a black dog picking his way across a floor tiled with empty fast food cartons. Thanks to the inclusion of this happy pet, we too can smell the fried chicken. If you’re planning to make art about Luton, this is surely the benchmark.

Along with performance art, video may be the least collectible of forms. So any fabled collector's version of UK art was never going to be fully representative. However, there is still a brilliant film in New Order and, given its own darkened screening room, it does allow you to focus.

Greta Alfaro has set up a banquet in the wilderness and set the camera rolling as a venue of vultures descend upon her trestle table and noisily decimate the food. As they knock over wine bottles and chairs, their progress is both frightening and amusing. This is British art (via the artist's native Spain) in good health.

To be fair to Charles Saatchi, he did once capture, bottle and sell the zeitgeist of an entire decade. The late 90s saw him channel the YBA moment into blockbuster show Sensation at the Royal Academy. If he keeps trying to repeat the trick, who can blame him? But shock has been done, so what is left?

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.
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