Today marked the opening day for the Saatchi Gallery’s third exhibition in its gorgeous new gallery on Duke of York Square. In the autumn, the Saatchi hosted new art from China, and the spring saw an incredible genre-defying exhibition of new art from the Middle East. For the gallery’s blockbuster summer show, Sir Charles turned his eyes back towards the west. “Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture” is an incredible, diverse, and colourful testament to contemporary art without radical politics.
The artists involved in the exhibition all seem to respond to the very same vein of abstraction that was pioneered by their American forebears. The gallery walls are lined with reinterpretations of the themes invented by Abstract Expressionists like Pollock and Motherwell. While looking at the works in the show, countless demands are simultaneously made on the viewer. Of course, there is the constant question of, ‘But is it art?’ while sub-sets of questions are forged by one’s initial response.
More than anything else, ‘Abstract America’ begs a reconsideration of the importance of abstraction. Is abstract painting relevant? Or is it now merely an element of greater abstract multi-media works? Also, how have the limits of abstraction expanded since the Ab-Ex group? Can abstraction be rooted in figurative visions? Also, what if the audience is expecting an abstract? Does that change the meaning of the work into something figurative which merely resembles non-figurative painting?
The ‘Abstract America’ artists read like a roster of young, visionary, and uncompromising talents: Agathe Snow, Sterling Ruby, Aaron Young, Patrick Hill, Kristin Baker, Mark Bradford, Jonas Wood, Paul Lee, Matt Johnson, Elizabeth Neel, Rachel Harrison, Carter, Mark Grotjahn, Francesca DiMattio, Ryan Johnson, Guerra de la Paz, Eric and Heather ChanSchatz, Baker Overstreet, Gedi Sibony, Peter Coffin, Jedediah Ceasar, Amanda Ross-Ho, Kirsten Stoltmann, Tom Burr, Stephen G. Rhodes, John Bauer, Chris Martin, Amy Sillman, Jacob Hashimoto, Dan Walsh, Bart Exposito, and Joe Bradley. Perhaps the group will go on to form a kind of shining diamond American YBA stable for Sir Charles.
One work which stood out particularly well as a response to the Abstract Expressionists was Aaron Young’s Greeting Card 10a, 2007. It takes its title from a piece by Pollock of the same name, no doubt implying who he’d like to be compared to. To create the work, Young laid plywood panels on his studio floor which were painted with red, yellow, and orange paint, with a wet layer of jet black on top. Twelve motorcycles were brought into the studio to drive over the wet, black panels, their tires revealing the bright colours underneath in an abstract pattern. Young uses a methodical process to create spontaneous work, resulting in merely superficial similarities to the work’s namesake.
The boldest, most humble works in the show are two canvasses by Jonas Wood. Wood is a quickly-rising Los Angeles figurative painter whose scenes echo the bright colours of 1960s illustration, the shapes of Stuart Davis, and the sleepy Americana of Edward Hopper. Untitled (M.V. Landscape), 2008 was my favourite work in the whole exhibition. Wood translates the warm, colourful landscape of a bright, small town into a flattened, two-dimensional fantasy set piece. Every house is pulled to the foreground, favouring a burst of architectures over a realistic depiction of space.
Elizabeth Neel’s paintings The Humpndump (2008) and Good vs. Evil (2009) are coy criticisms of abstract painting. The granddaughter of landmark American painter Alice Neel, you can almost see Alice’s distinctive lines in Elizabeth’s work. Her colours are reminiscent of Cecily Brown, her lines like Alice Neel’s and Cy Twombly. The most remarkable thing about these works is their frenzy. It feels as though as soon as she thinks of an idea, she furiously paints so as not to forget. This kind of immediacy and urgency was a recurring theme in the show, evident in other works by Kristin Baker, Carter, and Mark Grotjahn (more in his painting Untitled (Face) 2007 than in his Butterfly works).
Other noteworthy pieces include Francesca diMattio’s hypnotic five-panel painting Tunnel (2007), a sprawling, imaginary, architectural tableau; Chris Martin’s Motherwell-esque obsessively repetitive canvasses; and Baker Overstreet’s intensely colourful naïve and geometric paintings, also reminiscent of the works of Stuart Davis. Overstreet’s Flattering Turtleneck (2006) is exceptionally casual, bright, and deceptively engaging in its simplicity.
Star New York painter Amy Sillman rounds out the diverse, colourful show. Her fragmented, kaleidoscopic, and animated paintings are deceptively agitated and aggressive. They echo passivity and ferociousness simultaneously, disguising their rawness behind a polite veil of polished pastels. Her 2005 painting My Pirate takes a tall ship as its subject, mixing hardly recognizable forms with a cheeky nod to Abstraction, present and past.
Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (020-7811 3070; www.saatchigallery.co.uk) 29 May to 13 September