Abstract America: New Painting and Sculpture

It is hard to know where to start, but Gallery 3 is as bad a place as any. This houses paintings by Kristin Baker, a thirtysomething New Yorker and self-confessed Formula One fan. Baker’s taste for the track shows itself in a large and splashy acrylic called Washzert Suisse, which renders a speeding monocoque as fractured triangles. The feel is Futuristic – as you look at the picture, you hear, distant and garbled, Marinetti’s taunt that a racing car is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. Next to this work is another, The Raft of Perseus, which echoes Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. What is Baker doing with these old-hat references? He’s playing games with myth, jostling for position in the great race of art history. You can’t help feeling, though, that her Raft of Perseus might have been called Ship of Theseus – that it prompts (and, sadly, answers) the question, raised by that craft, of what is left when all originality is gone.

More to the point, Baker’s work raises the question of what it is doing in a show called Abstract America. Her style, all planes and angles, is certainly not photorealist. But there is a difference between being abstracted and being abstract: abstraction, as I say, is a way of life, not a post-Post-modern gimmick. And this misrepresentation applies to most of the work in this misconceived show.

In what sense is Jonas Wood’s faux-naive, faux-Hopper painting, Untitled (M.V. Landscape), abstraction? Or Matt Johnson’s gnawed-apple sculpture, Malus Sieversii? Or Agathe Snow’s appalling trio of junk-crucifixions, or Stephen G Rhodes’s cubic cow? Far from helping us to understand these works, shoe-horning them into a show called Abstract America forces us to judge them by a set of rules which they are bound, by their non-abstract nature, to break. Those of you to whom “abstraction” signifies something great – Josef Albers, say, or Jackson Pollock or Barbara Hepworth – will find the sense of being hoodwinked so pronounced as to turn you against works you might otherwise have enjoyed.

So why, so untypically, has the Saatchi Gallery got it so wrong? I’d say that we are living through a genuine crisis in art, a real sense that the styles and strategies of the past 20 years have run out of steam. Artists, and especially young artists, need new answers, and they are looking for them in old places.

When Tomma Abts won the Turner Prize in 2006, sad old Greenbergians like myself wondered whether we might not be witnessing a return to the virtues of what Greenberg called – always in quotation marks – “purity”.

The answer to that, alas, was no, or at least not wholly and not yet. There are artists in Abstract America who deserve to be there: Chris Martin’s In Memory of James Brown “God- father of Soul” is a lovely picture, entirely absorbed in shape and form and bituminous shine; Mark Bradford’s White Painting shows that there is life in Robert Ryman yet. But the artists in the Saatchi show to whom the word “abstract” might usefully be applied are few and far between, and you get no sense that they constitute a tendency or movement, far less a school. If Abstract America has anything going for it, it is that it makes this clear: that art at the moment has lost its way, and is flailing around for an answer.

Duration 29 May 2009 - 13 September 2009
Times 10am-6pm Daily
Cost free
Venue Saatchi Gallery
Address The Duke of York’s Headquarters London SW3 4RY, ,
Contact / / www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk

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