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October 10, 2006

The girls are thinking about the joy of cars and good toothpaste, the boys have given up in tears: Jane Kelly on Charles Saatchi's USA Today at the Royal Academy

Posted by Jane Kelly

USA Today
Royal Academy, London
6th October - 4th November 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (Fridays until 10pm)

In the autumn and early winter of 1997 we were hit by a new virus - Brit Art, unleashed by collector Charles Saatchi, in his Sensation show, featuring work by forty-two youngish British artists.

Many of the pieces such as Damien Hirst's shark and Tracey Emin's tent quickly become notorious, and the Royal Academy even posted a "disclaimer" warning that some visitors would find the show "distasteful", and barring anyone under 18. Great fun, big challenges.

Now Saatchi is at it again, almost.

This show presents the work of a new generation of artists, which reveals the vitality of contemporary American art,
a notice tells us in the gallery, round the back of the RA proper.

His new collection, USA Today features work from forty youngish Yanks, mostly completed in the last two years. But this time there is no need for any kind of disclaimer, except perhaps to warn that visitors will be annoyed at being presented with a pale pastiche of Brit Art, and if they love America, they might be saddened by what they see.

Just as Hollywood producers trawl the European cinema for ideas, here we see a lot of things re-hashed, albeit tentatively. Whereas the Brit Art gang were in the main transgressive, this group are fairly well behaved.

Beijing born Terence Koh, 32, from New York presents us with Big White Cock, the usual boring neon outline, as favoured by Emin and Pierre Huyghe, and he also gives us Crackhead, two-hundred-and twenty-two black, plaster heads, all damaged and going mouldy. One would have surely been enough, as when you've seen one you've seen 'em all, but this is in the contemporary tradition of stacking objects up to the ceiling.

Banks Violette, 33, from New York, offers White Cast Salt Space, which resembles the work of Rachel Whiteread. He has created a white interior full of electric guitars and drenched in fake cocaine, which you can't look at for more than a few seconds before you just get the gist and go. Critic Adrian Searle noted that this piece:

wants to be edgy ...but is about as dangerous as Spinal Tap.
Huma Bhabha, originally from Pakistan but now safely living in the land of the free, gives us an image of a body in a black plastic bag, with begging clay hands protruding. It is redolent of Abu Ghraib, and perhaps Guantanamo, but also of Ron Mueck's silicone sculptures.

Josephine Meckseper, a German now living in New York, makes the wittiest comments, but we have heard them before. She has created a shop window telling the

complete history of post-contemporary art,
with references to Duchamp, and Josef Beuys, down to the banalities of commercial objects. She has even given us a free standing rack of cheap shoes for sale, some weren't bad and I was tempted to lift a pair.

Like kids these artist seem to be trying really hard to bamboozle us. Jon Pylypchuk, 33, from Canada, (the artists' names are often more interesting than the exhibits) gives us some stuffed animals standing around a dung heap, but this being American, where the culture is cagey about "bathroom" matters, it isn't real dung, just shades of Chris Offili.

Dan Colen, 27, from New Jersey, shows a large collage containing naughty pictures and phallic images, photos of Saddam interspersed with cuts from Mr Beever magazine. He should have donated his name to Gerald Davis, 34, from Pennsylvania, who makes puerile paintings of oral sex and gives us a peepshow up a girl's rectum, plus details of one of her sexual experiences in a shopping mall.

These were two bad boys really straining to shock Mom and Dad, and when they go too far it ain't funny and it ain't clever. There are a few oil paintings in the show, including a grisly still life by Colen, which looks as if it has come from the Disney studio, but most of the work is in the form of installations yet there is nothing new to engage or excite, perhaps because of a lack of reference to the formalities of past art, or because of a basic lack of originality.

Where Saatchi's British finds were given to self-loathing, always an easy route for the young, this exhibition is far less personal. Its main achievement is to show that America is vaguely worried about things out there in the rest of the world, wherever that is. There is no great anger or bitterness expressed, more puzzlement and nostalgia.

Jules de Balincourt, 34, from New York has made US World Studies ll a map of the USA with the states mixed up, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea where the gulf of Mexico should be and China and Saudi Arabia are also pressing in where Central America should be. Oh help, the rest of the world is out there and not looking friendly, in fact they are coming to get us, where is the US cavalry when you need it?

This work is partnered by a smaller canvass showing candy striped letters declaring: United We Stood, which has some pathos.

He is not only fretting about external problems, he is slightly critical of domestic attitudes too. His People Who Play and the People Who Pay, shows a hotel and pool, perhaps in Florida, where the servants are clearly black, reflecting the uneasy feeling we've all had whilst holidaying in the developing world. This touches on the US underbelly, and we could perhaps have done with a little more of this, a more sharply critical view of the USA today as it is lived, rather than the broader, blander images presented. We are in the world of Jasper Johns here, rather than of Edward Hopper reflecting on the Depression era, or even dear old Norman Rockwell holding up a mirror to his particular view of American life.

But despite their blandness, most of the images are permeated with sadness. Erick Swenson, from Dallas, shows us a deer dying in a map-like sea of ice, while Florian Maier-Aichen, another German, now living in LA, has a vast photographic print of a US lake from above, full of love and longing for the US landscape, the great country we all used to relish in Westerns.

He has another showing a stretch of coast-line, "coast" being one of the emotive words about the US, conjuring up the wild beauties of California, and also gives us a black and white photo of Long Beach, showing it as a ruined landscape, more brutal urban jungle than holiday resort. It is the only reference I could see to the problems of the environment.

There is a distinct lack of anger. Josephine Meckseper, a European, even parodies the anger of the past, showing a tailor's dummy dressed in a PLO style scarf and combat jacket, with a text about the Angry Brigade, 1967-84, behind it. Those days of angry, organising rebellion are gone, in fact there is something almost flaccid here.

Marc Handelman, from California, exhibits yet another large map like work, Our Banner In the Sky, which looks as if it has been taken from the moon, that other American colony once taken up in triumph and later abandoned.

This mood of floundering loss is best summed up by Rodney McMillian, 36, from South Carolina, in his Supreme Court. This is a cut out façade of the famous building, covered in the image of a Greek temple, but partly detached from the wall and falling to the floor, disintegrating and torn, an image of defeat.

This exhibition might have been called After the Catastrophe - it is about rather dull, uninspired people learning to live among the ruins. But none of this is made vivid enough. The artists seem to have abandoned any objective narrative about their own country and its fate in favour of putting up wailing walls, or rather wailing maps. However, while the boys might be crying, some of the girls are still up and at it.

Kelley Walker, 36, from Georgia, takes her images from CD Roms and advertising posters, but there is a freshness and exuberance about them. She also has a go at US politics, with a giant silk screen triptych Black Star Press, made from a photo taken in the 1960's during the time of de-segregation, a stab at re-evaluating how far her country has come since the days of LBJ's putative Great Society.

Kristin Baker, again a post-60's child, from Connecticut, creates a large painting which seems to explode in front of you, with pulsating colour. Her The Unfair Advantage is an image of speed, something still connected with the idea of America, goodness knows why when they have the lowest speed-limits in the world. Her father was a racing car driver, and she is fascinated by sports cars. She resembles the pop artists James Rosenquist, perhaps owes something to the Italian Futurists, in her unashamed love of technology, but this work also brought to mind the later abstract work of Matisse, as elements of acrylic colour roam across the PVC picture plane.

She uses jagged pieces of Perspex, pieces of plastic with dashes of paint, and cut out panels and collages to create a surface full of energy. Trust American women to be so strident. Even the title of her Exide Batteries Beer-a-Sphere, is good news. No girly, wimpish unmade beds or appliqué pleas for help here.

The girls are thinking about the joy of cars and good toothpaste, the boys have given up in tears - if only America wasn't our main bulwark against the forces of Islam in the next long geo-political conflict this exhibition wouldn't be so worrying.

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.


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