Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

The central exhibition room of the Saatchi Gallery at County Hall

Inside the Saatchi Gallery at County Hall

The Saatchi Gallery at County Hall

Stella Vine
Hi Paul Can You Come Over?

Francis Upritchard

Berlinde de Bruyckere

Jonathan Meese
Temptation of the State of the Blessed Ones in Archland

Daniel Richter

New Quarter

Conrad Shawcross
The Nervous System

Liz Neal
Gloriana Banana

Brian Griffiths
London Calling
by Joe La Placa

There's some new blood on the walls, courtesy of the king of contemporary art, Charles Saatchi.

Celebrating its one-year anniversary in April, the Saatchi Gallery at County Hall will open a new show titled "New Blood, New Artists, New Acquisitions" later this month.

What a year it's been for multi-millionaire collector Mr. Saatchi.

Since opening night, when the art world's elite jetted in from all corners of the earth to nibble on canaps and mingle with Spencer Tunick's naked performers, over 600,000 paying visitors have crossed the threshold of the Saatchi Gallery.

This figure represents only half the attendance of Tate Britain and less than 20 percent of the Tate Modern. But the Tates are subsidized, free-entry museums whose attendance is falling. The Saatchi Gallery's has been steadily on the rise.

Over the past 11 months, visitors paid between 6 and 9 to come and ogle at Saatchi's collection of British Art, dominated by the habitually hyped and predictably shocking YBA's -- Damien Hirst's pickled shark, the Chapman Brothers' penis-nosed child mutants and Tracy Emin's soiled bed. Saatchi contends that with the passage of time, such works have gone beyond shock and are now being rightfully appreciated by viewers.

Jenny Saville is a case in point. Her alarmingly plump figures are now just as much appreciated for their masterful painterliness as they are for their grotesque girth.

There has been much ranting among aficionados about how County Hall's opulent interior -- particularly the stately wood paneling -- is unfit for the display of contemporary art. Saatchi counterattacked by condemning institutional white cubes like the Tate Modern as boring and outdated.

Saatchi astutely listens to his audience and critics, and has noticed his visitors feel more at ease in the grandeur of County Hall. "It's an unusual space for a contemporary art gallery, which is what I like about it, even though I know it makes a lot of art professionals uneasy," said Saatchi in an interview with the Evening Standard's Andrew Renton. Renton is one of the few journalists the choosy Saatchi will go on the record with.

"New Blood's" subtitle, "Young Artists, New Acquisitions," is a testament to the continuing boundless energy of the indomitable Saatchi. He still relentlessly scours London's art schools and is often spotted in one of the 50 or so new galleries in the East End, snapping up new talent.

Saatchi's ten years of binge-buying the output of the YBA's has left his collection with middle-age spread. So, he decided to shed -- or should we say "make" -- a few pounds.

In a much publicized deal, Saatchi recently sold a reported 6 million worth of Damien Hirst works back to the artist, making a handsome profit on his original investment.

But don't go dumping your YBA's just yet. This isn't another Sandro Chia-style sell off (back in the early 1980s, Saatchi was reported to have sold his holdings in the Italian Neo-Expressionist, sending his career into a tail dive). The relationship between Saatchi and the now middle-aged Young British Artists is far from finished. Like many an astute collector, Saatchi is simply slimming down, retaining the best pieces and making room for new blood.

"I don't have the temperament to turn this into a temple to 1990s art," says Saatchi. "I get far too much pleasure finding new things and showing them off."

Over the past 18 months, Saatchi has been discreetly buying up work by young international artists in their 20s and 30s.

Well, nearly discretely.

One of the more stirring images to be exhibited is a controversial painted portrait of Princess Diana, blood dripping from her mouth, begging her butler Paul Burrell for help. Painted by a former nightclub stripper, the 35-year-old Stella Vine (her real name is Mellisa), the work sold to Saatchi for a mere 600 three weeks ago. The sale has catapulted Vine from total obscurity to the art world's latest sensation. She's become tabloid fodder.

But the plot thickens. Until six months ago, Vine was the wife of 51-year-old Charles Thompson, co-founder of the Stuckist group -- a thorn in Saatchi's side for years.

Stuckism is a self-proclaimed movement that believes only strongly emotional paintings can be real art. The Stuckist despise what they consider to be both Saatchi's and Tate Gallery director Nicholas Serota's "stranglehold" on the modern art market.

Believing the conceptualist art that dominated has dominated the Turner Prize has been "lost in a cul-de-sac of idiocy," the Stuckists have created an alternative of their very own -- "The Real Turner Prize." A protg of the Stuckist movement, Vine has been nominated for the award several times.

"When I met Stella," says the embittered Thomson, "she was painting ordinary portraits and still-lifes in an evening class, with no expression or emotion. But when I saw her doodles of strippers and night clubs, I told her where her talent lay. All her work is now Stuckist through and through." Stella has since left her moaning husband behind.

Vine is not the first Stuckist to succumb to Saatchi's allure. Tracy Emin used to be the girlfriend of Billy Childs, the other co-founder of the movement.

Time Out's art critic Sarah Kent has derided the Stuckists as "vociferous opportunists. . . a bunch of Bayswater-Road [street art fair] style daubers." But as one after the other Stuckists fall into the Saatchi stable, Kent may need to reconsider her position.

Other artists to be included in "New Blood" represent a clean break for Saatchi. For ten years, he's almost exclusively purchased BritArt. But he's now gone foreign.

New Zealander Francis Upritchard will be exhibiting a vibrating mummy. Earlier in the month she was threatened by fanatical animal rights extremists for sculpting with second-hand fur she found and bought in flea markets. When the activists realized that Upritchard was actually on their side, that her work was an anti-fur statement, they desisted. But not before the innocent artist had to flee town for a week as a precautionary measure.

Equally controversial are the Belgian Berlinde de Bruyckere's stuffed horses, contorted into Henry Moore-like sculptures.

Saatchi's current passion for bold painting is exemplified in the Basquiat-like work of Berliner Jonathan Meese, whose 10-meter-wide triptych, Temptation of the State of the Blessed Ones in Archland, fills an entire wall of the Boiler Room, the only white-walled space in the Saatchi Gallery.

German duo Markus Muntean and Adi Rosenblum make highly sexualized paintings of bored teenagers that are formally composed and subtitled by philosophically bleak captions. Also from Germany are the irreverent paintings of Daniel Richter.

Other nations represented include Japan (Hiroshi Sugito and Nobuko Tsuchiya), Denmark (TAL R), and the United States (Anne Chu and David Ordling).

Not abandoning BritArt completely, "New Blood" will also feature the work of the next generation of hot, young artists, like Conrad Shawcross.

Threateningly placed in the gallery's front room, Shawcross's huge Dada-esque contraption will pointlessly spin over 21,000 meters of rope every week.

On the opposite side of the room will be Brian Griffiths' massive theatre caravan constructed entirely out of antique furniture -- inlaid wood tables, hutches and oak sideboards. Other young Brits include Liz Neal and Dan Brady.

And there will be blasts from the past. One room will feature YBA's Mat Collishaw's 15-foot-long mosaics of a lynching and another of a cat being tortured. Don't call it a comeback, call it "terrible beauty."

Further on, Tim Noble and Sue Webster's neon self-portraits promise to cause tongues to wag -- but you'll have to queue up with the rest of us when the show opens to see what all the fuss is about. Mum's the word.

Charles Saatchi staunchly remains London's greatest cultural success story. Over the last 11 months, the Saatchi Gallery has provided a forum for artists that make art that reflects the world we live in -- like it or not.

Saatchi vehemently believes in the public as a barometer -- if a show is any good, people will get around to see it pronto. He deplores contemporary shows where inaccessibility is worn like a badge of pride.

"If museums regularly produce art shows where most of the public feel this isn't for me, they are entirely missing the point."

Spoken like a true man of the people. Happy Birthday, Mr. Saatchi!

JOE LA PLACA is Artnet's London representative.