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Matthew Collings

Matthew Collings
Art Crazy Nation

Sophie von Hellermann
Flesh Records

Abigail Lane
still from The Inspirator

Two photos by Andreas Serrano,
at the Barbican

Simon Verelst
Nell Gwyn
ca. 1680
at the National Gallery

Thomas Phillips
Lord Byron in Albanian Dress
at the Courtauld Gallery
London Letter
by Pernilla Holmes

Wiping sweat from his forehead and scratching his unshaven chin, Matthew Collings shouted to be heard over the crowd at the recent launch party for his new book, Art Crazy Nation. Now a national art celebrity, Collings seems to have decided to forgo actually putting forth any argument in favor of gossip and anecdote. Thus the book -- complementary copies were generously available -- is kind of like a modern-day Vasari with pictures and is excellent for reading on the tube.

The party took place at InsideSpace, a new gallery for art exhibitions at the fashionable Selfridges department store, where Roy Carnegie's photos of the Who's Who of British Art are currently on view (till Nov. 21). Distressingly, the thing to do for the elected seemed to be to have their pictures taken a second time, standing next to their portraits. Yikes. Carnegie's pictures of artists like Liam Gillick, Matt Collishaw and Tracey Emin are charming, honest images.

Abigail Lane at Miro
Got voices in your head? Then you might well take to artist Abigail Lane's new video installations, recently on view at Victoria Miro Gallery in a show she titled, "Tomorrow's World, Yesterday's Fever (Mental Guests Incorporated)." Those familiar with her earlier work -- casts of body parts, cast-off personal items -- were surprised by this turn to funhouse and kitsch imagery, which she nevertheless uses to excellent artistic effect.

In one installation called The Figment, an evil little boy-demon bathed in red light in beckons from the video monitor with a screechy voice, while a woodshed on the other side of the darkened room holds a pair of shoes that emit smoke, as if their owner had been suddenly vaporized. It's rather creepy. In The Inclination, Lane herself is shown in a videotape in a white rubber catsuit. She emerges from the sea and crawls along a rocky shoreline. Heavy breathing is on the soundtrack. Nearby is a poster-like painting reads, "Trust me, follow me."

The most fun is a video of a man in a panda suit playing the trumpet in the middle of the woods, part of the installation called The Inspirator. The video is complemented by cheesy music, disco ball light swirling around the room and an actual fountain (overflowing with ideas?), and you can't help but feel a bit giddy. A veteran of Damien Hirst's famed 1988 "Freeze" exhibition, the 34-year-old Lane is carving out a good international career for herself.

Sophie Von Hellermann at the new Saatchi Gallery
Why does she work in acrylics? Because "white spirit doesn't run from a tap." Why are her canvases so large? Because it "instantly creates space." Thus says 26-year-old Sophie Von Hellermann, whose works inaugurated the new Saatchi Gallery at Underwood Street this fall in London's hip East End art neighborhood (Saatchi still has his Boundary Road space, of course, though London gossips have it up for sale!).

Von Hellermann is a member of the "Hobbypop" group of artists and musicians known for their Happening-type installations at Vilma Gold and Anthony d'Offay. Her show at Saatchi was organized by another Saatchi artist, Martin Mahoney, whose childlike paintings have inspired a book and a show dubbed "Pathetic Art." Von Hellerman's works also look like a ten-year-old was given a big brush, and are almost pretty but not quite.

Her paintings -- some of which are 11 feet long -- have literary inspirations, like Vusering Hites, or artistic ones like Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, in which the men look like they are about to eat the woman as she lies back in her cotton-candy pink dress. Others seem inspired by contemporary life, depicting a corporate woman with laptop or a glam-girl with fashion magazines. In another series, she and fellow Hobby Poppist Markus Vater take on the supposed personas of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhoff after an imaginary move to the U.S., where they've taken up expressionistic painting.

Despite the considerable press coverage, no one seems to know quite what to say about these superficial-looking canvases. Nonetheless, rumor has it that she is being collected by the likes of Charles Saatchi, YBA curator Max Wigram and fashion photographer Mario Testino.

Photos at Proud Gallery, the Barbican
As if bony women in skimpy outfits were not celebrated enough in the media, the Proud Gallery -- always mentioned in the press despite the fact that few art-worlders seem actually to know where it is -- has mounted an art exhibition of fashion photography. The superbly stylish selection features truly challenging campaigns such as Nick Knight's "One in Ten" portraits of breast cancer survivors and Mariucca Casadio's "Ambiguous Identity -- The Fine Art of Androgeny," and does allow for some reconsideration of the envelope pushers of the genre. Interestingly, though Proud is a commercial gallery it still charges visitors a £3 entrance fee.

Believe it or not, the first U.K. retrospective of the "shocking" American artist Andres Serrano is only now debuting at the Barbican Art Gallery, Oct. 4-Dec. 23, 2001. The infamous Piss Christ and other works involving the artist's own semen and urine, along with large-scale portraits of Ku Kux clansmen, nuns and priests are here, images from his "Unborn" series of fetuses and his notorious "A History of Sex," which embraces kinkier notions of sexuality.

By now, in the London of the Young British Artist, these technically perfect photographs are hardly as shocking as they once might have been. During my visit, people of all ages strolled along in the gallery, barely raising an eyebrow. Perhaps it's a case of preaching to the initiated.

More disquieting was Serrano's "Morgue" series of photos of the bodies of murder and burn victims. These straight shots of the unspeakable make me think that Serrano must have nerves of steel. While being wholly disturbing, these images also manage to pull off a slickly polished beauty. They also raise interesting questions about the nature of artistic license. Who gave Serrano permission to photograph Jane Doe's corpse? Is it morally right that she be used as an art object?

Women at Court, Art on the Line
Reconsidering the Restoration is the National Portrait Gallery's excellent "Women at the Court of Charles II," Oct. 11, 2001-Jan. 6, 2002. In addition to demonstrating what a philanderer the good king was, the show has brought back from the art historical abyss the entrepreneurial court painter Sir Peter Lely, whose studio was known for the ingenious proto-assembly line practice of painting portrait torsos in advance so that when a commission came along all that was required was to add in the face. The sumptuous colors, fabulous fabrics and sensual flesh of the women are gorgeous, but their puffed out necks do rather leave you wondering if thyroid problems were prevalent at the time.

Down the road at the Courtauld Gallery is the extraordinary exhibition, "Art on the Line," Oct. 18, 2001-Jan. 20, 2001, which enables visitors to be as overwhelmed by British painting in the late 18th and early 19th century as people were at the time. The curators have recreated a Royal Academy exhibition in the style of those done between 1780 and 1836, meaning paintings cover the walls from top to bottom, hung barely an inch apart.

All of canvases were originally exhibited here, as the gallery was in fact the first public exhibition space for the Royal Academy. Perhaps most interesting is the way that the exhibition demonstrates what artists such as Gainsborough, Turner and Joshua Reynolds were up against. Their canvases had to visually dominate the crowded wall to get noticed. Constable in particular jumps out from the surrounding paintings.

The titular "line" was the most visible space just above eye-level, a space that all artists coveted, of course. Placement turned out to be political as well as esthetic. Royal portraits always got the best placing, while competing works would face each other across the room.

And in an echo of today's tabloid picture press, artists would exhibit celebrity portraits so as to get noticed -- an interesting forerunner to a time when many artists simply try to achieve celebrity status themselves.

PERNILLA HOLMES is a writer based in London.