What you won’t discover about British painting here (but other things)…

Original text by Lunettes Rouges, translation by Miss XS

After British sculpture at the Royal Academy, contemporary British art is on at Saatchi (until the 17th of April). The first edition was not very stimulating; the second is hardly any better, at least where painting was concerned (i.e. 2/3 of the 150 artworks presented by 60 artists). The paintings shown here are overall pathetically banal. But there are some beautiful discoveries to be made; the first room contains three ‘bodily’ sculptures by Juliana Cerqueira Leite that are amazing because they translate the struggle and imprint of the artist’s body against the material. She enters into a clay mass contained in a box, where she paves a path using her body. Descending in Down, suspended as if on a climbing wall, digging and turning on herself, she leaves an imprint of her feet, knees, breasts or buttocks –we don’t really know which – in clay; the white plaster cast of the cavity, quite deep, is suspended from the ceiling. In contrast, she climbs upwards in Up, in this clay mass above her, where she digs a lair closer to her body with her fingers, pushing the clay towards the bottom, leaving traces of vertical drippings; the black plaster casting is placed on the ground. These are sculptures that bear total physicality,  closest to the body- but that hardly reveal the forms of the artist’s naked body if not for a fleeting moment- a recognisable extremity such as a finger or a toe. Another difference with 19th Century plaster casts where immobility had to be absolute (see the craquelure of Présidente Sabatier that gently moved), is the movement that is transcribed here, a crawling movement, one of escape, quasi-animal, but one that also induces a certain feeling of panic (or a certain Houdini-like exhilaration). These abandoned pupa, these mineral traces of a body that manufactured and occupied them but is no longer, these transpositions at the body’s scale of a funeral mask that would have been made during the agony, translating the ultimate convulsions- are also very sexual forms. A black cassock penis pricked up towards the sky, a white vagina suspended from the ceiling like a single-flower vase, and the spectator’s body is subjected to confront this rather dizzily. It is symptomatic that in the gallery of artist profiles, Juliana is the only one whose face is not shown in her biographical portrait (a beautiful face, though, that you can discover in this video), but only her tattooed naked back and the nape of her neck pushed into the clay are visible : this is an artist at work in the midst of other artists posing, a naked artist in the midst of clothed artists, an artist whose face is concealed in the midst of the smiling faces of colleagues and peers.

Juliana Cerqueira Leite’s third sculpture is also an exploration of space with her body, an attempt to occupy, here, the largest amount of space without moving. Inside a clay cube, the artist frees her vital space, as far as her limbs can spread out, as far as she can touch. She obtains a volume that is more or less spherical, and of which ‘Oh’ is the imprint in latex. As much as the other two pieces were about submission towards constraint and attempts to survive, this piece, in contrast, is  a manifestation of voluntary deliberation to occupy the largest amount of space possible. This sort of physicality, ever-present in the field of performance, translates very rarely in sculptural artworks, and I found this body of work extremely passionate; and as a result, I regret not having seen the Physical Centre festival, of which Juliana Crequeira Leite was one of the organisers .

After this initial shock, the rest seemed a little dull: the superimpositions of the Bechers’ photographs by Idriss Khan are ingenious- the work of a creative art historian, much like the a posteriori research according to Ivan Lermolieff’s identification techniques applied in industrial architecture; freeing the essential elements of a composition by comparison and superimposition, revealing the very own essence of Becher photography (did they give their agreement? I doubt it, they [the Bechers] could have seen this as a denaturalisation of the purity of their work). (From left to right: Every B&H Bercher Prison Type Gasholders, Every B&H Becher Spherical Type Gasholders, Every B&H Becher Gable Sided Houses).

System House (aka Martin Fletcher) arranged this mirror-structure high up like a room-surveillance-post, like a solar panel energised by the (exhibition) visitors, or like a battery ready to bombard us with ionised rays: espionage, ecology or menace? These light and incongruous minimalistic pieces invite the spectator to be reflected- a little worrying and a little narcissistic.

I once again note the beautiful photos on memory and time by the intense Clarisse d’Arcimoles, whom I had noticed at the Photographer’s gallery, pursuing a powerful work on temporality- at the frontier between public and private, between modesty and unveiling, between history and fiction. Also, the medieval sculpture by Des Hughes, seen at Frieze, remains constantly fascinating- tragically abandoned on his pedestal. Then there is the misappropriation of photography through the embroidery by Maurizio Anzeri, who presents an interesting bypass of the medium, through which ordinary images are rendered surrealist, and restore aura to photographic reproduction.

Is the author of the blog so biased and disillusioned that he won’t say a word about paintings ? Yes, here is one, Tasha Amini whose five little hyper-surrealist paintings play with hair, exploring its mystery and eroticism. The forms she draws erase and dilute themselves, and she invites the viewer in a discreet intimacy, at a close proximity to the very essence of beauty itself- all whilst anchored to a line that extends from Duchamp to the Futurists and Surrealists, and even Picasso (Untitled paintings from 2006 to 2009). They bear a feminine fragility that is discreet but affirmed, and which pleases me a lot “between optimism and despair.” As much as other painters here only produce banalities, copies, plagiaries, it’s reinvigorating to see a young painter tracing her way with intelligence, sensitivity and autonomy.

Finally, the other ‘masterpiece’ of this exhibition, made to be spectacular (a little too much), is an entire wall of Peruvian funerary ‘nichos’ reconstructed by Ximena Garrido-Lecca. After the austere and heroic funerary monument by Susan Hiller, we are confronted here with a closer connection to the dead- one that is more tender, less clinical and historical. The tombs are decorated with flowers, cigarettes, and little alcohol bottles with more intimate inscriptions and pleasant portraits. The fusion of indigenous cultures and imported Catholicism is seen in each nicho– a sort of colonial syncretism that still proves difficult to come to terms with today. The importance of this installation, the vain attempt to find the proper viewpoint, to fathom all the details of the artwork, the hesitation between a global viewing or a close-up on details that are more or less inaccessible to us, especially in the higher sections, all this creates a dynamic tension and instils a frustration in the viewer- who doesn’t at all feel mortified, but rather calm and almost rejoiced by the beauty and power of this installation, he who has suffered through all the self-explanatory, reassuring paintings populating the rest of the exhibition.

Finally, on the highest level of the Saatchi gallery, Phillips de Pury’s auction house presented large installations by Chilean artists . In particular, The Duel by Josefina Guilisastian entire wall filled with 180 small still life images depicting various porcelain household objects- of which the accumulation contradicts the intimacy, of which the public exhibition opposes their private-decorative character, and of which the modernist serialisation confronts their roots in classical tradition. There is also Livia Marin’s The Missing Willow, an entire wall of porcelain plates with English replicas of Chinoiserie motifs- but where the willow tree element is missing: cut, transformation, colonial ablation, negation of weeping willows. At first glance, it’s a seemingly light-hearted artwork, but in fact, for me, it is also a complex and tough piece fuelled with politics. Strangely, I thought about Mathieu Abonnenc’s photos of lynching where the victims’ bodies have been erased, about this disappearance from history.

The British Art Show is now open at the Hayward Gallery but I won’t be able to see it. After all, will it be that different?

En français

Photos 1, 2 & 3 (Juliana Cerqueira Leite), Idriss Khan, Systems House, Tasha Amini, Josefina Guilisasti and Livia Marin by the author. Photo 4 (Julia Cerqueira Leite) and photos of Ximena Garrido-Lecca provided by the Saatchi website. All photos are © of the artists.

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