Go Figure; Why Would Anyone Prefer Childish Simplicity to a Complex Drawing That Grapples with Form, Musculature, Accumulated Fat, the Tension of the Skin and the Bones and Joints Beneath?exhibitions of the Week

Article excerpt

Byline: Brian Sewell

BODY LANGUAGE Saatchi Gallery, SW3 THE MALE NUDE: EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY DRAWINGS FROM THE PARIS ACADEMY Wallace Collection, W1 IT IS a common complaint that figurative art has never been the beneficiary of support from the powerful agencies of the state -- the Arts Council and various Tates and satellites -- and that apart from portraiture the human form has been widely excluded from the painter's repertoire of subjects. This is far from true: the three grand old men of English art, Bacon, Freud and Hockney, are worldfamous for their figurative paintings, the work of Auerbach, Kossoff and Rego is figurative, and if we look back to Charles Saatchi's Sensation exhibition of 1997 (one that must surely be as important in the history of art at the end of the 20th century as Roger Fry's exhibitions of Post-Impressionism were at its beginning), we must admit that half the artists in it, and far the more astonishing, disturbing, repellent and competent half, were figurative.

Saatchi could well, at that point, have burst upon the scene with an exhibition only of figurative art in England, and without the trivialities of photography and video to distract from the ancestral businesses of painting and sculpture, the critical response might have been even stronger, for it was the perversion of these businesses as well as the perversions of the human body that engendered responses of acute disgust. Half a generation later, it is perhaps not easy to imagine the combined effect of seeing all these together and in so august a setting as the Royal Academy, the work of the Chapman brothers, Chris Ofili, Ron Mueck, Sarah Lucas, Jenny Saville, Martin Maloney and another dozen now almost household names. It reached so far beyond the Titian-Velazquez tradition of the recumbent nude and, figurative to the point of obscenity, we could not recognise it as art.

In his current exhibition, Body Language, Saatchi again explores aspects of figurative art but with neither the aesthetic nor the visceral challenge of Sensation, and as the artists are not English we can draw no useful conclusions from it, as we did with the YBAs. It is the result, I fear, of perhaps too random a trawl in the United States and casual acquaintance in Japan, Budapest and Yekaterinburg. The only familiar artist is Chantal Joffe, an American working in London.

On a super-lifesize scale Joffe's tall female figures recall the childish simplicity of Martin Maloney, a survivor from Sensation, a wilful infant, so to speak, deliberately bad. Like him, she has no sense of drawing and no feeling for the colour, texture and translucence of paint, with only an occasional dribble introduced to make the work seem painterly, and for her poses she relies on the mannerisms and exaggerations of the fashion magazine. Three metres tall, her big pictures are entirely without merit. On a small scale -- A4 or so -- they are not so violently unpleasant but bad enough to embarrass the humblest association of amateurs, and I am certain that were she to submit her work to any open exhibition it would promptly be rejected. Her small figures are, for the most part, those of the holiday snapshot, their insignificance reinforced by displaying them in a serried phalanx of 81 along a single wall, all so much the same that the attention wanders and one may not notice the subversion of this tedious ordinariness when, right in the centre, the grinning sitters to her camera give way to the commonplaces of heterosexual pornography. The exhibition guide explains that she is muddying the waters of the familiar.

If Chantal Joffe's work is shallow, shoddy and incompetent, I must find tougher words for other painters in the exhibition. Eddie Martinez, a Brooklyn primitive, an Outsider in vaguely Basquiat mode but utterly lacking Basquiat's poise and energy, contributes the largest painting, The Feast, some eight and a half metres long, two and a half high. …