Back from the Wilderness; after More Than a Decade of Shock Art, Charles Saatchi Leads a Revival of Contemporary European Painting. It's Provocative Even without the Pickled Sharks

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Byline: Tara Pepper

There's a new show in town at Charles Saatchi's gallery, and it doesn't involve a single pickled shark. Indeed, Saatchi has sent many of the brash conceptual works that grabbed crowds and tabloid headlines throughout the 1990s into storage. Others--including Damien Hirst's famous shark in formaldehyde--were sold to collectors or bought back by the artists themselves. (Still others--like Tracey Emin's patchwork tent, "Everyone I Have Ever Slept With," and the Chapman brothers' intricate sculpture "Hell"--were destroyed in last year's Momart warehouse fire.) In their place, Saatchi has installed works that may be no less provocative--blood-red-splattered canvases, images of babies mixed in a collage with animal carcasses. But they're done in a medium that is decidedly more demure: painting.

A little-known element of Saatchi's vast collection has now taken pride of place in his impressive South Bank space in London. "The Triumph of Painting," an ambitious series of three consecutive exhibits, aims to reintroduce audiences to the neglected medium, charting the development of contemporary European painting and showcasing some of its finest new artists. The first part, which opened last week, consists of works from the 1980s and 1990s by six painters who are already among the most influential of the present generation, including Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas. The second, which opens in June, features 13 less-well-known artists, and the final section, beginning in September, highlights more than 30 emerging talents and addresses how they have been influenced by--or moved away from--their predecessors.

With the revival of European painting, contemporary art has come full circle. During BritArt's heyday in the 1990s, "conceptual artists tore up the canvases," according to Meredith Etherington-Smith, who runs London's Art Fortnight, a summer series of auctions and gallery openings. Painting was declared obsolete, having lost the ability to depict an increasingly high-tech world in which images are ubiquitous and cheap. "Painters had to find new ideas and redefine their intentions," says Etherington-Smith. Pablo Lafuente, who curated a smaller exhibit of new paintings running at London's Haunch of Venison Gallery, closing Feb. 5, agreed: "There was a moment in the ' 90s when it seemed that paint had exhausted all its possibilities; there wasn't much you could say with it. What's happening now is [the emergence of] a generation of younger artists who are not afraid of choosing to be painters."

Saatchi's rich, varied collection of new works suggests their period in the wilderness was fruitful. Out of the limelight, painters felt free to take on pressing new subjects, with varied success. Jorg Immendorff's spiky, fragmented canvases incorporate a mass of symbols depicting Germany's complex, uncertain national identity. In "Cafe Deutschland" (1984), the Brandenburg Gate with its four apocalyptic horses and an impotent Hitler hint at the possibility of future reunification. But it's hard to get beyond Immendorff's self-conscious cleverness and the hubris that permeates works like "Solo," in which the lonely creator sits enthroned above everyday life. …