The Saatchi Gallery has revealed their November exhibition, Body Language will be gracing the galleries during the World Interiors News Annual Awards ceremony on 28 November 2013. Interior design professionals will gather amongst the refined splendour of the gallery, to celebrate the winning and shortlisted projects of the awards, and view the work of innovative artists.
Body Language will explore the physicalities of being human through painting, sculpture, photography and other vibrant visceral works. The artists exhibiting through the galleries 7, 8 and 9 include Dana Shutz, Jansson Stegner, Justin Matherly, Amy Bessone, Raffi Kalenderian, Tanyth Berkeley, Michael Cline, Francis Upritchard, Nicole Eisenman and Kasper Kovitz.
Throughout Body Language the body can appear in fragmentary segments such as the work of Justin Matherly, squashed flat, or not at all; it can turn up slumping to the floor or gnawed from a hunk of meat, for example Kasper Kovitz.
And when it does appear, it refuses to obey its usual roles as carrier of narrative (in Dana Schutz and Jansson Stegner’s ambiguous scenarios) or epitome of beauty (see Nicole Eisenman and Michael Cline’s grotesques, or Tanyth Berkeley’s restaging of the feminine image). These are figures, then, but not as traditionally understood.
As a uniquely shared property, the human body remains visual art’s best metaphor for an investigation into how it feels to be alive. Physical empathy pulls viewer and object closer together to articulate life’s condition, and to draw closer to others in the hope of mutual understanding of the human body.
Dana Shutz’s Reformers shows worried-looking figures clumsily constructing a figure on a table. Shutz presents narratives in her paintings that fail to fully cohere, like a storyteller suddenly realising he’s forgotten the ending in the midst of the telling. The paintings’ styles similarly leap towards and away from closure, flirting with the tics of the past – the skidding brushstrokes of post-war abstract painting, the dappled dabs of impressionism – while revisiting the narrative approach those movements sought to make redundant. Schutz’s stories overreach themselves: there are too many characters, too many props, too much immediate activity for the viewer to find comfortable purchase in the tale.
The female police officers in Jansson Stegner’s paintings pose in attitudes of languid melancholy. They lean or lie or crouch on rocks or against tree stumps, their eyes elsewhere, their uniforms the only urban element in otherwise windswept, emptied-out landscape settings. The uniforms strike a special note of strangeness in Stegner’s works: without them, we’d be in the realms of the Romantic portrait, these long-limbed girls embodiments of lost love, or the trials of youth, or innocence abandoned. The paintings’ clash of symbols – discipline and sensuality, law and abandon – gives them a hypnotic force that is both beguiling and disturbing.
Justin Matherly’s works operate in the gap between the actual and the imagined. Their component parts – glass reinforced concrete forms are set into equipment sourced from hospitals – evoke a contingent kind of truth, something not quite articulated, not quite complete. His works refer to the celebrated excavation of the classical sculptural group Laocoon and his Sons in Rome in 1506, unearthed largely intact but with the central figure’s right arm missing. A competition to create a replacement for the missing arm generated a number of speculative substitutes; Matherly’s sculptures evoke these acts of guesswork by employing materials redolent of instability. The concrete’s surface – pocked and lunar, apparently crumbling – implies uncertainty, the subject’s majestic association and bulging musculature rendered pathetic, even comic, by its reliance on the walkers.
Bessone’s use of source material – Messien figurines, painted from images in auction catalogues or on web pages – epitomises her satirical investigation of the limits of aesthetic taste, as well as her interest in the uncanny animation of ordinary objects. Eunuch, presents a grotesquely pouting head, its title the epitome of a sexual threshold, seems pitched between tasteful style and lowbrow subject, dancing with merry abandon between the two.
Raffi Kalendarian’s paintings of his close friends and fellow artists employ a dense and graphic patterning that makes them oscillate between flatness and depth, as between an image and an object. Their attention to surface – the artist occasionally uses wax mixed into the paint – emphasises their hand-made qualities, connecting them to a tradition of artisanal craft or folk art. That focus on the physical act of making seems to draw their subjects ever closer, evoking an intimacy that is appropriate for images of flatmates (Highlanders) or former girlfriends (Rachel). Kalendarian’s interest in collapsing the distance between the figure and its ground locates each sitter as component in a particular memory from the artist’s own life: place and person are bound together, as they are in the mind.
Tanyth Berkeley’s work revisits the heightened artifice of the Renaissance portrait – hands and feet delicately displayed; flowers clasped to the breast; eyes locked on a distant spot beyond – to lend her images both a traditional gravitas and a playful bait-and-switch between the real and the fictive. The formats of her photographs (slender verticals for full-length figures, cropped rectangles for head-and-shoulder shots) emphasise the focus on individual autonomy: they possess the space absolutely. The frame is framed for them. Her subjects, people Berkeley met by chance on the street or subway and asked to pose as they wished, embody appeals to a transgressive form of beauty. Women, biological or transgendered, occupy pictorial spaces designed for their display as passive recipients of ogling eyes.
Cline uses the grotesque as a weapon of satirical intent. Throughout his work, scenes of contemporary societal breakdown are filtered through a memory of didactic imagery from Christian art. In Free Turn, a dramatically-foreshortened figure recalling Mantegna’s 1501 Dead Christ lies on a pavement, his head resting on a pillow in a cardboard box. Dressed as an old-time grocer in bow tie and apron, his apparent personal breakdown becomes an archetypal one, the writing scrawled on various surfaces harbingers of civic disarray. But Cline’s work swerves away from the monochrome morality of the satirical cartoon, insisting on staging an ambivalent curiosity that is the viewer’s own: notice the woman stooping down to look, in an attitude pitched between concern and indifference.
Francis Upritchard’s The Misanthrope gathers his tie-dyed robes and jangling necklaces and shuffles away from the world in performance of his name. His smallness is a kind of escape. Ornamental, he glides across an ornate side table, the garish pattern of his cloak at odds with his shrivelled physicality. Sculpture’s long engagement with the figure articulates a human need to immortalise its past, to make something solid of the transience of life. Upritchard’s figures, collaged out of modelling clay, wire, tinfoil and scraps of fabric, gather their uncanny power through a deliberate fragility of form, a brittleness.
In Nicole Eisenman’s paintings, art history returns like a hungover memory of the night before, bits of it coming back in unexpected snatches. In Beer Garden at Night, a contemporary parallel to Renoir’s images in turn-of-the-century Paris, the deep space of the painting is populated by figures out of the past, thrown together in a kind of boozy purgatory. Inebriation (many of the glasses are empty, or mostly so) becomes a pictorial premise: our eye performs a drunkard’s sway, ducking and swerving between the balls of hanging light, trying to find a vacant seat. The characters’ urge to touch each other – playing footsie under the table, or embracing in woozy joy – both generates the painting’s darting energy and articulates a theme in Eisenman’s work: the human body making sense of itself through touch.
The Spanish word carnalitos, meaning ‘close friends’ or ‘brothers’, shares a root with carne (meat), and that play on words finds a literal expression in Kasper Kovitz’s sculptures Carnalitos (Arana) and Carnalitos (Unamuno). Both sculptures are carved from legs of Iberian ham set into slabs of concrete; each seems to wobble and totter on its bony appendage, its whittled head emerging from the hunk of meat. Each is a portrait of a significant figure in the history of the Basque struggle for independence from Spain: Sabino Arana, the forefather of Basque nationalism (1865-1903), and Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936), the more moderate poet and dramatist. Their opposing political standpoints seem reconciled in Kovitz’s use of the same material, with its distinctive purplish-red flesh and ochre shell of fat, and the implication of two legs marching forward in unison, two components of the same physical entity.
The works will be on display at the Saatchi Gallery, King’s Road, London from 20 November. To read more on the Body Language exhibition, please go the the Saatchi Gallery site here.
Information on the artists provided by Ben Street. All images courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery.