Karen Wright, 'Painting is the New Zeitgeist', the Independent

Read Karen Wright’s article in the Independent online, published 7th December 2016:

Painting is the new zeitgeist: London is awash with great painting, historic and contemporary

The new 'Painters' Painters' show at the Saatchi Gallery signals that painting is back in fashion but Karen Wright is not impressed with the exhibition and goes in search of better options 

Over the years there have been various rumours of the death of painting. At the moment, however London is awash with great painting, historic and contemporary. The majestic Jackson Pollock holds centre stage at the Abstract Expressionist show at the Royal Academy, while Ensor is a savory treat in the Sackler Gallery. At the National Gallery Beyond Caravaggio proves to still inspire with the majestic and strangely erotic St John the Baptist transported from Kansas.

While over in Chelsea at the Saatchi Gallery on the Kings Road, Painters’ Painters has just opened.  The Saatchi Gallery attracts large numbers of visitors and prides itself on being part of the zeitgeist so holding a painting exhibition sends a signal that painting is fashionable again. The list of artists at first glance looks promising. Dexter Dalwood was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 2010 whilst Martin Maloney is the self-claimed founder of the 'bad' school of painting.  So far so good. The problem though when immersing oneself in the exhibition one would think there is no good abstract painting being done in London.   The paintings themselves seem more dutiful and humorous than heartfelt and moving. Dalwood, a long term favourite of mine with his imaginative recreations of fictional places looks strained in his surroundings. I wonder if the Renaissance of painting by contemporary artist is exaggerated so flee to the commercial sector to reassure myself. 

Catherine Goodman at the Marlborough is best known for her portraits. She won the National Portrait Prize in 2002 and her portrait of the wonderful British film maker Stephen Frears was commissioned for the gallery. As a current subject yet to see my own portrait, I can attest to her seriousness and purposefulness. The geographical subjects of this show, Italy and India, are frequent destinations for this artist ­– places far from her Chelsea Studio. Goodman is the Artistic Director at the Royal Drawing School and also a beloved teacher. What she has brought to Marlborough, with its usually neutral interior is a liveliness and sense of movement and life. White Tree, a recent painting, depicts a location in India although the specifics here are unimportant. There is a freedom of mark making and an introduction of fierce unexpected flashes of colour in the pots in the foreground, whilst the tree becomes a spiritual force, shading both the pots and the ramshackle shelter. It is a brilliant and surprising picture, joyful and sunny yet mysterious.

White Tree

White Tree, 2015-16, oil on canvas, 178 x 160 cm

Jason Martin currently installed at the lovely Lisson Gallery combs paint in bright colours, producing glamorous, abstract paintings. Recently his works seemed to me to have settled into a groove of professionalism and ease and so I was prepared to be unimpressed. The new compositions made in oil paint – a medium he had recently eschewed, are combed with packing materials acting as quasi brushes and have broken the predictable mold. Thick luscious splodges of paint are there but the palate of tones has been restrained. Accident of material has been allowed to intervene and whilst there is the unmistakable hint of a horizon line the lack of control removes them from the cerebral to the visceral. In Martin’s skillful hands the colours and perspective seem to both proceed and recede. Named after the colours he employed ­– Untitled (Davy’s Grey/Paynes grey) or Untitled (Davy’s Grey/Ivory Black) – it is hard not to imagine oneself into the works themselves as they thrum with energy. They are redolent of the more cerebral landscapes of Agnes Martin and none the worse for it.

Over a course of several decades Charles Saatchi has been a massively important collector and tastemaker. It is easy to forget that Sensation at the Royal Academy, a show that confirmed the arrival of YBAs, of an important school of British Art, was drawn entirely from his collection. I used to work in a gallery in the West End and it was a rare Saturday that there was not a sighting of the Saatchi in his Rolls Royce arriving to buy the work of who in those days were considered to be the lucky young artists. At one point Saatchi wanted to follow in the footsteps of Anthony D’offay and donate his collection to the nation. Sadly he was attaching too many conditions to the proposed gift and so he eventually slumped off rejected, opening his now perennially popular gallery on the Kings Road. The question is whether Painters’ Painters will attract the same attention and kudos as Sensation did.

The title is enough to put me off the show, signaling a smug group of artists. The choice, while cosmopolitan with artists from New York, Norway and the UK, is surprisingly all male and all figurative.  Whilst Dalwood, is both serious and purposeful, incorporating imaginary settings, in one case Kurt Cobain’s Greenhouse. Brian Smith, David - Great Expectations - A Windy Day, with its wooly sheep in improbable turquoise and fuchsia is bound to be a crowd pleaser. While it can be seen as an updated psychedelic version of Cecil Collins’ spiritual works it seems purely fanciful . Raffi Kalenderian’s colourful Spirit Guides and Sunflowers will have the visitors amused, although the obvious antecedents of Henri Rosseau hang heavily over these inert whimsical animals.

Sadly now, the girls with attitude in Martin Maloney’s an alumni of the Sensation exhibition with his works like Saplings seem not bad enough. Whilst American David Salle was a big name in the 1980s and although his star has waned no one could argue that he is not serious and purposeful. Paintings such as Mr. Lucky explore the collaging of images discovered probably on the internet and transferred (probably by assistants) to the canvas.

What is surprising with the choice of these artists is not only their sex, but that most of the work is relatively old, dating in the case of David Salle to the 1990s. Surely with what is meant to be a blockbuster exhibition, more recent work could have been obtained. Dalwood told me when I met him that he had not been consulted about the exhibition, not surprising as it seems to have been plucked from the collection (which indeed it has) repackaged and renamed (while the National Gallery has done this with its strangely titled Beyond Caravaggio.)

It is startling to come across a contemporary group painting show that does not contain women, particularly as we are blessed with several women painters living in the UK and working at the top of their games. Anj Smith, Gillian Carnegie, Tomma Abts, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Chantal Joffe spring immediately to mind, not to mention the aforementioned Goodman. Perhaps Saatchi thinks he deserves a golden ticket as he recently put together the universally critically dismissed show of woman artists. It’s sad because painting is truly alive, you just have to go and search it out.


Karen Wright, The Independent, 7th December 2016