The trouble with a recent exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery lies in the quality of the works on display. A group show by artists from 19 countries, Body Language would be easy to critique, if critique only meant criticism. It does not. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, critique Ikı’ti:kInoun, means: a detailed analysis and assessment of something, esp. a literary, philosophical, or political theory.

The problem, however, remains, for even a detailed analysis would not change this meagre offering. Not that it is an all out bad show. That would be much too critical. And perhaps too facile. Saatchi has made his name as an art dealer with a particular eye for emerging artists, many of whom have reached pinnacles of fame thanks to his backing, the greatest trickster of all being Damian Hirst. Some could say animals in formaldehyde or a diamond encrusted human skull are hardly works of art, but that is another story. There is meat in Body Language too, although here it is used as material not dead matter. Although it is still dead matter, and unlike Jana Sterbak’s meat dress, its message is harder to decipher. The work by Kasper Kovitz, Carnalitos (Unamuno) is carved from a chunk of Iberian ham and mounted on concrete; a satirical, and decaying, representation of a Basque politician, and a play on the Spanish words for meat, ‘carne’, and friends. So yes, there is a message. But is there art? This initial encounter was somewhat disconcerting, and the rest of the exhibition did not dispel this nagging sensation. Focusing on figurative art, ergo the title, figures were represented in a variety of configurations and guises, from squashed flat in Andra Ursuta’s Crush, to policewomen posed like pinups in Sarabande by Jansson Stenger, to a draped figure in a hobbit-like cape in Francis Upritchard’s The Misanthrope. Some works were blatantly derivative, particularly those of Makiko Kudo, who must have been channelling Peter Doig, or those of Eddie Martinez with echoes of Basquiat’s frenzied graffiti. Art brut could easily be used to describe the works by Henry Taylor, with paint used generously, but not very astutely. And yet, and yet. As despair was beginning to set in, some hint of talent began to make itself known. It appeared first in paintings by Chantal Joffe, whose Mother and Child had a loose, fluid quality, as did a series of several dozen smaller works running like a frieze, or a storyboard, along the wall. Somewhat brutish, at times risqué, Untitled described the life, loves and friendships of an adolescent girl, and were it not for Joffe’s casual painterly style, some of the images could be unpalatable. Dana Schutz’s Face Eater offered another respite from mediocrity, with a dash of the surreal and a strikingly contemporary treatment. Perhaps the most intriguing was a room showing the work of Denis Tarasov, Untitled (from the Essence series), and Marianne Vitale, Marker. Her rough-hewn, weathered ‘tombstones’ made of reclaimed lumber were a perfect setting for Tarasov’s photographs of Russian and Ukrainian mobster tombstones. These relics of the 1990s Mafia Wars offered a troubling juxtaposition to Vitale’s classical, reverential pieces, like two worlds clashing on hallow ground. Tarasov’s large C-print photographs, 119.2 x 101.5 cm, pictured mostly young or middle-aged men in designer suits, some posing next to a sports car with the domes of a church in the background, or sitting at food laden tables surrounded by wealth, were simply mesmerising. Dark, monochromatic, they were superimposed against sunlit cemeteries, with bouquets of delicate flowers at the base of the tombs. Eerie and compelling, these images were at once art and document.

Photographs by Tanyth Berkley presented a somewhat different world, one of women and transsexuals, intimate close ups offered without judgement or commentary, the names under each portrait like a quiet “hello, it’s me”.

As for Michael Cline’s oil on linen paintings, they had a touch of German expressionism in them, lurid scenes executed with some attention to detail — so lacking in most of the other works on display. A strange scene at a table, That’s That, or an accident scene in Police Line, were interesting in their bizarre narrative, and oddly satisfying in the slightly perverse rendering of the figures.

The final impression of this sprawling show, however, is one of disappointment. In a collection of artwork by young artists from 19 countries, one would hope for at least one moment of amazement, of visual enthrallment, of a sense of artistic accomplishment. In the shock and awe that seems to be the Saatchi formula for success, the shock is truly at the total lack of awe. 

Saatchi Gallery, London
March 2014