Champagne Life – Saatchi Gallery

Virgile Ittah SculpturesIf you ever thought that Chelsea was a bit trendy for you then the latest exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery may have you running for the hills. Prepare yourself now… the whole thing is devoted to female artists – I know, women doing art, the very idea! Now it’s one thing to do a bit of embroidery at home as part of your suite of accomplishments that will attract a suitor but these dangerously radical women actually produce their own paintings, sculptures and giant clay cows, and then put them on public display where people other than their husbands, fathers and brothers will see them.

Feel patronised enough yet? I’m in two minds about the purpose of this show; an all-female exhibition shouldn’t raise the slightest eyebrow these days but then again should it really be necessary – it’s like those game show quotas at the BBC that insist on one women being present, which on the one hand do guarantee a foot in the door but at the same time means now there’s only ever one women, not two or three as there might have been before, because now they’ve ticked the box. Champagne Life, as you maybe be able to tell, exasperated me for the same reason but this has nothing to do with the quality of the art on display which I cannot deride… ok I’ll deride some it further down, but in general the pieces were varied and interesting. What is frustrating is that there is no thematic structure whatsoever and the only thing these rooms have in common is that the artists are all female.

I’m certainly not against all female shows and the awareness that this will create for the dozen artists involved is excellent, but crucially with no curation it unfairly implies that the only merit required to get into these rooms is a skirt, and the only thing these people have in common is their gender – not their approach to capturing form, not the way they utilise colour or light, but their womanhood. So rant over, let’s talk about the art; first up is Julia Wachtel whose work builds on Andy Warhol’s fascination with celebrity culture and industrial image reproduction. Wachtel uses blocks of images across her canvases which are either one photographer broken into strips or the same picture repeated over and over, as is the case with Champagne Life, from which this exhibition takes its title, which has the same upside down image of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in three of the five strips, interspersed with two right way up images of a cartoon mouse. Other pieces do the same thing, inserting a cartoon character over an older grainier picture, which are interesting but perhaps a too familiar approach.

Much more exciting are Sigrid Holwood’s images of historic Swedish life in which she takes typical nineteenth-century rural scenes of everyday life and washes them with astonishing fluorescent colours to comment on the effects of industrialisation. They are extremely inviting images depicting happy peasants cuddling goats or butchering a pig but burning with highlighter-colours as if infected by industry like radioactivity. Just Googling the image now won’t show you just how vibrant these pictures are in real life as reproduction washes out the colour (which also happens with Lichtenstein actually) but Church Boats is particularly lovely with its watery reflections.

In another room two artists compare the idea of frail human flesh with the robustness of the soul and personality. Jelena Bulajic is fascinated by the lined faces of the elderly and reproduces a number of them in photograph-like detail. Her almost 3 meter high canvases are actually black and white paintings which draw out the personality of the sitter which, as the exhibition guide explains,  is contained within the map of the face.  It’s incredibly detailed work and skilfully achieved. In the same room, Virgile Ittah has created two wax sculptures of human bodies falling off two rusting bedsteads. Up close Ittah has used marble dust to give them a look of classical sculpture but with the roughened texture of the wax they have a wispy quality as though their humanity is wasting away before our eyes.

Upstairs two Alice Anderson pieces dominate the mood of one room using her copper binding technique to create an unsettling tone. Having recently enjoyed her exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on the formation and realignment of memory processes, it’s great to see more of her work her, albeit only two pieces – a giant cotton reel and giant ball, the latter being particularly disturbing, rather like the Dr Who episode where Torchwood experiment on a sphere in Canary Wharf that has no mass or existence just an ominous feel, which I liked.

Mequitta Ahuja’s paintings also uses bright colours to think about concepts of identity and each of her works contain a central figure that combines almost cave art-like figures with what we’re told are self-portraits and a mosaic approach to pattern and texture seen best in Stick Stack. Those life-sized cows mentioned above are by Stephanie Quayle a sculpture whose work examines the interaction between man and animals. Quayle has produced one of the best pieces in this exhibition in Lion Man a kneeling figure with hands tied behind its back, with the head (and luxurious mane) of a lion cowed in submission and possibly fear – a potent statement.

Not everything hits the mark of course and Soheila Sokhanvari’s donkey on giant green air balloon is certainly not my cup of tea for all its political meaning, neither are the numerous pieces by Suzanne McClelland which intersperse squiggles and numbers to ‘convey data sets pertaining to both body builders… and domestic terrorists in the US.’ I read the programme notes several times but couldn’t make sense of this stuff or what it was supposed to mean. It ends with a separate but related show of challenging sculpture by Aidan whose funereal black and white marble figures comment on religion, mortality and expectations of women in patriarchal societies.

So while I enjoyed a lot of the pieces, sparse as they are and most of the rooms feel very empty, I did feel frustrated on behalf of the artists involved whose work deserves fairer comment – particularly Alice Anderson who was deemed influential enough to warrant her own, rather intriguing, show at the Wellcome Collection recently. Given the increased coverage of female equality issues in the last year, especially around the release of the film Suffragette, it’s a clever bandwagon for the Saatchi to jump on. And one of the things I’ve liked most about visiting this gallery is the random collection of stuff with very little detail, allowing you to make up your own mind about it – I just wish this time the curators could have put a little more thought into the themes these artists explore. The politics of it aside, it should not detract from some interesting pieces and the chance to see 12 very different artists. Let’s hope that at the next Saatchi exhibition, all artists are considered based on their relevance and regardless of their gender.

Champagne Life is at the Saatchi Gallery until 09 March (currently closed  for Fashion Week but reopens on 2nd March). Entrance is free. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog is for people looking for more discursive and in-depth reviews of a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. I am also part of the London theatre review team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre including Fringe and West End. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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