Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Decade of Bad Art

There was a lot that was bad about the 1980s. Bad hair, bad clothes, bad TV; some very bad mainstream music. What people forget however, and what this small display demonstrates, was that was also some very bad painting. UBS Openings: Paintings from the 1980s comprises a scant survey of the resurgent figurative movement that was happening largely in New York City but also semi-spontaneously in Italy and Germany in that bad-taste decade.

Let's examine the big three C's:- Chia, Clemente and Cucchi. Sandro Chia's Three Boys on a Raft has the colour and texture of a wet woolly jumper on a drizzly day in Llandudno and frankly I had better colour sense when I was 8. Francesco Clemente's Self-Portrait is lazily executed with no discernible impetus or excitement for the personality, it is flat and unsearching and not what one could call the result of emotional inquiry. Enzo Cucchi's supposedly Homeric odyssey is horribly, clumsily painted and actually rather silly in a serious art context: like bad prison art, or something from an art therapy class in a home for the mentally ill on the outskirts of Basingstoke. The only difference is size: but making it big does not a work of art make.

Then there is the king-pin of the New York darlings, Julian Schnabel. Apparently Humanity Asleep (above), one of his awful smashed crockery pictures (which needless to say, like everything in the show is about ten-foot wide), was influenced by William Blake. Stop right there. This is exactly the sort of padding-out I detest when it comes to this tribe of pretenders, and Julian Schnabel is, to my mind, a talentless individual who happened to be in the right loft with the right size painting in the right market conditions at the right time. Will anyone talk about him in 200 years? Will they buggery.

And I'm not going to start on David Salle; I will however remark in passing that My Subjectivity is singularly awful, and the right-hand panel of the young girl in sickly green downright creepy. It looks like it was painted by someone who spends a good deal of their time in restaurants heavy-breathing over a waitress young enough to be their Granddaughter.

So what's good? Well, I very much enjoyed the early Basquiat who, in thankful contrast to the aforementioned, was driven and angry and made works filled with personal meaning. He also unleashed blistering comment on both historical and contemporary America, and Tobacco vs Red Chief is no exception. It is a picture of a wooden North American Indian Chief figure, a commonplace advertising device that used to be found outside US Tobacco shops, but placed in his demarked space of teepees and sprayed with blood his fistful of cigars becomes the currency received for relinquishing the lands he stands on. Basquiat shined at opening up uncomfortable subjects but he also made pictures that looked great; they followed all the painterly laws of balancing weight, space, texture, emphasis, milli-second calculations all over that built up an instinctively realised and considered whole. He knew what to leave out, which is more important then what you put in, and he knew when to stop. There is not a bad mark.

I also enjoyed seeing Bazelitz's Adieu from 1982, two human figures pinned like butterflies in a case, characteristically upside down, writhing on a chequer-board of jaundiced yellow, with such a freeness to the paint I was reminded I must put a bomb under these little landscapes I am doing, so tight and close-knit is the paint becoming.

So how did Schnabel and the Three C's who, it seems to me, have little or no natural painterly sense or ability, become so celebrated? I believe the paintings were so vacuously bad you could say whatever you like about them, thereby providing raw material on which curators' could hang their hyperbole in a time when dollars were burning holes in pockets. Furthermore, they produced work of impressive size with which it is easy to bombard the viewer. They often included mysterious imagery and referencing that somehow enabled a sense of them being intellectual outsiders (but paradoxically within the safe confines of the New York party set), which somehow married up to people's expectations of the mythic idea of the artist. With the exception of Jean-Michel Basquiat, these are not blazing lights who remind us what it means to be alive: they are as dull and as straight as your average financial adviser. But perhaps this was how America liked it's artists for a time, with Basquiat cannily added to the mix to show fair-play.

UBS Openings: Paintings from the 1980s
at Tate Modern until 13th April 2009

Tate Modern