PRINT October 1995


New Art from London

LONDON IS EXPERIENCING what might be called its “Neo–Swinging ’60s” moment. It has at least four or five young artists of international repute. It has a scrappy gallery scene that’s burgeoning in the most unlikely places: abandoned real-estate developments, friends’ apartments, even your corner pub. It has, as always in its moments of efflorescence, an immense theatrical flair, an ironic mordancy, an implicit socialism, and an irreverent devotion to genius loci—that spirit of the place that makes English art of any period so quirky and so difficult to export.

Now Richard Flood, chief curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, has taken on the challenge of transplanting that cosmopolitan yet local London spirit to the confines of an American art museum. When “‘Brilliant!’ New Art from London” opens at the Walker this month, it will float 22 artists of widely divergent reputations—from international stars like Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread to relative unknowns like Alessandro Raho and Chris Ofili—as a new cultural phalanx. And Flood strongly believes in the unified identity of the new London artists: “The only way they became visible,” he insists, “was as a group.”

Inevitably, some of the more raucous sexual and scatological content that characterize new British art will be toned down for the American museum. So the Walker won’t be featuring Damien Hirst’s new sculpture of two cows fucking (for that one will have to visit the Gagosian Gallery in New York next spring), and there won’t be any multiple erections or dismembered limbs from Jake and Dinos Chapman, who are showing Überman, a phantasmagorical vision of the physicist Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair atop a misty mountain—a deliberate charade of that eminent Victorian Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting of a stag, The Monarch of the Glen.

There will, however, be pornographic images in evidence with Sarah Lucas’ collages, which use photographs of women culled from the British tabloids. Perhaps the most provocative work on show will be Chris Ofili’s paintings with elephant turds—“organically inert examples,” explains Flood—imported in the form of stained and scarified Afro-English abstractions. But we won’t be seeing the artist’s turd portraits adorned with cuttings from his dreadlocks, or his sculptural “spliffs”—rolled joints filled with elephant excrement, which bear immediate comparison to Robert Gober’s colossal sculptural cigar filled with real tobacco leaves.

Nor does “‘Brilliant!’ New Art from London” feature any number of young artists whose work does not accord with Flood’s taste for the raw and irreverent—or anything from those who live outside London. (Wolfgang Tillmans was the one non-British artist Flood seriously considered putting in the show. He subsequently decided on an installation of the German artist’s street-smart photos for a later date.) So there will be nothing by Fiona Rae (“Her work is more aggressively international, without the idiosyncratic bent,” says Flood), Peter Doig, Louise and Jane Wilson (“Don’t they live in Brighton?”), Nicola Tyson (English but living in New York), Julie Roberts (from Glasgow), or the Simon Patterson group: “Their linguistic research is very meticulous, very Reading Room of the British Museum—it’s just not my personal interest,” says Flood, although he admits their inclusion, together with Hirst, would have made “a much cooler show.” But coolness is not Flood’s only prerogative—he hopes to mount “an exhibition that offers a larger cultural parallel,” one which he summarizes, quoting the lunatics’ refrain from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, as “City on fire!”

Brooks Adams is a writer and critic in New York.