“Young British Artists VI”

During the first five years of its existence, the Saatchi Gallery failed to show a single British artist—the eight exhibitions mounted there from 1985–89 consisted entirely of continental European and American art. Since then, however, British art has dominated. Seven of sixteen shows have focused exclusively on British art, while Richard Wilson’s used sump oil installation, 20: 50, 1987, has been a permanent fixture since 1991. Three of these British shows have been devoted to senior figures, such as Lucian Freud and Richard Deacon, and the rest to the so-called Young British Artists. More exhibitions of homegrown talent are planned, but they will no longer be branded as the work of Young British Artists: the concept has done its work and it’s clearly time to devise a new formula.

The sixth and final YBA show included five artists, and it’s worth noting that two of the most interesting were not in fact born in Britain. Jordan Baseman is from Philadelphia, having come to England in the mid ’80s to study at Goldsmiths College; Nina Saunders, from Denmark, enrolled at St. Martin’s in 1986. This comes as no surprise: Britain has profited from imported artistic talent for centuries—from Holbein and Van Dyck to Sir Jacob Epstein and Lucian Freud.

When I look at Saunders’ furniture sculptures, one of the first questions to cross my mind is: Will she stay? These pieces deny the possibility of stability anddomesticity. Each consists of a generously padded chair rendered dysfunctional by an alarming swell in its upholstery. Are You Sitting Comfortably?, 1990, is an armchair covered in a gold-colored fabric, with floral decoration. One is unable to sit in it, however, because a huge, upholstered sphere has swelled up around the left arm, blocking the seat. In The Age of Reason, 1995, (an armchair covered in shiny red leatherette) the swelling comes from the back of the chair, protruding like an opulent bruise. There’s a distinct lack of lebensraum.

This is furniture from a house haunted by a disruptive eroticism and the possibility of domestic violence. The phantom pregnancies are—literally—unsettling: they state, in no uncertain terms, that new offspring put pressure on existing relationships. As in musical chairs, someone will lose their place in the pecking order. In the catalogue essay, Sarah Kent suggests that these growths are an “indictment of [Henry] Moore’s romantic evocation of motherhood.” If so, Saunders would not be the first alumnus of St. Martin’s to engage with Moore’s work. Bruce McLean parodied the poses of his reclining matriarchs in a performance piece, Pose Work for Plinths, 1972, showing up their awkwardness and perversity by turning them into tableaux vivants. For Saunders, however, reclining is off the agenda.

In Jordan Baseman’s world, human traces sprout like weeds. Closer to the Heart, 1994—a succinct meditation on puberty—is a child’s shirt on a hanger, with human hair threaded through the left sleeve. One has the vivid sense of a young body lurching out of control. Up, Up and Away, 1995, is a macabre metaphor for the body’s fragility. Two wisdom teeth have been fastened to plastic mouth braces pinned to the wall like a pair of butterfly wings. The soul has traditionally been represented by a winged figure leaving or entering the mouth, but now all that flies out of the mouth is a grotesque monument to modern medicine.

After taking a cast of his brother’s face, Claude Heath—the best of the British-born artists—ran the fingers of one hand over the image while blindfolded. With the other hand, he simultaneously “mapped” the journey of his fingers with a ballpoint pen onto an adjacent piece of paper. A lump of Blu-tack fixed to the top of the cast marked the starting point for each new journey, and the finished doodles were then scaled up and displayed in the gallery alongside the cast. What one saw was a delicate swirl of ectoplasmic webs, each anchored to a thick line that emanates from the starting point, resembling upended sticks of cotton candy. Were it not for the bolt-upright central line, the “portraits” would be tender but quaint. The line energizing them is invasive, verging on the fratricidal—a black bore-hole driven deep into a brother’s head.

James Hall