“Neurotic Realism: Part I”

Charles Saatchi’s latest attempt to shape art-world taste got off to a brilliant start. Late last year, a blaze of publicity greeted the publication of his book The New Neurotic Realism, which featured an essay-cum-manifesto by Dick Price, art critic for the style magazine i-D, along with illustrations of work by some thirty-four British sculptors, photographers, and painters, most of them little known. NNR purports to be the next big thing after YBA and is now being showcased in a series of exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery—though it’s been abbreviated (perhaps somewhat neurotically) to “Neurotic Realism.”

Trying to put your finger on just what exactly distinguishes the NRs from the YBAs is no easy matter. Price’s essay is a slippery, scattershot affair. Art has apparently become “less about me myself and I” and “more about collective ideas,” yet it’s hard to square any cult of impersonality with an art that foregrounds neuroses (and what’s so autobiographical about Hirst and Whiteread?). Price also claims that “Traditional forms of making imagery have returned,” and this appears to mean a “return” to painting, since a painting by Martin Maloney, the best known and most media-friendly of the NRs, adorns the cover of the book. But Maloney was the only painter among the four artists included in this first installment; the three sculptors took center stage.

That’s not to say that Maloney isn’t talented. “Sex Club,” 1998, his series of twelve billboard-scale pictures of gay orgiasts (nine of which canvases were shown here), painted in a faux-naive style using flat, preschool colors, have undeniable charm. Certain passages are extraordinarily vibrant, even luscious. But his technical skill doesn’t feel grounded or tested. And there just aren’t enough variations in emotional temperature, making these huge paintings feel flashy and overblown. One can’t help thinking the young Clemente or the young Hockney did this sort of thing much better.

The sculptures of Philadelphia-born Steven Gontarski come close to Maloney’s work in terms of content, but are rather different in form. Eroticized biomorphs, sheathed in multicolored PVC, interlock and bond in a range of seemingly sadomasochistic ways. Gontarski’s main preoccupation seems to be the fate of pleasure in a safety-obsessed age: These writhing mutants appear to be wearing something akin to body condoms.

Brian Cyril Griffiths seems to want to put us back in touch with the material world. Griffiths has made a reconstruction of a Cape Canaveral–type control room out of low-tech materials such as cardboard and bits of plastic. This elaborate bit of arte povera seems oddly misguided, however, in these days of virtual reality, when a name like Cape Canaveral has an almost archaic ring to it. Perhaps Griffiths’s reconstruction is really an homage to the earlier, industrial age.

Rounding out the show with Line Out, 1998, Tomoko Takahashi has filled the central gallery with a wasteland of domestic and office technology—mountains of wires, cables, lamps, circuitry, hi-fi units, furniture, etc.—that can only be traversed via a series of narrow, labyrinthine paths. This dystopian archaeological dig makes one think of what Yeats called the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The first “Neurotic Realism” show looks like a mélange of strangers rather than a gathering of soul mates. If anything, Maloney and Gontarski have more in common with the Chapman brothers than they do with Griffiths and Takahashi (who, in turn, have more in common with Whiteread). It’s neo-Pop versus neo–arte povera. The new neuroses seem to have given this exhibition a split personality.

James Hall