Jake and Dinos Chapman

Paradise Row

On the one hand, these painted cardboard sculptures of animals, farm objects, and country scenes are exactly the kind of thing that gives contemporary art a bad name. With their sloppy brushwork in cheap poster paint, kitchen-table construction materials (tape, glue, cardboard boxes, and toilet-papertubes), and subject matter straight out of elementary school, these small sculptures seem to have been concocted just to elicit the usual “My kid brother could make that!” On the other hand, this was a highly crafted, old-fashioned art exhibition, with each work placed centrally on its own white plinth, just like a Giacometti or a Rodin. The sculptures evoke modernist masters: A goat, its rib cage, fanciful curl of horns, and expressive pointed face all made from carefully shaped pieces of cardboard and daubed in white paint, brought to mind Picasso’s She- Goat, 1950; black crows, hung from the gallery ceiling and spiraling overhead, and sunflowers recalled van Gogh. Like much of the Chapmans’ work, this installation—its title, Two Legs Bad, Four Legs Good, 2007, is taken from George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), and an audio tape of the book played continuously in the background—willfully straddles high artistic merit and puerile rubbish. This has sometimes made the Chapman brothers appear overly self-conscious, as if they were forcing ill-fitting portentous references to Goya or the Holocaust onto their raw, disturbing art in order to appease critics who might otherwise dismiss their work as juvenile.

But in this work, the Chapmans seem willing to take that risk, and they strike just the right note between Great Art and fourth-grade arts-and-crafts project. This is achieved thanks to their virtuoso abilities as model-makers, scoring high in such outmoded art criteria as craftsmanship, expression, even spontaneity. The anatomical precision of the dog’s begging paw, the cartoonish yet terrifying face of the blue cat, the humor of the paper feces dripping down the plinth under the cow, are all so on-target as to warrant hours of gazing at each flawless, childish detail. Throughout, the infantilism and speed of the works’ facture so contradict the accuracy of the results that the sculptures feel almost miraculous. The individual cardboard pieces that make up each work are rough-cut or hand-ripped, the ragged edges mimicking a farmer’s raggedy clothes, or a cat’s matted fur, or a dragonfly’s fragile skin. In one remarkable tableau of a scarecrow and two oversize crows in a field of black sticks (carelessly snapped at perfect angles), the figure’s hat is set at exactly the right jaunty angle over his skull-like face, the cardboard brim folded and glued just so, casting a perfectly scenic shadow.

This was a confident, magical exhibition beloved by art students, children, casual visitors, and this reviewer alike. One can imagine the positive response from the art establishment—admiring curators at the Royal Academy analyzing the Chapmans’ inclusion, once again, of Goya’s lynching tree from the Disasters of War, 1810–20—just as easily as one can picture the artists’ mother gushing, “A pink pig for mommy! What good boys you are!”

Gilda Williams