The Champagne Life Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, London
13th January – 9th March
Staging its first all-female show and coinciding with their 30th Anniversary is the Saatchi Gallery, London’s latest exhibition Champagne Life. There is a belligerent issue around the notion of all-female shows despite positive efforts in the art world to redress the gender balance in our society. Arguably, this deliberate labelling of 'all-female' could be perceived as tokenistic, but I put it down to the fact that female insurgence is trending. Remember the HeforShe campaign, ‘tampon tax’ outrage or that ‘equal pay’ debate? Feminism is selling - selling newspapers, selling products and now, selling artwork. It's inevitable that once something becomes desirable it becomes dictated by commerce - it’s the institutionalisation of dissent. It’s hardly a revelation then that advertising royalty Charles Saatchi is behind such an exhibition.
The show brings us face-to-face with the artists that Saatchi currently favours, commencing with the works of Julia Watchel. Emphasising the prominence of celebrity culture through her neo-pop paintings, Watchel's work is underwhelming at first look. The exhibition title is drawn from one of her paintings Champagne Life, which is supposedly suggestive of the affluence of the art world. Unconvincingly, her chosen subjects are Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. They may be con-artists of celebrity culture but they aren’t the pinnacles of the art world. Perhaps that’s yet to come.
Gallery three inhabits the Saudi artist Maha Malluh’s Instagram-friendly piece Food for Thought – Al-Muallaqat. Occupying an entire wall with hundreds of distressed pots it’s a repetitive composition that Saatchi favours (if you recall the Ants installation, Casa Tomada by Rafael Gomezbarros in the gallery’s preceding show). If the piece were a representation of female labour it would have resonated more with me. In its place was a potty description of objects traversing through countries and cultures.
There are highpoints with artists like Virgile Ittah’s life-size mixed waxed figures Échoue au Seuil de la Raison meaning ‘fails the threshold of reason,’ which are equally macabre and eerie. This piece is one of the artist’s earlier works where the focus is on the fragility and transience of human flesh. The guide writes that they are ‘trapped in interstitial zone of being, a limbo between life and death’ and the work embodies this entirely with the figures’ state of unrest.
Sharing the room are three large-scale works from better-known Serbian painter, Jelena Bulajic who was shortlisted for the BP portrait award in 2014. Depicting timeworn ladies, Bulajic’s portraits demonstrate electrifying realism, drawing the viewers’ attention to the folds and creases that accumulate through decades of life. To her oils, Bulajic adds limestone, marble dust and even ground granite, which are fitting materials for their monumental quality.
Curatorially, the exhibition lacks structure and thought, with the only artists working in a similar vein being Bulajic and Seung Ah Paik. Paik’s autolandscapes made of pigment, charcoal and rabbit skin glue are a unique illustration of physical anthropology as she sees ‘every wrinkle, scar, callus, dead skin, and lump of cellulite as a reflection of our history and personality.’ With contouring lines similar to those on an orienteering map I gladly lost my bearings following their journey across the canvas.
Certain sculptural works were also well made like Stephanie Quayle’s work reminiscent of a toned down Nicola Hicks, with her Two Cows, 2013 reflecting upon our relationship with livestock. Alice Anderson’s bobbin made of wood and copper thread, Bound, 2011 and 181 kilometres creates an entertaining dwarfism sensation, and attracted droves of visitors. Sohelia Sokhanvari’s taxidermy horse on a Jesmonite blob Moje Sabz, 2011 was compelling but how it was linked with a ‘fraudulent election result’ was as confounding as an all-female exhibition titled Champagne Life, as if that is what contemporary women lust after.
Written by the London-based curator and art journalist Eloise Showering.