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Art review: Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire at Saatchi Gallery

16 November 2018

Nicholas Cranfield sees society through the eyes of art’s satirists

© John Stezaker, 2007. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

John Stezaker, Marriage XXVIII, 2007, collage

John Stezaker, Marriage XXVIII, 2007, collage

WILLIAM BURROUGHS once described what he meant by “Naked Lunch”, as in the title of his subversive 1959 novel: “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork”.

Satire seems to be everywhere. The British Museum has Ian Hislop’s wonderfully missable I object, and at Sotheby’s (October 5) an iconic graffiti painting of a girl letting a red balloon go sold for a million pounds. Within minutes, before the handlers had removed it from the wall, it had self-shredded. No doubt timed to coincide with the over-rated Frieze London (of which more anon), this has left the auction house with something of a problem.

Burroughs came to mind when I came to James Howard’s digital prints of glitzy galas and parties (1996-2007) in the latest exhibition of contemporary art showcased at the Saatchi Gallery. Many of his photographs are taken from below waist height and deliberately set his subjects’ feet against the ground.

In one, taken in New York at the New Museum Benefit Gala in 2000, an old man lays his grasping hand on a woman’s knee. In that sleazy moment, it was patently clear why Cabinet ministers should resign, no matter if they have known the woman for years. I wondered if this woman had objected then, or since, to her oleaginous molester.

© Richard Billingham, 1994. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, LondonRichard Billingham, Untitled (RAL 28), 1994, Fuji long-life colour print on aluminium

As social satire attacking privilege and money, Simon Bedwell’s spray-painted found posters gave me great enjoyment. One spoof (“Ma’am”) was for a Queen’s Gallery 2004 exhibition of black photographs; and a holiday brochure of the site at Olympia (which Hitler wanted for his Greek HQ) is Untitled (Life after Liberalism).

John Stezaker had cut publicity shots of celebrities in half and mixed and matched them to tease us to see the minimal change that it caused.

Perhaps the saddest indictment of our day are images from Richard Billingham’s family. Taken in 1996 they depict the poverty and depression wrought by alcoholism and social depression. Sadly, what was true of the forgotten millions in John Major’s Britain is even more true 20 years later for so many more.

© Simon Bedwell, 2004. Image courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, LondonSimon Bedwell, Untitled (Freud Museum), 200, spray paint on found poster

What a joy it is to be able to see the art: unlike Tate Modern, the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea does not (yet) attract hordes of unthinking tourists, and, on the Saturday afternoon when I visited it, there was real enthusiasm for the 26 artists on show.

More encouragingly, as I went around I realised that I was one of only three visitors to be old enough to have read English Humour for Beginners when the immigrant George Mikes wrote it (1980).

Over in Regent’s Park at Frieze London, I was outnumbered by the Russians and Chinese. Would they understand the satire of Jeremy Deller’s banner “Come friendly bombs and fall on Eton”, or his little oil painting of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s alma mater burning down (The Modern Institute, Glasgow), or the Matisse designs on Paul Chan’s towels (Greene Naftali)?

Mathieu Malouf, who is based in New York, had built an outdoor WC. Here “WC” stands for Western Civilisation. To judge by some of the over-priced (and over-produced) stuff on show, he is probably right.


“Black Mirror: Art as Social Satire” is at Saatchi Gallery, Duke Of York’s HQ,
King’s Road, London SW3, until 17 February 2019. Phone 020 7811 3085. www.saatchigallery.com

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