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The Royal Academy wants a contemporary glitz that no 300-year-old institution can attain. Charles Saatchi wants a cultural gravitas that no money can buy. Their marriage of convenience produced, in 1997, the pivotal Young British Artists show Sensation. Now Saatchi has been transatlantic shopping, big time, for a follow-up collaboration. USA Today is a massive overview of young American art spread lavishly across the two floors of the
Academy’s revamped Burlington Gardens site. Is it a landmark in the evolution of 21st-century taste, or an empty sequel to

“O my America, my new founde land!” Following recent lacklustre European painting shows at Saatchi’s former County Hall gallery, USA Today is fresh, frenetic and fun. In America, a society intoxicated with newness since its self-
invention as the New World, Saatchi the obsessive amasser of novelties has found his feet again as a collector. Certainly his subject is intensely relevant: 21st-century American art, created in the shadow of 9/11 and the Iraq war, has a distinctiveness and seriousness that now matters internationally, as witnessed by an invasion of contemporary and historical shows in Europe this autumn – the Serpentine’s Uncertain States of America, Frankfurt’s I Like America, the Pompidou’s Rauschenberg retrospective hot on the heels of its Los Angeles show.

The Burlington Gardens haul of work, mostly made since 2004 and by artists under 35, is a typical Saatchi mix of good, bad and indifferent. But the best is exciting and full of promise, the mediocre is culturally interesting, the emphasis on painting is a sharp riposte to the Serpentine’s disdain for that medium, and the whole thing is hung with such intelligence and grace that no London gallery of contemporary art, in this week of intensely competitive window-dressing for the Frieze Art Fair, can match it.

Saatchi opens with several pieces of theatre. Beijing-born Terence Koh’s “Crackhead”, a sex-and-death fantasy of 222 cracked, disfigured black heads in plaster, paint, wax and charcoal, shimmering in 222 glass vitrines, suggests an opulent, gay reprise of Damien Hirst. Opposite, Paris-born Jules de Balincourt’s giant parodic maps of America and the world, “US World Studies”, distort, diminish and colour – often screaming red, ironically nostalgic of the communist threat – to reflect an isolationist, vainglorious but frightened America. Towering above them at the top of the stairs, Pakistan-born Huma Bhabha’s “Waiting for a Friend” is a stoic, totemic figure, a relic of modernist primitivism. Bulbous wax and plaster thighs on tapering legs support a long wooden beam that is an unbending spine, and a mask-like head; a spillage of bloody lumps mimic internal body parts.

Decadence, end-of-empire, crisis of identity and history: the stage is set, and on it, you sense immediately, here are three talents to watch. Koh stands out for his ability to fuse the inventive exhibitionism and overt sexuality of recent Chinese art with western themes. Bhabha has a sculptural language unlike anyone else’s, and compelling political antennae. In an untitled work here, an animal/human body in a black plastic bag is poised to pounce or pray; only outstretched clay hands and a tail composed of a trickle of stones extend from the bag. The piece touches brilliantly on violent fundamentalism, feminism and the portrayal of the female form, rubbish-heap consumerism.

Meanwhile the European, de Balincourt, makes painting of unusual depth and commitment. “People Who Play and the People who Pay”, depicting a Miami hotel where white guests swim and sunbathe while black workers wheel drinks trolleys and make beds, is exceptional. The canvas has the crystalline, enamel-like detail, sun-and-shadow delight and wit of early Hockney – the poolside diver references “A Bigger Splash” – but, 40 years on, colour is sulphuric, an environmental nightmare. The pool is murky grey, the hotel with identikit windows and rooms is a bleached out denial of beachside bliss, and de Balincourt’s clever perspective, making building sway and palm trees topple as you approach the picture renders the entire scene

The diversity of this trio – their various media, the local baggage brought by different backgrounds – asserts the stylistic pluralism that is the new American vernacular; at the same time the three are united by a political alertness that is typically early 21st century and courses through this show. Maps and flags are everywhere: in Alexsandra Mir’s large felt-tip pen black-and-white drawings of the American map made from 50 floral motifs, “Real Estate Flowers”, or from snowflakes in “Cold War”; in Ryan Trecartin’s Wendy-house-like “World Wall”, with its upside-down map of America composed of Stars and Stripes fragments; in Marc Handelman’s unfurling of the American flag into whirling abstract uncertainty in “Our Banner in the Sky”.

Floods, hurricanes, tsunamis – apocalypse in every form is here too. In the collapsing “Supreme Court”, Rodney Macmillan has poured acrylic paint on to strips of canvas that crumple down the Academy walls; in “Love Poem”, Adam Cvijanovic wraps a room, James Rosenquist-style, in a painted tableau of tumbling mobile homes, cars, furniture. More subtle are the Gothic drawings and sculptures of the excellent Mark Monahon, such as the sepulchral, semi-constructivist prophet figure “Blindness is Believing”, which are suffused with spiritual loss and longing. These haunt the show, left-
over voices of humanism as waves of monumental disaster-imagery – Barnaby Furnas’s eight-metre painting “Flood (Red Sea)”, Banks Violette’s steely white post-nuclear installation “White Cast Salt Space” – wash over us.

Do these reflect America, or merely ad-man Saatchi’s predilection for the large-scale, in-your-face, one-dimensional message? Both, probably. But if there are many Americas – how intriguingly different this show is from the Serpentine’s ascetic, modest offerings – there are also at least two Saatchis.

One is the art collector whose marketplace sensibility allows him to cherry-pick some superb, revelatory works. The other is the advertising director, never happier than with lipstick-and-high-heels critiques of consumerism such as Josephine Meckseper’s “Selling Out”, whose vocabulary he knows inside-
out. This is the Saatchi whose taste for brash empty faux-expressionist paintings let down last year’s “Triumph of Painting”. In America he has yet more scope to buy such trash. Kristin Baker’s canvases supposedly evoking the adrenalin of motor racing, Christian Schmidberger’s glossy Austrian hyper-realism, Dana Schutz’s glib, flat figuration, a nightmare of Gauguin-lite revisited on the 21st century: how depressing to meet this sort of work again – and, still worse, to find it in the unimaginably bad, sad, silly company of pornographic dauber of oral sex Gerald Davis or collagist Dash Snow, framer of tabloid headlines in semen.

There is, it seems, no gimmick Saatchi won’t fall for. His is not a selective, mature eye; rather a voracious, ever-roaming, endlessly tempted, childlike one. Yet the plums in this show are proof that, however untraditional his ways of collecting, whatever futilities must be ignored and waded past, no one concerned with current trends can afford not to look where he looks.

‘USA Today’, Royal Academy,
London W1, to November 4.
Tel +44 20 7300 8000

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