The shocking image that refuses to grow up

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Britart is sweating. In 15 years it has morphed from sensation to mainstream, transforming for ever the relationship between art and a mass UK audience.

That was a huge, fascinating achievement, yet with every retrospective or public commission that passes there is no hiding another truth: none of Britart’s important figures has made a significant or original piece of work this century, and the one-dimensional nature of their 1990s achievements is becoming ever more obvious.

It remains to be seen how Tracey Emin will represent Britain at next year’s Venice Biennale but, among those of other big names, Damien Hirst’s Young British Art collection currently at the Serpentine is a dispiriting mass of mediocrity, Sarah Lucas’s retrospective earlier this year was catastrophically vacuous, and Rachel Whiteread’s “Embankment” at Tate Modern was a disappointment.

Now at Tate Liverpool comes a fresh test: the first retrospective of Jake and Dinos Chapman, Bad Art for Bad People, celebrates the brothers’ lucidity, satirical energy and considerable skill as draughtsmen within the context of an art that looks incapable of growing up.

Britart’s fixation on youth was a twin strength and weakness from the start. Coming at the end of a 20th century whose modernism was rooted in regression – Picasso and Matisse famously took inspiration from both child-ren’s drawings and non-
European primitivism – the Chapmans parodied and took to an extreme avant-garde art’s evolution through transgression and assault on tradition.

“Fuck Face” (1994), a fibreglass and resin lifesize mannequin of a furious toddler with an extended penis for a nose and a corresponding orifice for a mouth, is the most powerful work at Tate Liverpool.

Simple and reductive, it converts street slang into screaming materiality with the laconic casualness that is typical of the early YBA movement, and is an icon both for the egoism of the post-Thatcher “Me” generation, and for the last years of a century whose cultural landscape was defined by Freud.

“Fuck Face” literally embodies what pop psychoanalysis had been telling us for decades: beneath the social veneer we are all yelling, orally, anally and genitally fixated toddlers.

Like a toddler joke, however, “Fuck Face” was funny the first time, then the returns diminished. But the Chapmans’ mannequins did not diminish: they went on and on, larger, louder, more pointless.

Another revisits the same slang-into-physicality territory: this figure has two faces and a vagina, but already less verve than “Fuck Face”. “Zygotic acceleration, biogenetic de-sublimated libidinal model” (1997) is as cumbersome as its title but wickedly clever.

A many-legged hydra of pre-pubescent girls’ bodies, some with heads made out of genitals, represents the complex symmetry of the DNA structure: a Frankenstein fantasy for a decade waking up to the terrors of genetic engineering, widespread child abuse and child porno-graphy and – the creature is naked except for Fila trainers worn on its many feet – child consumerism.

But the similar mutant bodies with outsize orifices – “The Return of the Repressed”, “Bubble Bubble”, “Bad Trip at the Folies Bergere”, “DNA Zygotic”, the black “Token Pole” – that crowd the central gallery here add nothing, and by “Death II” (2004), a couple fixed in eternal fellatio, parodically cast in bronze, the genre is
bankrupt.

Everywhere the pattern recurs: stark, original ideas transformed into savage images in the early 1990s are repeated over the next decade until they are tamed into banality.

The Chapmans made their name in 1993 with “Disasters of War”, 80 scenes of torture and disfigurement taken from Goya’s etchings, rendered into small three-dimensional plastic models.

The shock was the audacious transfer of images from one medium and time to another; the 1994 life-size horror “Great Deeds against the Dead” , a tableau of mutilated mannequins impaled on a tree, also inspired by a Goya etching, was effective for the same reason.

It remains an impressively nasty work, drawing attention to the Chapmans’ affinity not only with surrealism and the grotesque – Dalí, Hans Bellmer’s fetishistic puppets, Bosch – but also with medieval gothic.

The Chapmans called this piece “a secular crucifixion . . . because the body is elaborated as flesh, no matter. No longer the religious body, no longer redeemed by God, Goya introduces finality – the absolute terror of material termination.”

That has been the consistent theme of their own work too, and is why Goya has always been the figure to be revered and smashed with the love-hate of teenage hero-worship. In 2003 the Chapmans exhibited a mint-condition edition of “The Disasters of War” defaced with their own cartoon-strip doodles and clown-faces.

Last December, in “Like A Dog Returns to Its Vomit”, they overlaid an edition of “Los Caprichos” etchings with gaudy monsters, crocodile jaws and fangs. The dog of the title was the obsessive brothers, the vomit Goya.

The series was exhibited at the cloistered London gallery White Cube on sugar-pink walls and looked unnervingly aesthetic, and I commended the sensitivity, delicacy and graphic skill with which the Chapmans had extended Goya’s Enlightenment vision for our light entertainment times.

A year later, seeing the work again on the long, blank white walls of Tate Liverpool, beside a window that gives the sad, grand silhouette of ships on the Mersey a weighty, real-life presence in the gallery, I am not so sure: this sort of art-historical graffiti has instant impact but looks slight, ephemeral, away from the protective seduction of London hype, and rather weary the second time round.

Goya is already fighting back, with the Chapmans’ additions revealed as just so much irrelevant tinsel.

The brothers have long hidden behind a disdain for art’s moral and spiritual pretensions, claiming that “we are bankrupt because it is the condition of our experience”, but they are in fact, like Goya, moralists to the core – but moralists for an age where art no longer bears witness (Goya’s “I saw it”) but plays on its own artifice and disillusion.

In this context, their greatest work was probably the theatre of cruelty “Hell” (1998-2000), a gigantic, swastika-shaped tableau of thousands of Nazi toy soldiers engaged in an orgy of murder and torture amid gas chambers and medieval battlefields circled by vultures, which was burned in Momart’s fire in 2004 and is to be rebuilt, “a bigger, better hell”, as the brothers joke.

In its absence, “Hell Sixty Five Million Years BC” (2004-5) is on show instead: a room of painted cardboard dinosaurs and birds that is laughably lightweight: the work is – deliberately – indistinguishable from papier mâché animals made by nine-year-old Dinos (a pig) and five-year-old Jake (a penguin) exhibited round the corner.

“Etchasketchathon” (2005), depicting a cannibalistic, paedophiliac world through colouring book drawings, is also child’s play, and “Paintings for Pleasure and Profit”, monster-faced portraits the brothers made on demand at this year’s Frieze Art Fair (“Buy Jake”), is a barely more subtle gibe at the art market.

A saccharine painting of a child with a gouged-out eye turns out to be another new game: through the blank eye you watch a peep show. This is “Dimanche soir chez ma mere” (2006): an old-fashioned living room – fading wallpaper, twinkling Christmas tree, black cat on the hearth, mug of tea – where Granny is fixated on a television screen showing reruns of the Chapmans’ 1990s pornographic videos, with the shrieks of sexual ecstasy echoing across the gallery.

Nightmare before Christmas? An image of a child refusing to grow up because he is so horrified by adult duplicity and perversion, or the arrested development of 40-something artists with nowhere to go?

Toy soldiers, colouring books, cardboard animals, Freudian toddlers, the world seen through a child’s eye, and two brothers yoked creatively together to reinforce each other’s boyhoods for ever and ever: clap if you believe in fairies, but on Liverpool’s showing of new and recent work, this Britart version of Peter Pan has had its moment.

‘Jake and Dinos Chapman: Bad Art for Bad People’ is at Tate Liverpool until March 4. Tel 151 702 7400.

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