Charles Saatchi has for some years presented himself as the apostle of contemporary painting but it was always his brilliant eye for sculpture that made him a collector of genius. He inaugurated his Boundary Road gallery with Donald Judd, knocked down the flat next door to make space for Richard Serra, was the pioneering UK supporter of Jeff Koons, and launched Damien Hirst’s career by commissioning “The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, the shark in formaldehyde. Anyone interested in sculpture must look wherever he goes.
The Shape of Things To Come, the first show dedicated to sculpture at his King’s Road gallery, opened on Friday, and is exhilarating: a sure sign that, in this medium at least, Saatchi has not lost his touch. Twenty artists, the majority born in the 1970s and from Europe and the US, are explored in depth in a survey that amounts to more than the usual Saatchi ragbag and catch-all: rather, fresh work is presented cogently and alluringly to suggest that a coherent trend, the beginning of a new force in sculpture, is emerging.
Towering over the downstairs galleries, a four-metre wood and resin colossus covered in fuzzy horse hair and quartz crystals, with a head of tangled wire, invites you to get up close and see yourself reflected in the mirrored rhomboids and glittery staircase, dripping with stalactites, that ring his body: David Altmejd’s “The New North”, a remix of human figuration as landscape, architecture and sci-fi fantasy all at once.
Upstairs, in the series “SHE”, Rebecca Warren’s grotesque, enormous earth mothers, bumpy, bulbous, sprouting outsize breasts or flailing limbs, are roughly sculpted in unfired clay to riff on fat, flesh, femininity as fetishised by the male gaze – images by the photographer Helmut Newton and the painter Willem de Kooning are exuberantly subverted even as Warren reasserts the formal power of the female nude.
Her comic spirit is wonderfully juxtaposed with the tragic sensibility of another impressive female sculptor of the human form, Berlinde de Bruyckere, whose debt is to the baroque. “Marthe” is an eerily naturalistic wax and epoxy torso, sinewy, elongated, twisted and bent in suffering, whose bluish, pinkish translucent surface suggests decay, bleeding, torture – the figure is exhibited in a large glass cage.
Size matters here. Martin Honert’s intricately detailed polyurethane rubber hoodies “Riesen (Giants)” is a pair of three-metre wanderers from a German forest, lost and dazed to find themselves in Chelsea: you look up at their eager-sad faces as if from a child’s fairy tale perspective. Leeds-born, Los Angeles-based Thomas Houseago’s plaster and jute figures are as tall: “Caryatide with Squatting Man” calls to mind a giant, solid, deliberately graceless version of the early sculptures of Modigliani; “Folded Man” looks as if he might tumble on top of you; “Figure 2” is fragile, disintegrating, because parts of the body are only two-dimensional – a leg, an arm and the face are painted on in graphite and oil stick.
Fellow Californian Matthew Monahan achieves a similarly unsettling mix of flatness and volume with stylised sepulchral figures in wax, styrofoam, glass and metal leaf, which are topped or sliced through with charcoal-drawn faces on crumpled paper, as in the folky golem “Sweet Grunt”, the menacing silvery bust “Midnight Mission” and “The Family Tree”, a portrait rolled into a cone-shaped object like a funeral pyre. The black-white-silver room devoted to Monahan’s ironically flimsy yet dynamic creatures is a superb overview of an eclectic talent rooted, as a series of works on paper makes clear, in draughtsmanship.
All these artists have been a steady if quiet presence on the international scene for the past half-decade – Altmejd represented Canada at the 2007 Venice biennale, Warren was a Turner Prize contender in 2006, Houseago is promoted by François Pinault and will star in his Palazzo Grassi opening next week. Saatchi’s achievement is to group together these very different reinventors of the human form, showing each as an individual, developing talent but revealing common strands too: a cut-and-paste, multimedia aesthetic, an irreverent but deeply thought response to art history, an unquestioned assumption that all sources are equal. This generation is the first to have grown up with the image overload that characterises life today: Houseago names Jacob Epstein and Star Wars’ Darth Vader as twin influences; Monahan evokes constructivism, medieval gothic and Hollywood; Warren calls her fragmented pair of striding legs in high heels, splayed out across two plinths, “Croccioni”, referencing the macho futurist Umberto Boccioni and the cartoons of Robert Crumb.
By no means everything here is concerned with the body: other narratives turn on absurdist tableaux – Folkert de Jong’s styrofoam saltimbanques cavorting on tree trunks in “Seht der Mensch; The Shooting Lesson”, as if Playmobil had started modelling Picasso – and on the city and its crash-junk, creation-from-destruction culture. David Batchelor’s “Brick Lane Remix 1” is made of fluorescent shelving units, cables and plugboards. Dirk Skreber recycles buckled crashed cars. Sterling Ruby’s spray-painted PVC pipes and plastic urethane “Recondite” is an anti-monument, sardonically soaring yet dribbling down the double-height gallery 10. Roger Hiorns’ blue-gleaming “Leaning Chartres with Cobalt and Copper Crystal” is a card model of the cathedral where architecture is overcome by the chance of chemical process.
How serious is this show? Not very – which is the point. What it demonstrates is a mid-career international generation who are at last bursting out of the straitjacket of decades of conceptual dominance – from the Young British Artists and back through the purity of form and metaphysical concerns of Kapoor and Gormley since the 1980s – to experiment with the opposite: playfulness, physicality, an insistence on messy personal making and shaping. The results are not masterpieces but they are energetic, colourful and witty, and return sculpture accessibly to an engagement with lived experience.
This exhibition confirms too the vital role Saatchi, when in good form, continues to play in the UK art scene. At County Hall his gleeful, sometimes sensational, sometimes kitsch extravaganzas acted as a riposte to the high seriousness at the other end of London’s South Bank at Tate Modern. This time, it is hard not to read The Shape of Things To Come as one answer to the heavy-handed, colourless interpretation of the medium at the Royal Academy’s recent scandal Modern British Sculpture, whose contemporary rooms showcased conceptual bores such as Liam Gillick and Grenville Davey. With lightness of touch, Saatchi’s show banishes that sort of piousness by work that at its best celebrates sculpture’s ancient concerns – form, expression, how we interpret the human body – amid the chaotic splendour of 21st-century life.
‘The Shape of Things To Come: New Sculpture’, Saatchi Gallery, London SW3, to October 16, www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk