How do you react to the news that Kay Hartenstein Saatchi, ex-wife of Charles, the woman who helped to discover (or invent) the original Brit Art brat pack, is putting on a exhibition of London’s best young artists this week? Perhaps your eyes have already begun to widen with excitement? Perhaps you feel a sudden predatory stillness, as I did, as greed, the 21st-century’s answer to aesthetic appreciation, steals across your soul?
Well, then, if you’d visited the One One One gallery in London’s West End last Friday as the show, Anticipation, was being hung, you might have felt, as I did, a little chastened by the almost alarming absence of commercialism.
Kay Saatchi may know her Kippenbergers from her Oehlens but she’s less art shark than art aunt, fussing and clucking around her 26 young charges with her co-curators, Catriona Warren, (editorial director of ArtReview) and Flora Fairbairn (one of the UK’s best freelance art dealers).
‘Now, Tatsuya,’ Kay was saying to a young Japanese sculptor, as I arrived, ‘when I last saw your sock sculptures they were on a rug. Where’s the rug?’
Tatsuya looked at his two little crumpled socks beautifully carved from white marble. ‘I forgot it.’
‘Well how are you going to display them? Would you like a rug?’
‘Okaaay, then. I guess I’m going to Woolworths this afternoon!’ Kay laughed and patted his shoulder, then turned to greet me.
Kay Hartenstein Saatchi is smaller, rounder, sweeter-looking than you’d expect and shyer than you’d imagine a woman who posed in a French maid’s outfit for Tatler to be. ‘Catriona!’ she hissed to her friend in a panic as she showed me around the One One One. ‘Come here and help me, in case I don’t know what to say.’
But she’s forceful in defence of the idea behind Anticipation. ‘The point is to help the young artists, not to make money for ourselves. We’ve picked out the work we liked best from degree shows around London, but all the profit goes to the artists; we’re not taking a bean. We know how hard it is for artists to get their work seen, and we wanted to give them an opportunity. It’s up to them now.’
And as she clipped around the gallery on odd little plimsolls with stiletto heels, it was quite clear Kay wasn’t faking her enthusiasm. She showed me Jodie Carey’s 8ft-high chandeliers, made with the carpet fluff that Carey’s mum, a cleaner, vacuums up, and urged Carey to explain her work to me. Then followed a quiet moment as we stood around Michael Lisle-Taylor’s ‘Heir Shirt’. ‘It’s an SS officer’s jacket covered in human hair,’ said Kay. ‘It was inspired by Michael’s discovery that German soldiers kept themselves warm by stuffing hair into their coats.’
‘He was very affected by his time in the Navy, wasn’t he?’ said Catriona. Kay nodded sadly.
So they care, these three co-curators, and Anticipation is a genuine labour of love; but the question remains: is love enough? Kay has a good reputation; she once ran the contemporary art department at the Waddington gallery, then for many years helped hang the Saatchi Gallery in Boundary Road, but does she have her ex-husband’s knack of discovering genuine talent?
Well, there’s no getting away from the echoes of Sensation in Anticipation and of Saatchi’s Triumph of Painting, too — but how could and why should these young artists not have been influenced by their older peers? And though it’s a gentler selection — less gory and less blackly humorous than a Saatchi show — it’s attractive and thought-provoking.
One of the better known artists on display is Boo Ritson, who takes what at first look like photographs of highly naturalistic and gorgeously gooey oil paintings. A second glance reveals that the figures are real, just covered in a thick layer of oil paint (see ‘Hitman’ above). Douglas White’s ‘Owl’ is the full-body print a flying owl left after crashing into his friend’s window. It’s haunting, an instant of past drama caught on glass — but isn’t the owl the real artist? Or the window’s owner?
So it’s a clever and engaging exhibition, and there is also something refreshing about a collection in which the prices (which range from about £100 to £10,000) seem to reflect the real value (although, of course, there’s no such thing) of the work.
As I left, I asked Kay a final question: ‘Are you sure you don’t stand to make millions if this exhibition is a great success? I mean, haven’t you bought up quite a lot of this work yourself?’
‘I’d like to,’ said Kay, ‘but the truth is, I just don’t have the space and that was a deliberate decision! I bought a small house and decided not to buy endless art because I didn’t want to do what I did when I was married: keep endless paintings in storage, never being seen. This way, I can stop myself from being greedy, and pay proper attention to the art itself.’
Anticipation continues at the One One One gallery, Great Titchfield Street, until 9 June