A big space, yes, but even Saatchi's enormous Duke of York HQ galleries surely can't attempt to squeeze in the wide-ranging approaches to how the body and art interact? After all, the human figure has pretty much been of interest as a subject ever since the first man-made marks on cave walls 40,000 years ago.
Well, luckily they don't claim to be curating a show covering the totality of the topic but instead showcasing nineteen emerging artists who "explore the physical body and present a variety of reflections on the human form" – according to their press release in any case. The press release then goes on to suggest that "over the last fifty years or so, work depicting the body...was at odds with the prevailing currents of abstraction, pop and conceptualism".
This claim, before I'd even seen any of the work on show, shocked me. The body has been integral to all these areas of art – Jackson Pollock, Dan Graham, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Richard Long, Marina Abramović, the Chapmans and Spencer Turnick, to name just a few from various fields. And to say that the body was at odds with Pop Art, a genre that featured body-builders and the overly-beautified female form from its very first image, is either naïve or deliberately misleading. So I headed into the galleries apprehensive as to what a curator who penned that paragraph would present about the body in contemporary art.
The first space holds paintings by Henry Taylor. The longer I looked into them the more I thought they seemed more about the non-space landscape around the characters than their occupation of it; the figures provided context and scale to the place, rather than the other way around. The second space presented work by Makiko Kudo, who takes pleasure in compressing cultures and genres. Her paintings present a full canvas of flora, styled on western classical artists, with Eastern cartoon characters submerged within. A manga Ophelia floats within a Monet-like pond in I see season (2010).
But now I am thinking about Kudo's approach to the body in space, as compared to that of Taylor's in the previous space. But I can't very well because there's a wall between them: the way Saatchi Gallery distributed these artists across its spaces sets up a number of solo exhibitions rather than a coherent group show. There is often just one artist per room and so very little opportunity for reflecting on ideas or aesthetic connections between works. In the few spaces where this is attempted, the visitor can start to relate ideas and fill in gaps with their own thoughts: in Gallery 5, Marianne Vitale's Markers (2011), gravestones of reclaimed timber filling the floorspace, mirror Denis Tarasov's photographic Essence Series (2013) of Russian tombstones engraved with images of the deceased – which though not technically fantastic photographs do make for a compelling series regarding the way in which recent lives are depicted by those reliant on memory.
But the truth is that within the weak curation of this show too many of the artists cannot support the space afforded them. There is a notable exception with the work of Chantal Joffe, a painter interested in the inherent difficulty of truthfully capturing human character and form in a single image. Joffe has appropriated photographic images of females – from advertising, pornography or poses for the artist – and repainted them over five tall canvases. The replacing of subtle photographic shading from the source image with deliberately flat, plain colours in her interpretation renders the subjects slightly deformed and awkward. There is a certain truth and democracy in these images, where all models are turned into ponderous forms. This is also true in the series of smaller oils on the opposite wall: Untitled x 81 (1995) comprises 81 paintings of children and youth, seemingly reworked from family portraits, snaps, stock photography and pornography. As a depiction of the period when physicality and mental growth turn a child into an adult – along with the uncomfortable psychological implications – they are coherent and beautiful.
Too many of the artists on show do not make work about "the body" as such, but instead just happen to have a human figure within their image. There are exceptions: Kasper Kovitz has created small sculptural objects set into solid concrete blocks for Carnalitos (Arana) (2010). Appearing as small, unbalanced and gruesome figures, on closer inspection one can see they are carved out of whole Iberian hams – strange deformed faces above hulks of meat with spindly bone legs. Developed after semantic games between the Spanish words for "meat" and "brother", these remind us that we are but lumps of flesh slowly decaying. But in the same space, these are juxtaposed against Michael Cline's paintings – think a combination of Beryl Cooke and Hogarth – which have little to do with the body and more to do with political commentary.
There are occasional moments of interesting and well-crafted work in the show, but they are scattered around with little relationship to any overarching theme. This could have been a far more interesting show but for a much more rigid curation and careful selection of works. In fact, two days after seeing the show and letting it settle, I am still no closer to knowing what Saatchi were curating in this exhibition.