Review | Known Unknowns at The Saatchi Gallery

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Stuart Middleton, Sad Sketches 2, 2014 © Stuart Middleton, Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

In the current exhibit at the Saatchi Gallery, Known Unknowns, you are not meant to know of the artists. If you do, you’re missing something of the point. Part of the joy as you walk through the works of these 17 contemporary artists is the discovery. These are the curated hidden gems. These are the recommendations from those in the industry. As the exhibition guide says, ‘The title refers to the artists’ status in the mainstream art world – whilst the group is largely unknown, their respective practices are greatly admired by their artistic peers and seen as breaking new ground.’ This is the slip of paper, the tip off.

The exhibit includes a variety of forms and styles. There is no unifying theme. No single concept they aim to convey. This makes, what could have been a disparate exhibit, refreshing and stimulating. The variety of forms and media, combined with the relative anonymity of the artists means no assumed knowledge can be transferred from one work to the next. Each painting, sculpture, collage, video, and photograph demands to be interpreted on its own terms, even when done by the same artist.

The exhibit, which runs from the 21st March until the 24th of June, occupies ten rooms and two floors of the Saatchi Gallery. The ground floor features a shrink-wrapped boat; women bleeding, defecating, and vomiting; and an exploration of Christian and Islamic art, amongst others. This range of subjects and approaches means the exhibition remains vivid and stimulating throughout.

Ben Schumacher, Undersea Cables, Reflected Ceiling Plans. With John Keenan, 2013 © Ben Schumacher, Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

 

On the first floor the mix of artistic forms continue. Here are collages; sculptures of anthropomorphic bar tables; two sculptures of bob haircuts; and an ethereal video detailing the out of body aftermath of a car crash. These works are in turn intriguing, though provoking, and humorous. Bedwyr Williams’ sculpture Prudence (2012), one of the two bob haircuts, is an amusing take on the stereotypical female art gallery worker. As noted in the exhibition guide, these ‘Gallerinas’ are ‘often quite intimidating figures’ and act as gatekeepers to the artistic and intellectual world of the gallery. However, ‘Bedwyr’s sculpture casts a casually mocking eye over this phenomenon to reveal a gently sardonic reflection on the human condition.’ Placing this work, which admonishes the elitist culture of art galleries, in an exhibition curated deliberately due to the artists lack of public profile seems fitting. This exhibition attempts to remove the perceived barriers between the public and the arts, making it both accessible and enjoyable.

As noted, the exhibition, devoid of a thematic constant, maintains an artistic fluidity from one work to the next. Moving from Bedwyr Williams’ work to the work of Saskia Olde Wolbers takes you from quiet humour to unsettling disquiet. Wolbers’ piece is best described in two halves: the audio and the visual. The stream of consciousness audio describes the out of body aftermath of a failed murder suicide. The video shows silver grey strands and globules combined with lo-tech hospital scenes. The dark room and subject matter give the work an ominous feel. This is compounded by the sparsity of works throughout this room. In the large, hollow space you are confronted by a wall sized projection and little else. You feel as though you are being watched out of dark corners.

Saskia Olde Wolbers, Interloper, 2003. DVD, 6 minute loop © Saskia Olde Wolbers, Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

This is particularly appropriate given the two other works exhibited in the space. On the wall opposite the projection, either side of the entrance, are two works by the artist Theo Ellison. They are both darkly staged photographs. One is of a pigeon, on its back, legs curled underneath itself, eyes closed. The other is of a woman reclining, legs apart, a lobster covering her genitals. As Ellison says, his work is interested in the ‘relationship between human behaviour, seductive imagery, and voyeurism’. With these photographs he aims to ‘blur the line between being an observer and being a voyeur.’ His works attempt to ‘draw the viewer in, to make them complicit in the act of voyeurism.’ An act he achieves through high-resolution photographs of delicately staged subjects.

Theo Ellison, Entombment, 2017 © Theo Ellison, Courtesy of the Saatchi Gallery, London

In his work, Entombment, Ellison takes the London pigeon and ‘attempts to deify it or sanctify it’ deliberately depicting it supine, with its eyes closed, so for the viewer it always ‘oscillates between sleep and death without resolution.’ This, combined with the beauty of the bird, draws the witness in and inspires guilt. Asleep or dead you feel as though you have come to it accidentally, as though you shouldn’t be looking. Ellison creates a situation where the viewer wants to both look, and look away. This feeling is enhanced in his second work Naturalistic Fallacy 2.

Here Ellison again works with a supine subject, this time a naked woman, partially covered in a silk cloth, her legs apart and a lobster covering her genitals. Ellison’s attempt to draw the viewer into an act of voyeurism is heightened by the overtly sexual subject. The cloth is silk, her breast is exposed, she is looking away. With this image, Ellison says, he is trying to make the viewer feel ‘both enjoyment and discomfort’. He uses images from the Western artistic canon such as the nude woman, food, and references to the Baroque and Surrealist traditions, to ‘both entice and distract the viewer from the image.’ For Ellison this work ‘links the primal drives of sex and food, both impulses we are beholden to, to images.’ Ellison says he is ‘connecting the idea of being beholden to something to the idea of the image, and the power images have.’

All the works at the Known Unknown exhibition are intriguing and provoking. The nature of the exhibition means you can approach it with little or no preconceived understanding. This makes for an enjoyable exhibition that, due to its variety, will prompt and confront you throughout.

Known Unknowns at The Saatchi Gallery runs from 21st March 2018 until 24 June 2018. More information available here

By Alexander Douglas Bryan