Memories and modernity: Paper at Saatchi Gallery, London

They say that some offices are paperless. But mine is not. Most of my memories are held in paper: photographs, books, the stubs of boarding passes from beautiful holidays, exam (and birth) certificates, drawings and letters produced by old friends. Paper has a way of folding history and memory over and over until they become an object with the strength of a samurai sword.

These are my feelings as we enter an exhibition which is not so much curated, as selected and placed. There are no long catalogue entries here, no panels of text on the walls, no narratives to be told. The gallery is full of humour, draughtsmanship, beauty, contradictions and conceptualism. The gallery in question is Saatchi Gallery in the West end of London, and it belongs to the infamous septuagenarian art collector and former advertising agency executive, Charles Saatchi.  The exhibition is called simply: Paper.

We step directly in to the durational spaces of Dawn Clements; annotated with time and other notes that help her capture the experience of living.  The artist uses pen and ink to create detailed, intense scenes across multiple sheets of paper, haphazardly strung together to architectural effect. We nod in agreement when one visitor says “these are incredible!” as he stands with chin in the air to get a better view.

Next we walk past Jessica Jackson’s sofa made of newsprint, sat on by a family of papier-mâché pots, into a gallery full of dark omens: a child is restrained so that another can scrawled his torso with hateful words, and imagery from the archive of a Nazi facility is transcribed in delicate pencil. In Tal R’s drawing, someone is giving birth to a primitive-looking mask borrowed from Picasso or Brancusi, with tiny cut-out eyes.  Scribble and scrawls all have currency here but it doesn’t mean that the subjects are trivial.

A consummate advertising professional: Saatchi understands that visitors to his galleries should experience no negative feelings. The walls are perfect and white, the floors impeccable. Natural light streams in wherever it can. You want to take a picture and tweet it? Go ahead. Modernity and pleasure are his languages.

The gallery keeps text to a minimum, but critically it has changed the preposition from works ‘on’ paper to works ‘in’ paper. In doing so it elevates the status of paper from the support (as canvas is to paint) to the medium.  The selection demonstrates the diverse properties of the material, but special attention is given to paper’s sculptural potential:  “Paper is becoming a token of lost physicality…” the catalogue says, “… the works in Paper underscore the force of the physical.”

Rebecca Turner’s paper pulp tumour grows out of the gallery wall and into a conversation with a giant crumpled paper bust by duo José Lerma and Hector Medera.  They are aggressively physical; however, we wonder if they are meant to be as silly as they appear.  In the next room Miller Lagos has made branches from newspaper; sliced so we can see how old they are, a hint that this retrograde material might one day exist only in archives.

Saatchi Gallery’s themes tend to be broad – in 2006 at its previous location it heralded The Triumph of Painting; in 2008 the inaugural exhibition at its current premises was The Revolution Continues: New Art from China, and in 2011 the gallery held Gesamkunstwerk New Art from Germany.  Sometimes Saatchi alights upon an area of the visual arts that has become unfashionable, other times he is ahead of the curve or just behind it.

In this case the latter is true as many organisations in the UK have investigated paper and drawing practise during the last decade. The Drawing Room gallery has been active in London since 2002, last year Paper Gallery opened in Manchester; Tate Britain held a blockbuster show called Watercolour in 2011, which was followed in 2012 by a survey of drawing at Tate Liverpool – a city that is home to a duo who produce a quarterly publication and regular events under the name The Drawing Paper.

But Saatchi Gallery does offer something unique. It bridges the gap between the mysterious art world of wealthy collectors and the public museum.  Using tremendous resources and 70,000 square foot of space it can gather the most freshly made artworks from all over the world (in Paper, 44 artists in total from the UK, USA, Belgium, Germany, France, Brazil, Spain, Puerto Rico, China, Austria, Israel, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Japan and Greece are represented) in one place.  The Paper exhibition is not the result of scholarship, but Saatchi has an eye for the interesting as well as the enduring; each work is powerful and accomplished and it’s hard to find an exhibition quite like this anywhere else.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

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