Source: The Guardian, by Vanessa Thorpe
The reign of "the concept" in modern British art is finally over: long live "the object". As some of the former rebels of the notorious Young British Artist movement are accused of selling out to "the establishment", a new generation is taking their place, flaunting an altogether new aesthetic.
The freshest art on the contemporary scene appears to have turned its back on the ironic jokes and personal confessions epitomised by Tracey Emin's notorious unmade bed and Damien Hirst's dead floating shark. Emin's high-profile retrospective at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank may be pulling in the London crowds, but she alienated many of her peers last week by confirming her Tory sympathies and backing the government's latest round of arts cuts. Damien Hirst also ruffled some liberal feathers by happily rubbing shoulders with billionaires at the last Davos summit.
And as the most famous and iconoclastic of the YBAs start to lose their shine as role models, the art world's best-known curators and commentators claim a new earnestness is sweeping the country's better art schools and informing the work of their successors.
One of the biggest names in contemporary painting is on the shortlist for the coveted Turner prize this year. George Shaw, at 44, is roughly the same age as both Hirst or Emin yet is one of the leaders of the emerging "serious" tendency. Shaw concentrates on the oddly beguiling nature of ugly cityscapes with his watercolours and enamel paint studies. He insists that his work is not a reaction to the tricksy habits of the YBAs, but art critics beg to differ.
With his show, The Sly and Unseen Day, opening on Tuesday at the South London Gallery, the Coventry-born artist says he is bemused to find himself the centre of attention: "My work was not done as a response. It was a conversation I was having with myself. Then I noticed other people were interested and I had to pinch myself."
Shaw originally intended to become a performance artist and studied installation, photography, video and sound, before discarding it all. "I realised a lot of stuff I was doing was just rubbish. I was just adopting the same sort of things that had gone on before. So I went back to what I used to think at college, which was that the most shocking thing you could do would be to make a watercolour of a tree." At that point Shaw felt "an installation with a dead baby in it" had become the new conformity.
Other coming stars are both younger and, for now, relatively obscure. On Wednesday last week the annual Catlin art prize, which celebrates promising new work, was awarded to 22-year-old Russell Hill from Rugby. Hill works with everyday objects to expose the hidden threats or contradictions lying dormant in apparently banal things such as air fresheners or an oil can.
"The main thing for me is to make my work as articulate as possible in terms of themes and messages," Hill said yesterday. "I always maintain the function of the object. That's important to me. If I change an oil can, then it's not an oil can. If there are elements of ambiguity when people see it, I have to accept that."
He uses juxtaposition to point up his ideas about objects. So the "DIY nostalgia" of an item such as an oil can is coupled with fabric softener then displayed in a deliberately "clinical, harsh setting – like a hospital product".
"It is a piece about two lubricants," he explains. "There is a real sense of exploitation in my work. I tend to strip back objects and make people more aware of the underhand nature of the things that we see around us."
Hill's influences, he claims, come from abroad rather than from famous YBAs, although he acknowledges a debt to Martin Creed, the Scot who won the 2001 Turner prize with his flickering light in an empty room.
Justin Hammond, curator of the Catlin show and editor of the prize's guide, who spotted the artist at his degree show in Wimbledon, has found that many young art graduates are focusing on objects in the world around them.
"There's a lot more serious work in the past couple of years, a lot less jokey one-liners and less frivolity," he said. "Instead, there's a lot of work with statistics now, for example, and there are more real objects being used in sculpture. Russell's work is so precise, so clinical and so clean. It was obvious someone had obsessed over it. He was the unanimous choice this year."
Joanne Hummel Newell, who will be exhibiting her work at a satellite show at the Venice Biennale next month, is another artist excited by the significance of objects. The 28-year-old uses found items in combination with collage to make intriguing sculptures.
And one of the stars of next week's prestigious sculpture show, The Shape of Things to Come at the Saatchi Gallery in south-west London, is also known for shedding new light on items of rubbish. David Batchelor makes installations from things he has found on the streets of the capital then turns them into brightly coloured light boxes. His work is a mission to prove that left-overs can be made beautiful.
"When I make works from light boxes, or old plastic bottles with lights inside, I hope the illumination suspends their objecthood to some degree, and makes the viewer see them a little differently – see them as colours before seeing them as objects," he has explained. At 55, Batchelor, who is Scottish, has blazed a trail for this kind of practical sculpture, while the YBAs experimented with conceptual ruses.
Not all emerging artists have turned away from the Concept. For the first time, the Catlin prize line-up for 2011 included a performance artist, Leah Capaldi. For the show Capaldi sprays two actors with a bottle of Chanel perfume each before they walk off around the Tramshed gallery in Shoreditch, East London. "The idea came from when I was at the British Museum a while ago looking at a statue and a woman walked past me wearing so much perfume it was unbelievable. I found it stifling and had a real physical reaction; I had to walk to the other end of the gallery to get out of that space," she recalls.
Visitors to the Catlin show can judge the impact for themselves at noon today when Capaldi performs for the last time before the exhibition closes at 6pm.
For Sarah Ryan, director of online gallery Newbloodart, the prospect of spotting emerging new trends is appealing. Her yearly task of visiting 100 summer degree shows is just beginning.
"We have just started with Oxford Brookes at the weekend and noticed a lot of integrated work that brings in all the sensory aspects, a more multi-discipline approach. This is immersive work, using sculpture and sound and performance. Maybe it has something to do with all the technical advances going on around us that make this easier to do."