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Young Americans
In London, two large exhibitions celebrate a new generation of artists from the USA

Both Saatchi’s "USA Today" and "Uncertain States of America" at the Serpentine Gallery are currently presenting young American art. In response to this trend, Ossian Ward considers whether the creative center of the art scene can once again be found in the USA.

Alexandra Mir, Cold War, 2005,
Courtesy of The Saatchi Collection, ©Aleksandra Mir

In an age when art has no movements, no discernible vanguards or even directional forces, is it still possible to talk of influential centers of art production? With the few exceptions of Paris in the 1900s, New York in the 1960s, and possibly London in the 1990s, no one city or country can or should drive the art world, especially not today, when art’s global reach means that Miami and Mumbai can now be counted alongside the traditional hubs of art production in Europe.

Two concurrent exhibitions in London have posited a resurgence in North American contemporary art, although neither of the titles – USA Today or Uncertain States of America – make a strong case for a particular city, school, or coherent grouping of likeminded artists. Instead, the inference is merely that vital, challenging art is once again being made in the US, but can one nation ever regain the title as the world’s artistic center?

Matthew Day Jackson, Don't Tread On Me, 2005,
Astrup Fearnley Collection, Oslo,
©2006 Matthew Day Jackson

There is nothing more detrimental to an art scene as the tangible loss of such power as experienced by New York after its lengthy period of dominance over international style from about 1945 to 1970. The expatriate Australian art critic Robert Hughes described the 1980s as the worst decade in the history of American art, citing not only his bête noir Julian Schnabel and friends, but a new and unique set of circumstances: "Never had there been so many artists, so much art vying for attention, so many collectors, so many inflated claims, and so little sense of measure." This situation – too little supply to meet the demand for great art and a surplus of mediocre work – has only become exacerbated in recent years, and arguably New York is to blame, being the pre-eminent center of the art market and its preferred point of distribution. Indeed, while US art was floundering during the Reagan years, with only Los Angeles making any significant noise, Europe clawed back much of the territory it had lost to the mid-century Americans, with Germany seeming to have the monopoly on painters and photographers and a stream of talented sculptors emerging from post-war Britain.

Anthony Burdin, VOODOO ROOM, OSLO 2005,
Installation view at Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo,
Courtesy of the artist and maccarone inc., New York,
©2006 Anthony Burdin, Photograph © 2006 Fin Serck-Hanssen

However, there are works by more than 70 young American artists from different backgrounds, cities, and disciplines at the Royal Academy and the Serpentine Gallery, suggesting that there is a nationwide groundswell in art production there and that any lingering aesthetic apathy may now be lifting. It seems that a healthy art community is emerging from what can only be described as a downturn in the political, social, and economic spheres of American life. In fact, many of the works on display are direct reactions to events during the two terms of George Bush, such as the recent hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the terror attacks of 9/11, and the war in Iraq, as well as to the nightmarish inequality that is still undermining the American Dream.

Jules De Balincourt, People Who Play and People Who Pay, 2004,
Courtesy of The Saatchi Collection,
©Jules De Balincourt

Rather than a parade of flag waving, both shows present an attitude of anti-nationalistic irreverence closer in spirit to flag burning. Uncertain States of America opens with Frank Benson’s own Flag of 2005, a gentle redesign of the famous stars and stripes, had they been blown about in the wind before being committed to the drawing board. Charles Saatchi’s exhibition of recent acquisitions, USA Today , also includes various examples of American borders being redrawn, ranging from Alexandra Mir’s The Church of Sharpie from 2005, a series of subverted maps made with Sharpie marker pens, to Jules de Balincourt’s painting US World Studies II, also of 2005, in which all the states have been shifted or inverted such that Northerners become Southerners and vice versa.

Jules de Balincourt has painted other dystopian views of America in which enslaved black staff run around to satisfy every whim of bloated white tourists (The People Who Play and the People Who Pay, 2004), or where a ghetto is laid waste by a terrifyingly beautiful rainbow of capitalism (Blind Faith and Tunnel Vision, 2005). The response of this French-born painter living in Brooklyn is typical of other similarly displaced artists struggling with the numinous tag of being a new American.

Mika Rottenberg, Dough, video stills, 2005/06,
©Mika Rottenberg, Courtesy Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York

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