The redcoat is coming!
"It's one hollow thing meeting another hollow thing." This is how London art critic Matthew Collings describes the hubbub over the Brooklyn Museum's recent staging of the traveling exhibition Sensation. Collings, who has viewed the über-trendy Brit art show in all three of its venues -- The Royal Academy in London, the Hamburger Bahnhoff in Berlin, and now at the Brooklyn Museum in New York -- had witnessed the mild media controversy it stirred both in its birthplace and on the continent, but never predicted the political storm it would cause in the States. And all over artist Chris Ofili's elephant-dung-splattered Virgin Mary portrait, which conveniently incensed New York City mayor (and senatorial candidate -- ah-hah!) Rudy Guiliani.
"In England, the tension was over a portrait of Myra Hindley, a convicted child killer," Collings recounts. "She's notorious here. But Ofili's work isn't such to inspire it. He's trying to be a bit punky and shocking, but not that punky and shocking."
Collings, an outspoken, always droll critic of the London art scene, knows the work of the Sensation artists the same way he knows his own back yard: He's covered it for BBC television and radio, written for every venerable art journal there is, and has penned a few remarkably honest books about contemporary art, namely Blimey! From Bohemia to Britpop: The London Artworld from Francis Bacon to Damien Hirst. On October 28, in the wake of a lecture he's giving in Brooklyn, the mutton-chopped writer-artist will hit Denton's University of North Texas to discuss "whether sculpture is still a useful category," using Sensation as a springboard for his posits.
Well, is it? "I don't think so. Not right now, anyway," he says via phone from his London home. "I think that 'sculpture' in its conventional definition faded out in the '60s. Three-dimensional work isn't so much about form anymore. Not like it was for, say, Rodin." His Texas appearance is part of the ongoing Nasher Lecture Series, which brings national and international art-hounds to town to bridge timely art concerns with a public audience.
"The trend for young artists is no longer about being sculptural," he says. "The work in Sensation -- and it is quite a trendy show -- is a good example of sculpture's demise." He's referring to such pieces as Damien Hirst's formaldehyde-swimming shark, the Chapman brothers' phallus-headed children, and Tracy Emin's confessional tent. "It's about ideas." Then, today's sculpture is all conceptual art? "Well, sort of. Though there are artists here and there who don't see it that way, who don't set up ideas as much as form. But if we're talking about trends and not exceptions, then sculpture has faded. And might well come back."
If you're familiar with his prose, you might be curious about his speaking style. His distinctive wordsmithing has brought him as much notice as his opinions have, seeing as how he's brought a UK version of gonzo train-of-thought journalism to the elitist sphere of high art. It makes reading about the obtuse, overly precious art world both a breeze and a thought-provoking pleasure -- intelligent points from an everyman. To wit (from Blimey!): "Pop Art Clichés: Post-war Britain, austerity, black and white, rationing, the '50s, boredom. Suddenly Pop and Consumerism, Michael Caine, California, swimming pools, packaging, Marshall McLuhan, working class, up north, polo neck, mini skirt, David Hockney receiving his Royal College of Art Diploma in a gold lamé suit and dyed hair because blondes have more fun."
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