Defining Works From the Saatchi's First All-Female Show

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Moje SabzSoheila Sokhanvari, courtesy of Saatchi

AnOther selects three of the most engaging up-and-coming artists from Champagne Life, the debut all-female offering from London's Saatchi Gallery

The Saatchi Gallery turns the grand old age of 30 this year, and what better way to mark its anniversary than with a long overdue offering of contemporary art by women? “Champagne Life celebrates the work of a constellation of female artists,” the gallery says, “and provides a rare and apposite moment to reflect on what it means to be a female artist working today.” Here, AnOther selects three of the most exciting up-and-coming practitioners from the show – from a fairytale offering of an unprecedented size, to a series of canvases as rich in texture as they are in cultural resonance.

Julia Wachtel, Champagne Life
There is a tangible element of the grotesque in artist Julia Wachtel’s work, laden as it is with instantly recognisable cartoon characters from the 1970s and 80s, and interspersed with recognisable imagery from mainstream fashion magazines. But this is entirely appropriate, given that the artist is predisposed to challenge contemporary culture. “Her paintings enter into a visual language game whereby the appropriated vernacular of mass culture is illustrated, simulated, replicated, altered and parodied,” gallery Vilma Gold says, by way of explanation. “The logic of this language is disturbed just enough to provoke a meditation upon the conditions of meaning intrinsic to that vernacular.”

Correspondingly, the space her panels occupy in the Saatchi is vast, open and perfectly lit, and yet the dropping eyes and garish colours of the characters depicted on the canvases gaze out with a sinister air, tinging the atmosphere with a creepy cynicism. In a different form of replication the title of one of her works, Champagne Life, has itself been reapplied as the name of the exhibition. “Champagne Life suggests high living, prestige and affluence,” the gallery says in its introduction. “Applied here to an exhibition bringing together the work of 14 emerging women artists, the irony of the title is palpable and throws into contrast the reality of many long, cold, lonely hours working in the studio with the perceived glamour of the art world.”

The message projected by Wachtel’s work doesn’t necessarily tie up that of her fellow exhibited artists in a neat and tidy bow, but it does add a questioning tone to the exhibition as a whole – one which encourages the viewer to look twice, and then from a different angle, and then through a different prism, before jumping to conclusions about the piece on show.

Rhyme Sequence Wiggle Waggle by Mequitta Ahuja
Baltimore-based artist Mequitta Ahuja’s work is some of the most arresting in the exhibition – large-scale canvases bearing self-portraits which meld an exploration into the artist’s own identity with that of the cultural landscape at large. It’s a complex interwoven web of narratives, but Ahuja’s deft employment of richly textural storyboard-esque canvases and recurring characters makes it startlingly accessible.

“My self-portraits are ‘auto-mythic,’” Ahuja proclaims in her artist’s statement, defining automythography as “a process of identity formation that combines the real with the self-invented.” As such, the pieces visibly depict the artist’s own self-portrait – she is careful to include her lazy eye in each depiction – but the surroundings she places herself in are reminiscent of a mythical tale. The backdrops are vibrant in colour and reference, drawing upon historical traditions from African, Asian and American tradition. “Stamping transparent vellum with printing blocks, I create patterns, textures, and colours,” she continues. “I tear these sheets apart and reassemble them in layers to create a paper patchwork, the surface on which I draw. I integrate my planned imagery with these initial marks. The physicality of my technique is mirrored by my protagonist’s assertive presence. She is both subject and maker of her world.”

Champagne Life is just one of a number of contemporary exhibitions the artist is participating in, Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum and Houston Collects African American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston being two other examples – proof, if any was needed, that Ahuja is one to watch. 

Alice Anderson, Bound
Alice Anderson’s massively magnified copper wire-constructed pieces are the stuff dreams are made of; they look like they might have been extracted from the Simon Costin-created set of a Tim Walker photo shoot and thrust into an art gallery instead. The artist specialises in binding objects in endless lengths of copper wire – “mummifying them,” as Jonathan Jones has previously reflected – in an act of preservation which seems to elevate the quotidian to a state of godliness. The two pieces she is showing in Champagne Life, then – a 3.45 metre-tall cotton reel bearing a magnificent length of copper wire-wrapped thread, and a two metre-wide ball which was created as a result of several performances which took place last year – make for a pleasing alternative.

The Saatchi addresses the pieces as a meditation upon the loss of the tangible. “How do we remember?” it asks. “What is the shifting relevance of the physical world in a society increasingly part of a digital one?” Here, wrapping an object in copper becomes part of a process of recording it – and the material’s own conductive properties compound this. “Anderson also relates it to the neural transmission of information across our own organism,” the Saatchi continues, “a gesture of connection and communication that is borne out in the very process of her artwork’s process, which is sometimes undertaken by teams of volunteers.” Also, happily, Anderson herself has a shock of auburn hair, which only serves to make her choice of medium all the more fascinating.

Champagne Life runs until March 9, 2016 at the Saatchi Gallery.