Looking at the YBA’s defiant early work, it’s funny to think that they are now some of the richest artists in the world. At the time of their rise, it was probably difficult to imagine that their anti art establishment stance would soon see them accepted by the very institutions they disrupted, selling work to men in suits for millions of dollars.
This is something we should be proud of in the UK art world - more so than the music and film worlds - that it often embraces those who rail against it the most, continually allowing artists to push borders and redefine art as we know it. And so in 2015, twenty odd years after their rise to fame, the YBA’s find themselves firmly embraced by the establishment.
Shapero Modern’s latest show, Rack ‘Em Up, both playfully acknowledges this - selling editions of work and referencing the production line working style of many of these artists - and also celebrates all of the YBA’s audacious and truly inventive roots. It’s easy to see them now as the accepted face of contemporary British art and forget that they began young, broke and rebellious.
There was a real sense of rock and roll energy to the show’s opening night in the basement gallery, with rough walls, visible window grates and a suitably rousing soundtrack. It created a fantastic overall image of the 90’s, a time when both art and music was pushing the boundaries of acceptability and when young taste and opinion prevailed in Brit pop and popular culture. The work of nearly every leading artist from the YBA generation is on show - highlights being a fresh faced Tracey Emin lounging back in a bathtub, Sarah Lucas’ now genre defining Self Portraits and Chapman Brothers’ penis chinned mannequin, Bring Me the Head of… Whilst these images now fail to shock as they did in their heyday, their presentation in this manner is a fantastic reminder that they were once a bunch of brazen art kids, sticking two fingers up.
Seeing the work together like this also highlights the gap that we find now with rising young artists. Aren’t they all a bit too well behaved? It’s hard to call to mind any student shows, first Thursdays or ramshackle shows in zone 2 warehouses that grab you by the balls in such a powerful way as these artists did during their rise to fame. The problem is, you wonder if there really is anything left in a young artist’s toolkit with which to shock; the YBA’s and Saatchi’s Sensation pushed things so far. Now that their work has been accepted and we’re used to seeing all manner of nudity, pornography and violence in our public galleries, it seems pretty normal to head to the Tate on a weekend, with the whole family, and nod approvingly at whatever art porn we’re faced with. It’s difficult to rebel when the people you’re rebelling against have already accepted hellish Nazi battlefields and borderline paedophilia into their clean white spaces. Tracey Emin’s re-appropriation of housewife comforts and crude words has now found its way into the kitschiest of homeware stores.
Aside from youth rebellion, the conceptual ideas in the show have also been pushed enormous amounts in recent years, both by the YBA’s and those inspired by them. The issue of value - both financially and aesthetically - has now been so thoroughly discussed in the art world it would be difficult for a new artist to add anything to the conversation. Many of the YBA’s pushed the value of editions, with Damien Hirst mass creating artworks via his studio full of assistants and Michael Landy calling upon the works of other artists to build some of his recent pieces - his Art Bin at SLG comes to mind. To follow on from these artists ideas now, would be the least shocking thing for a young artist to attempt.
It’s easy to forget that the stock forms of British art - shock, sex, no-holds-barred feminism - have only become cliches because they have been used so much now. Seeing these early works is a great reminder that the YBA’s are the very original pinnacle of so many ideas that currently hold up the British art scene.
These accepted areas of conversation all sprung from young artists who found issue with the art world and pushed so hard on these issues that they have come to define a generation of artists, and change the landscape around them. The question now isn’t when new young artists will surprise us and rebel in this way, but when a group of young artists will come across a whole new set of rules to break, so that in another 30 years, we might find the borders of our understanding of art stretching out in ways that we can’t even imagine. For now, there’s Rack ‘Em Up, a great little time capsule, that gets the mood just right.
Rack ‘Em Up will be running until 27th March at Shapero Modern, 32 St. George Street, London W1S 2EA
Words by Emily Steer