What's Happening to Contemporary Art? Andrew Vicari as a Counterpoint...

Painting of La Marianne by Andrew Vicari (1980)Painting of La Marianne by Andrew Vicari (1980)
I bet you never heard of him: Andrew Vicari, now 72, is a British painter - of Italian descent as his name implies - and reportedly the 18th richest man in the UK, right after Paul McCartney.

I had never heard of him either, until I came across an article about him some time ago. Entitled "the Rembrandt of Riyadh", the article, written by Tim Adams for the New York Times, did not exactly exude enthusiasm, on the contrary. It tagged Vicari as the "last court painter, rich and not famous" who made all his money with Saudi princes and precious little in the West. It reported on a sale in Saudi Arabia in 2001 of a series of paintings about the Gulf War for "about £17 million" ($27 million). It also reported, with a thinly disguised leer, on a recent auction sale in the UK (in 2009, in Bristol) where one of his paintings, "an original oil painting with full provenance",  valued at a very modest £100 to £150, sold for a miserable £55.

The article went on to explain that "critical response is similarly patchy". While Vicari sees himself as the "king of painters and the painter of kings", most art critics are "less convinced" and one of them, the celebrated John Berger,  sees him as "of sociological interest as an analysis of where career promotion can get you, but himself certainly not of artistic interest. I'm not sure that in any other period but the one we are in could a guy have achieved what he has, that money, doing what he does with all those clichés."

Clichés? Mmmm. Well, once upon a time, Maurice Utrillo was accused of doing postcards...According to the article, Vicari attributes his lack of success in the West to "a mixture of envy and unfashionability" and he is now planning "a triumphant homecoming", with a retrospective in February 2011, in London. But the venue is bizarre: it will not be in a gallery or museum, but at the London jewelers Boucheron. No need to ask why.

There is little doubt that Vicari is unfashionable in the West and he is certainly not part of the contemporary art scene. Vicari reportedly sees Damien Hirst as a rival, surely a view that is not reciprocated.

Yet Vicari started out with a couple of winning cards in his hand: he says he attended Slade school and had Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud as his masters, and he claims that Francis Bacon in particular encouraged him to paint rather than draw. He says he rediscovered his ability to draw much later, and indeed I would say, judging from the few drawings I've seen, that he is an accomplished draftsman, though a rather academic one.

And here we are touching a sore point: perhaps John Berger goes too far in describing his paintings as "clichés", but there is no doubt that Vicari belongs to that coterie of painters that behaves as if they knew nothing of Picasso and the 20th century tsunami in art. Whatever Bacon or Freud - two figurative painters like him - tried to do is apparently none of his concern. Vicari's paintings are singularly unoriginal and non-experimental: his colours are crude and the "vigonades" (that's what he calls swirls of paint he splashes in the background of his paintings) are meaningless at best. His portraits are equally disappointing: they veer from the academic to fashion drawings, with little effort at explicating the sitter's personality or mood. For example, his portrait of Princess Caroline of Monaco, a well-executed drawing where she shyly looks sideways, is little more than a hairdresser's poster, with all those locks of  hair swirling in the forefront.

Which brings me to the main point: is there really NO alternative to contemporary art? Do we have to go from Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary covered with elephant dung, Tracey Emin's unmade bed, the "lousy tuna-fish sandwich" lunch at MoMA organized by Fluxus and Damien Hirst's $80 million diamond skull to Vicari's Marianne, a "cliché" with a "vigonade" swirl in the background?

Why has art today become such a desert? Even Damien Hirst acknowledges in a CNN interview (see article below) that when we are all dead, the one sculpture he made that will "defy time" is... his diamond skull - which by the way, he didn't make himself: it was put together by a team of artisans working for a jeweller. But then, we all know that art is not longer made by the artist: following in Duchamp's footsteps, it is conceived by the artist (hence conceptual art).

And that brings me to my final point: isn't the problem with contemporary art that it hasn't survived the very tsunami it has created? The followers of Picasso and Duchamp rushed through the doors opened by their masters (cubism which signalled the end of perspective; collages which opened up the free use of materials; the promotion of ideas, "concepts", instead of artwork etc). The trouble is that artists lost their way in the new artistic landscape because reference points and markers have been done away with, all in the name of creativity, innovation and originality.

Because without reference points and markers, after a while, you don't know where you're going and neither does your audience (if you have any). You can't distinguish what is good from what is bad, what is original and new from what isn't. But one thing remains for sure: art can still be fun and unpredictable, it draws crowds to the Tate and other contemporary art venues around the planet. Bottom line, the fun and irreverence are what sells it today. But what about tomorrow?

Will a day come when people grow tired of the lack of rules and regulations? Somehow, that rings a bell with what has just happened in the financial world, when banks, carried by hubris, collapsed in large part as a result of jungle capitalism, without rules or laws...

Without rules of any kind, is it Art with a capital A? You tell me what you think...

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