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Smashed Cars, Blue Chinese Mud, Poor Art Fill London Galleries

"HAWKFLIESAGAIN" (2010) by John Chamberlain. The work is on show at the Gagosian Gallery, Britannia Street in London until June 18. Photographer: Mike Bruce/Gagosian Gallery via Bloomberg

One of the most distinctive media of late-20th- and early-21st-century art was the wrecked car.

A number of artists made works out of squashed vehicles, or components from them. The true master of the mangled automobile in my opinion is the veteran U.S. sculptor John Chamberlain.

A cool, museum-quality display of his work is on show at the Gagosian Gallery, 6-24 Britannia St., London (through June 18, with another exhibition concurrently in New York). The Futurists claimed a speeding car was as beautiful as a Greek statue. Somehow, Chamberlain manages to put together bits of crumpled bodywork so they have the presence and excitement of ancient sculpture. He gives a new meaning to the phrase “classic car.”

There are less beautiful road accidents, by the German artist Dirk Skreber, in “The Shape of Things to Come: New Sculpture” at the Saatchi Gallery (until Oct. 16). Skreber wraps his passenger saloons around metal poles, making you think more of fatal injuries than the Victory of Samothrace.

His work is one of the newer elements in a show that, for Charles Saatchi, is relatively full of familiar names. Among them are Rebecca Warren and Roger Hiorns, both of whom featured on Turner Prize shortlists in recent years, and another senior American, John Baldessari. Consequently, by Saatchi standards, this exhibition is low on sensations.

Cow Brains

True, there is a sculpted (or maybe cast) orgy in “The Healers” by the Canadian artist David Altmejd, and Hiorns uses cow brains as a material (though you wouldn’t really guess that from looking at the work in question).

As usual with Saatchi’s choices, this selection is full of work that is the opposite of reticent or subtle. He wants his art to be in your face, and has proved a good talent scout over the years. While some of his chosen sculptors will quickly be forgotten, a few -- Warren, for example, with her manic female figures, halfway between Rodin and Bugs Bunny -- are likely to last.

Two contemporary sculptural classics turn up at Haunch of Venison, 6 Burlington Gardens, London (until Aug. 20). Richard Long and Giuseppe Penone have a lot in common: a shared generation and a similar approach to art and life.

Long (born 1945) is a familiar figure to U.K. art audiences, and this new work contains no radical departures. He is constantly transforming and extending what he does, however, and there are fresh elements, including a bright blue Chinese mud used in one of the dynamic abstract paintings he makes on the wall.

Magical Timber

Penone (born 1947) is one of the youngest, and best, of the Italian movement known as Arte Povera. As the name -- literally “poor art” -- suggests, these artists make their work out of everyday stuff. Penone was born near the Garessio forest in Piedmont and much of his work has to do with trees. One piece in the show consists of commercial timber which the artist has peeled back to reveal the stem and branches of a sapling within. It’s a seemingly magical transformation of an ordinary object.

The most striking of Penone’s pieces are black paintings or rather huge drawings on canvas. They are made by projecting enlarged photographs of the artist’s skin, then drawing over those patterns with graphite. The result looks like tree bark or desert landscapes seen from the air. They’re terrific, and not like anything you’ve seen before.


(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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