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Take a wander around London’s Selfridges this month and you may be confronted by an unexpected spot of student art. Nestling in the basement’s Ultralounge is an ultra-fresh and ultra-unusual exhibition. It’s the brainchild of contemporary art curators Kay Saatchi and Catriona Warren.
After trawling through London’s art colleges, viewing all the degree shows, going to the studios and meeting the aspiring student artists for themselves, Saatchi and Warren have handpicked the cream of the crop. They are crossing their fingers that among the 21 aspiring artists showcased in the Anticipation exhibition, they have discovered the next big thing.
The result is a smorgasbord of artistic delights. From painting, photography, graphics, video and sculpture, to a zimmer-frame roundabout and an inflatable bunker-cum-bouncy castle.
The featured artists pocket all the profits from the sale of their work. Saatchi and Warren say that they have never heard of another show like it. “Even the college degree shows normally take a percentage,” Warren remarks. It was a central to the concept of Anticipation from the beginning according to Saatchi: “We always wanted to make it a philanthropic show, and Catriona and I definitely don’t want the artists to think we’re trying to exploit them in any way by making money off them.” Last year’s show generated over £100,000 in sales, and this year’s is set to make even more.
American-born Kay Saatchi is the ex-wife of art collector Charles Saatchi. When she dipped her toe back into the art world after her divorce, headlines abounded about her “invading Mr Saatchi’s turf” by trying to unearth new talent herself. But with 20 years experience in the London art scene after arriving in the capital and starting a contemporary art gallery, she seems more than qualified to give her ex a run for his money.
Catriona Warren was editor of ArtReview, Britain’s longest-established contemporary art magazine, for 20 years. In 2001 she introduced ArtReview’s acclaimed supplements on the best student art, highlighting the hottest emerging talent. With Anticipation in its second year, Saatchi and Warren may well be on their way to unearthing the next Damian or Tracey.
So what marks these 21 artists out from the heaving crowd of aspiring young talent out there? Warren says that the work usually grabs her instantly. What makes these artists special is that “it just gives us a sense of excitement to see their work,” she says.
They both agree that it adds an extra dimension to talk to the artists about their creations. “That’s one of the reasons we make it a philanthropic show,” says Saatchi. “We feel we are given access into their studios where collectors and other people aren’t.”
One of the chosen artists is 22-year-old Sarah Lederman, whose enchanting nudes caught the eye of the two talent-spotters. Lederman describes her work as “strongly influenced by my childhood fantasies; fairytales, castles and the loss of innocence.” Her delightful drippy oil paintings seek to “build up cells and filth to allude to the surface of the skin [making] the disgusting and repulsive become beautiful.”
After a series of mishaps involving a missed email informing her of the curators’ visit, Lederman “just happened to stumble on them in my studio space [at Chelsea College of Art]”. When realising that she had been chosen for the show, she says, “it felt amazing.”
Lederman had sold a substantial amount of her work before her degree show at Chelsea had even finished, two weeks before Anticipation opened. Lederman is delighted with two new patrons on her side. “They’re such nice people. And they really care about every single artist – they push and root for them, and I think they’ll do that afterwards as well. I just get that feeling.”
Also in the exhibition is fellow Chelsea graduate Giles Ripley with a zany video piece showing five clones of himself orchestrating and then performing a mimed rendition of The Temptations’ 1964 hit ‘My Girl’.
The description of the exhibition boasts that the “artists reflect the new climate in the art world today.” Saatchi explains that “a lot of young artists used to feel that the only way to get their art noticed was to make it either huge or very shocking.” That is one thing that has changed, but one theme that runs through this show seems to be a determined focus on animals.
“We’ve seen lots of animals dead or alive,” Saatchi chuckles. “It’s part of a trend that’s been coming along for a few years” apparently, so not just a general student fixation.
Simon Ward’s grisly but beautiful works are intensely detailed scanned reproductions of recently deceased animals, some still bloodied.
Saatchi and Warren clearly love cultivating fresh young talent. “We do form quite nice relationships with them,” Saatchi comments, “kind of like their aunts. We introduce collectors to them, explain their work … and they call us up for advice.”
There is also a sense that the collector in Saatchi finds it difficult to resist acquiring some of the work for herself before Selfridges shoppers have a chance to get their mitts on them. “Kay ends up wanting to take some of the work home herself,” Warren says with a sideways glance. “I try not to” Saatchi protests. “I’m out of space!”
So if you’re after a glimpse of the next generation of British artists, want to grab a bargain before they really hit the big time, or just want a visit to an exhibition where you can actually meet the people behind the paintings (and animal heads), this is the place for you.
And if you’re a student artist toiling away in your studio and you receive a tap on the shoulder from two smiling middle-aged ladies, take a deep breath. You might be about to strike it very lucky indeed.
Anticipation is on show in Selfridges, Oxford Street until 3 August. Admission is free.