The Legacies of the YBAs? Chapter 1, Shock Factor – Louis Newby

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To what extent has the Brit Art movement had an effect on British contemporary art today? 

Due to the general nature of this question, I have split my discussion into a number of chapters, each will outline and evaluate a certain factor or theme that was prevalent within the YBA’s work. Each chapter will examine themes including the shock factor, the marketability and the stylisation and technical skill of both the YBA’s work and British art produced within today’s climate.

Shock Factor

The YBA’s are synonymous with shock; it therefore seems natural to begin this essay analysing how if at all this theme has developed within the world of British contemporary art. The BritArt generation was one of the most successful within the history of Modern Art in stunning and disgusting their audiences and if contemporary British artists were to take anything from the YBA’s, this brashness in their portrayal of ideas would be it.

When it comes to producing shocking work, it seems that for artists the most prevalent themes to convey both twenty years ago and today are sex and violence. Starting with the former, within the YBA circle, Sarah Lucas’ work was the most consistent (and still is today) in addressing sex and most prominently society’s view towards women and their objectification. One only has to look at Bitch (1995) to witness Lucas’s unsettling reductions of the female form with huge emphasis on the genitalia. One reason why Lucas’ work is so effortlessly disgusting is her use of commonly used euphemisms and imagery, for instance the use of melons in Bitch and recurring portrayal of fried eggs in her other work. By doing so Lucas leaves nothing to the imagination and therefore provokes instantaneous and guttural reactions from her audiences.

However, Lucas was in no way individual in her boisterous approach to contentious themes. In many ways, artists that were approaching violence and death were being even more shocking. Matt Collinshaw’s Bullet Hole (1988) was one of the very first YBA pieces exhibited at the famous Freeze final year exhibition. The large grids of canvases (15 in total) come together to create a high definition and close up photograph of a head wound. The sheer scale of the image as well as its lack of depth gives the viewer no respite, creating a brutally repulsive piece of work. Shock tactics became hugely popular within the BritArt movement and it soon became clear that British audiences in the 1990’s just weren’t impressed unless they were revolted. These artists had unearthed and tapped into the British audience’s conscious and were producing work that they wanted to see, over-sexualized and filled violent and morbid imagery. These kinds of interests do not just disappear and therefore artists since have still been catering to the publics shocking wants.

Nicola Frimpong is an artist whose work perfectly embodies this component of the YBA’s. Her watercolor paintings provide an account of her own sexual and racial oppression and are saturated with violent sexual imagery. For example, The Accidental Birth of Nicola – I Should Have Been Born a Boy (2012) is a very personal account of Frimpong’s insecurities and personal resentments. Like when faced with Bullet Hole or Bitch, the viewer is instantly subjected to explicit imagery only emphasised by the use of text – “I’m not black”, “I should have been born a boy” are written across the piece and as with any piece of text within a piece of art, the is eye inevitably drawn to it. It must be suggested then that Frimpong has adopted many of the elements introduced by the YBA’s in order to create captivating and poignant (whilst unsettling) pieces. Her work has been a massive success in recent years, making it on to the Bloomberg New Contemporaries short-list and being exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery it only shows that audiences are still looking to be provoked long after the YBA’s introduction of shock tactics in the realm of popular art.

Apart from its graphic imagery, another reason why Frimpong’s work is considered to be so shocking is the incredibly personal nature of her art. Throughout her pieces, she identifies how she has battled with both her race and gender; this can be seen in The Accidental Birth with the black figure (probably representative of the artist) looking at the blond white male staring back at him in the mirror. This blunt yet intimate approach to art was something also refined by many of the YBA’s, in particular, one of the most famous, Tracey Emin. Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 (1995), is probably one of Emin’s most autobiographical pieces of work: the use of a tent in itself is intimate, a small enclosed environment specifically designed for sleeping. The name of anyone she had shared a bed with (or even a tree) was hand stitched into the tent, and this use of embroidery adds to the tactile and personal aspect of the piece. While there was nothing vulgar or disgusting about the aesthetics of the piece, Emin was condemned for being too open and crass for exhibiting her apparent promiscuity. However this openness is a recurrent theme within her work, as Rachel Taylor for the Tate has written about The Last Thing I Said to You was Don’t Leave Me Here II (2000), ‘the image invites the viewer to emphasise with the artist and to respect the emotional honesty with which she documents and shares her pain.’ (Tate Website). In the case of this self-portrait, Emin is presenting her viewer with a childhood tale of isolation and abuse. Personalizing it through the use of a ramshackle beach hut as she grew up in Margate by the sea, Emin crouches naked in the corner, vulnerable and exposed to the audience, leaving little for the viewer to interpret, much like the work of Frimpong today. Other British artists are also producing personal and narrative pieces, for instance work by Dominic From Luton (that’s his name) provides an insightful and agonizing account of what its like to grow up in Luton (voted ‘Britain’s Crappiest Town’).  Images such as My Dads Pants (2013) are overwhelmingly pathetic but with a cause. By choosing to exhibit images of sole Reebok trainers and his father’s underwear, Dominic is highlighting how unappealing life is in Luton; his work conveys the social and economic issues he personally faces with the rest of Luton’s population. Whilst these images do not contain the same level of shocking self-exposure and intimacy of Tracey Emin’s work in the 1990’s, both Dominic From Luton and Frimpong provide their own personal responses to what it is to be alive today, an aspect that made the YBA’s work so popular.

Throughout the 1990’s the YBA’s were continually pushing boundaries in terms of the media they used to create their work, and one material that became a recurring motif in the decade, was blood. This morbid element was first introduced in the BritArt era by Damien Hirst in his installation A Thousand Years (1990). The piece presents its own ecosystem where flies live off the severed head of a cow sitting within a pool of its own. It is an attack of the senses and the viewer is naturally repelled by the work however there is an element of tenderness as to how Hirst has managed to capture the transience of life in such an isolated environment. Contrasting the beautiful and the grotesque is another theme that was adopted by the YBA’s and this can be seen in another bloody piece of work by sculptor Marc Quinn. Self (1991 – Present), is an ongoing piece of work where the artist casts his head in 4.5 litres of his own blood every 5 years. Similar to A Thousand Years, Quinn’s self portrait, at first glance, renders the viewer in disgust – however on second thought, the overwhelming feeling to this piece is admiration to artist’s personal devotion to his work. In its simplest form, his work is the perfect embodiment of the artist and so must in one way be considered as beautiful. Whilst in recent years, there has been a relative decline in such gory production techniques, artists have continued to use materials such as blood, however to create more traditionally beautiful pieces of work. Jodie Carey is a British artist who uses bodily elements such as blood and bone throughout her work, for example her flower sculpture The Daily Mail (2005) made from bloodstained newspapers and her more recent Untitled (Blood Dust) (2010), which is a patterned rectangular expanse of powdered blood. ‘Untitled (Blood Dust)’ allows the viewer to contemplate the value of life as it laid before them, similar to both the work of Hirst and Quinn, Corey manages the soften the brutality of the piece through the soft and upholstered aesthetic of her work. Carey’s work transforms the primal element into something delicate and beautiful whilst also maintaining the element of shock that makes her work so captivating. This development shows how British contemporary artists today have taken from components introduced by the YBA’s and have cultivated and matured them in order to fit with todays wants and styles.

It would therefore appear the shock factor that was so well adopted by the Young British Artists of the 1990s has had a lasting legacy on British art up until this day. Whilst the stunning aesthetics of many of the installation artists such as Lucas and Hirst are no longer being replicated it would appear that artists are more willing than ever to approach contentious or highly personal themes or the use of obscure materials that still contain the element of shock. This is something that audiences grew accustomed to under the monopoly of the YBA’s and therefore the demand for an amount of shock would still remain.

Louis Newby


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