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British Contemporary Art from the Chaney Family Collection Showcases Provocative Work
Damien Hirst, British, born 1965, Beautiful Star Trek, Klingon, Beam Me Up, Make It So Yellow, Red Green, Blue, Pooh Painting, 1998. Household gloss on canvas. Chaney Family Collection, Houston © Damien Hirst Photo: Stephen White. Courtesy Jay Jopling/White Cube (London).

HOUSTON.- Audiences in Houston will have a fresh look at the radical London art scene when the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents END GAME – British Contemporary Art from the Chaney Family Collection. From the revolutionary Young British Artists (YBA) group of the 1990s to the dynamics of today’s avant-garde, 21 major works by thirteen artists and artists’ collectives from this influential generation will be on view at the MFAH. The exhibition runs June 14 through September 28, 2008; an audio-tour and cell-phone tour, featuring interviews with artists, the curators, and the collectors, will be available for visitors.

This exhibition is the second project conceived by the MFAH with Houston collectors Robert and Jereann Chaney, intended to offer the most significant new contemporary art to Houston audiences, and follows last summer’s MFAH presentation RED HOT – Asian Art Today from the Chaney Family Collection. Dr. Peter C. Marzio, MFAH director, commented, “END GAME reveals London in the 1990s as an unrivaled forum for new ways of thinking about art. The artists of this generation not only respond to past traditions in the arts and humanities but look toward new frontiers of social and scientific thought.”

“We are very pleased to share this aspect of our family collection with Houston audiences,” commented Robert Chaney. “Over the last thirteen years we have been seriously collecting together, our focus has been on acquiring the most innovative art from around the world that best reflects the major social, cultural, economic, and technological changes occurring at the time. We also sought to discover these new movements early enough to be able to acquire masterpieces by the most talented artists, and a variety of works sufficient to tell the story of the movement and the times it represented. The dramatic rise of British contemporary art provided us with one of the greatest opportunities we have ever encountered.”

The core of the exhibition, which presents art collected by the Chaney family over the past decade, will be work by the YBAs, a loosely defined association of painters, sculptors, video artists, and photographers who exploded into prominence in the 1990s. These artists, including Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Marc Quinn, and Tracey Emin, established international reputations with such exhibitions as the Walker Art Center’s 1995 Brilliant! New Art from London (which traveled to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston) and the Royal Academy’s Sensation, which originated in London in 1997.

Richard Cork, art critic for The Times of London and essayist for the exhibition catalogue, notes that the artists of the YBA generation are “united by a fundamental interest in mortality.” The show’s title, END GAME, is borrowed from that of a 2004 Damien Hirst masterpiece, a wall-size tableau that consists of two skeletons suspended between metal cabinets on either side with shelves displaying medical equipment.

The undeniable leader of this London art scene, Damien Hirst is known for his passionate exploration of death within life. The six Hirst pieces in END GAME include a Spin painting of swirled pigment, a Butterfly “painting” composed of thousands of pinned and preserved insect wings, a massive “painting” whose all-over surface covering is densely layered with dead flies, a medicine cabinet, a formaldehyde-tank piece, and the End Game work—comprising a representative swath of the artist’s varied production. While individually captivating, as a whole they illustrate Hirst’s ongoing interest in extremes, whether in the natural world or the larger spiritual dimension.

Existential themes run throughout the exhibition, explored by both the YBA artists and those who emerged later. Rachel Whiteread, whose famous casting of an entire house earned her the Turner Prize in 1993, is represented here by her monumental Untitled (Fire Escape) (2002), plaster casts of stair segments from a fire escape that can be seen as homage to the loss of this precious, urban social space. Photographer and video artist Sam Taylor-Wood creates a modern vanitas with the filmed, time-lapse sequence of a dead rabbit decaying over the course of nine weeks. The work, A Little Death (2002), followed the artist’s own experience with cancer and chemotherapy. Another, similarly chilling video piece is by Maria Marshall; her 1999 Once Up On uses footage of schoolchildren interacting within the confines of a schoolyard to convey the fear and anxiety of children (and parents) in a post-Columbine society.

A number of other artists confront mortality, brutality and amorality in their work, and still others address the waste and excess of consumer culture, the vulnerability of the self, and the estrangement of nature and culture. Tim Noble & Sue Webster celebrate excess in their spectacular, pulsating light sculpture Toxic Schizophrenia (1997). Brothers Jake and Dinos Chapman construct diabolical dioramas that use the human figure to explore the aesthetics of horror. Ian Dawson scrounges discarded plastics, then transforms them with a blowtorch into hapless, menacing figures. Dan Hays and Rowena Dring look at culture’s irreversible mediation of nature in mechanically generated “paintings.”

If there is a single undercurrent to END GAME, it is about the transformation of sculpture over the last 30 years, due in many ways to the bold investigations of many of the artists in the Chaney Family Collection and in this exhibition. The sculptural pieces on view—Mona Hatoum’s monumental cheese slicer stationed on a block of marble, the Chapman brothers’ cast totem conflating tribal art and crass commercialism, Hirst’s Plexiglas-encased bull’s heart, and Antony Gormley’s ghostly figure seemingly spun from steel hoops—reflect the extent to which these artists have found new means of expression through both the mundane and the extraordinary.

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