17 MAY 2003, Page 71

Formidable power

Andrew Lambirth

Saatchi Gallery County Hall, South Bank, SE]

I"'admire Mr Saatchi. He seems to be a man who knows what he wants and how to get it. I may disagree with his choice, but the effect of his decisions is palpable. He has changed the face of contemporary British art, and used his formidable powers of patronage and persuasion to promote a disparate group of artists he finds himself in sympathy with. It has been of enormous benefit to the art world in this country to have such a Maecenas at large. However, for some time now he has been in the position to make or break an artist's career, and I think this is dangerous.

I wasn't happy when his collection was put on show at the Royal Academy in the

exhibition Sensation, and thus given an official stamp of approval (and effectively accorded museum status), while presumably receiving an equivalent hike in value. But this is what happens when exhibitions are arranged at the last minute, and there isn't the time to borrow from more than one lender, Ifs happened before and it will happen again, given the current volatile nature of international exhibition organisation .

Mr Saatchi, an advertising man of some considerable standing, strikes me as being very shrewd. Why should he complain if his collection is validated by the RA? Particularly if he should ever want to sell any of it. I know that collectors do buy and sell, but to what extent do they have to trade in order to be called dealers rather than collectors? That's a very fine line indeed. If you were to examine the world's recent auction catalogues, you would probably discover that much of what Mr Saatchi has bought is offered, sooner or later, for resale. And that is what an artist has cause to resent or indeed fear.

At the same time as buying and selling, Mr Saatchi seems to want to run a museum. Until recently there was a beautiful space in north London which operated as a gallery (which thought it was a museum), and to which he bought a fine selection of exhibitions. Many of them featured, inevitably, the artists he had collected, but some had a wider remit. The Saatchi Gallery in Boundary Road was on every art student's list, and it was a stunning place to visit, an old paint factory turned into a vast echoing white shoe box, with, at times, a commensurate aesthetic reward to be had from the exhibits. Now Mr Saatchi has upped sticks for County Hall, visiting which is another order of experience altogether.

If context is all with the type of art Mr Saatchi collects, this is a very odd move to make. Jay Jopling, the dealer who represents many of the artists in the Saatchi Collection, made himself a veryaustere gallery and called it White Cube. It was what it called itself and, up till now, a white cube has been considered the perfect setting for this kind of art. But now we have the flamboyant Edwardian baroque showcase of the old GLC headquarters, all parquet and panelling. (And what, by the way, happened to the GLC's apparently rather good collection of portraits which used to hang on these august walls?) So how does Damien Hirst go with the Ionic columns?

Actually, rather well. It does help if you like the style and solidity of Ralph Knott's architecture, but the aesthetic frisson occasioned by the juxtaposition of marble fireplaces and a maggot-ridden cow's head is genuine and would have pleased the surrealists. Perhaps Mr Saatchi is a latterday surrealist, though from his recent purchase of three vast John Bratby panels, you wouldn't necessarily know it. But then the talented Bratby, part wide boy, part media star, was the Damien Hirst of the 1950s.

The Bratbys look a little out of place, though their Kitchen Sink realism is actu ally an earlier incarnation of the warped realism favoured by so many of the Saatchi artists. (Warped. you query? An armchair with a hand-crafted tumour? A cast resin tower of dead mice?) But one mustn't be too harsh. Mr Saatchi's best exhibit remains Richard Wilson's installation of used sump oil, flooding a room with its mirror surface. Grayson Perry's earthenware pots are refreshingly irreverent. And it's always good to see the high style of Patrick Caulfield, even if confined to a box room. The most interesting gallery is The Boiler Room, featuring the work of young artists such as Ian Munroe who shows a wondrous collage canyon of hi-fi speakers, and James Hopkins, whose witty study in anamorphosis (think of the skull in Holbein's 'Ambassadors'), offers a slantendicular look at pop groups. But I'm still unclear as to whether this is supposed to be a museum or not, If it is, will de-accessioning be the order of the day?