LONDON — How to characterize Jake and Dinos Chapman? The two brothers first made a big splash in the 1990s, when they fabricated a gruesome, three-dimensional version of an etching by Goya from a series called The Disasters of War. This assemblage of lopped and mutilated, mannequin-like human limbs hanging from a tree was shown in an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997 called Sensation. It was a nasty piece of work. It likely made you wince because it seemed to lack compassion or human feeling of any kind. It was also entirely characteristic. The brothers seemed to revel in the business of provoking and outraging the world. They wanted to be seen as bruisers, Bad Boys, agents provocateurs. They bristled with a kind of sneery arrogance.
I first met them at their studio in London’s Old Kent Road in the autumn of 1998. Jake was the spokesman, the reader, the intellectual, the pushy one; Dinos tended to hang back. Our conversation rapidly declined into an unpleasant argument. Jake heaped mockery and derision on my shoulders. He told me that I knew nothing about art at all. He was even kind enough to give me a reading list. I told him that I honestly thought the 75-page catalogue essay he had written to accompany a show in New York was one of the most pretentious pieces of crap I had ever read, an ill-digested mash-up from bits of Heidegger, Sartre, and others, worthy of a teenager. Jake, I felt, was loving every minute of this bit of verbal brawling. This is how he wanted to engage with art critics and journalists. It would give him notoriety, enemies. And it did. It did. Their eye-catching acts of provocation continued. They reveled in it. They bought a collection of utterly banal paintings by Adolf Hitler, and painted over parts of them in silly and clownish ways. Once again, the action felt attention seeking. What they had done could be taken exception to in a variety of ways. Tastelessness, for example. Who in their right mind would wish to buy and then exhibit — and thereby associate themselves with — bad paintings by a monster called Hitler? And then daub over them?
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In 2003, they were shortlisted for the Turner Prize, and they put on a considered show of public outrage when they failed to win. Grayson Perry, who became more than their equal at the art of showmanship and look-at-me-ism, beat them to it. It was in that exhibition that they returned once again to Goya, who has proven to be an abiding obsession of theirs. This time they painted over an entire suite of those same etchings referred to above, adding clownish heads and other trivializing details of buffoonish defacement. Oh horror! How the art world howled! All very good for the Chapmans’ publicity machine.
And now we are all a quarter of a century older and wiser, and I am talking to Jake Chapman once again — the call is mediated by Yuval Etgar, the young Israeli curator who conceived this exhibition with him — over the telephone from his home in the Cotswolds, which is as far away in mood from the Old Kent Road as you could possibly conceive. Much else has changed. He and his brother have suffered a divorce. They are no longer quite that cheeky twosome, artistic bomb-tossers of the 1990s. Dinos now lives and works as a solo artist in Los Angeles. The Cotswolds, where his brother Jake has his home, is generally depicted as a snapshot of a timeless, sweet-faced rural idyll of the England that once used to be. “What’s happened then?” I ask Jake. Was it a painless divorce? We were never joined at the hip, Jake tells me. It wasn’t a symbiotic relationship. He always read a lot, whereas Dinos didn’t. Is he still a Bad Boy? I wonder. He partly answers the question for me without my even having to ask. It’s quite hard, he tells me, going from being a YBA to an OAP …
The new show is, nevertheless, a thoroughgoing and unmistakably Chapman endeavor. Having said that, it is also less shrill and combative than in the past, and perhaps more calmly thought-provoking. Yet it still manages to include the odd whiff of quite deliberate — and perhaps even tasteless, if not downright unpleasant — provocation. The press materials tell us that the show — which is called Bad Manners — is an exploration of “non-consensual” collaborations between artists from about the middle of the 19th century to the present day. You cannot help but linger over that compound adjective, “non-consensual,” and quietly reflect upon the fact that it is most often used in the context of sexual assault. So the ante is being raised — as usual.
So what exactly do we have in this gallery today? We have a number of works that could be described as cannibalistic: an artist has acquired a work by another artist and done something with it and to it — drawn on it, added to it, turned it into a part of something quite different from what it was in the first place, and all without the permission of its creator. Once this happens, confusion sets in: who is now the creator of this work? Is there anger and dismay too? Not necessarily from the original creator because he or she may be dead, and therefore beyond the reach of caring at all.
One of the most interesting examples of cannibalistic collaboration in this show is what looks like a smallish wooden coffee table raised up on a low plinth. In many respects it looks thoroughly unremarkable. And yet something rather odd has happened to its surface. In fact, set into that surface is an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter. Who had the barefaced cheek to turn a painting by Richter into the surface of something as banal and unremarkable as a coffee table on which you might easily and unthinkingly plonk down a cup of coffee? Martin Kippenberger did it, one of the postwar German bad boys — they do come in many different nationalities. And did Richter complain? I ask Yuval Etgar. Not as far as he knows. He probably thought it was quite a good joke. Artists generally don’t complain when this sort of thing happens. They leave that to the collectors, the dealers, the advertising men.
Bad Manners: On the Creative Potentials of Modifying Other Artists’ Work continues at Luxembourg + Co. (2 Savile Row, London, England) through May 15. The exhibition was organized by the gallery in collaboration with Jake Chapman.