Being slippery and perplexing is not enough, it's time to reinvent the Turner Prize

Karen Wright remains a fierce defender of painting and its central role in art

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The Independent Culture

Another year, another Turner Prize with yet more impenetrable artists apparently selected to irritate and make us feel stupid as we are not part of the inner sanctum of curatorial practice. The short list – Helen Marten, Anthea Hamilton, Josephine Pryde and Michael Dean – contains three women and one man, an admirable attempt, it might seem, to redress the balance of male to female artists, except for the fact that I predict that Michael Dean may well walk away with the prize. All the shortlisted artists work mainly as sculptors, except for Pryde who predominantly uses photography. At least there is the relief that this year there are no darkened rooms with overly long videos to sit through, or remnants of performances to remind us of what was and could have been. There are also no painters at all. The curatorial argument that painting influences  Pryde, Marten or Hamilton in the way they compose their work seems a specious one. It is the computer that seems far more dominant in their practices. 

The four artists are nominated for solo exhibitions, most of which are abroad and unavailable for many of us to have seen. Hamilton was nominated for “Lichen! Libido! Chastity” at the SculptureCenter in New York. This reflected her continuing interest in mining sexualised images from the internet. This appropriation of images is clearly shown in the centerpiece of that show, Project for Door (after Gaetano Pesce) a recreation of an unrealized work from the 1970s by Pesce, an Italian architect, which was originally destined to be the front entrance of a Park Avenue apartment block. The frankly inappropriate image of male buttocks is quasi-obscene and would have been hilarious if it had been realized as to its initial plans. I last saw Hamilton’s work in Edinburgh in British Art Show 8 where she had injected an ant farm into a sculpture. Needless to say the ants had all died, a rather gratuitous addition to an otherwise inert sculpture. 

Marten’s practice, according to Tate’s press release, “attracts and intrigues, while also resisting interpretation and categorization.” Like Hamilton, Marten predominantly relies on the internet to mine her images, using language in her titles to again provoke a feeling of misunderstanding. She is certainly inclusive in the use of the materials that she uses to make her works. Shown in the Venice Biennale, Lunar Nibs has as its “ingredients” a pickle, a bowl of fish skin, coins and cotton all mashed up together into a colourful composition that we are told is “deliberately meant to both seduce and perplex us”. 

Pryde barely made the Turner cut, being 49 (the top age is 50). She was nominated for her solo exhibition “in Thinking By the Person i Am” (deliberately subverting language or grammar in her title) at CCA Wattis, San Francisco. Pryde predominantly uses photography to explore issues of both gender and consumerism. In San Francisco her  photographs were disrupted, another curatorial word,  by the addition of a large model train that the viewer was invited to sit upon and ride on to peruse the exhibition, reinforcing the contemporary ideal that the experience of going to a gallery should be fun.

Dean has been nominated for “Sic Glyphs”, a show at South London Gallery. More purely sculptural than the other nominees, this is easier for the viewer access. Dean’s personal concerns of language and co-option of contemporary materials such as rebars, a material used in construction and favoured by artists like Ai Wei Wei, may inform the work but they are, unlike the other artists, less opaque in their delivery. There is pleasure in this work and pleasure in the making.

The Turner Prize desperately needs to reinvent itself. Firstly it needs to get rid of its now obsolete rules – no one over age 50; the artist has to live and work predominantly in the UK (unless you are Tino Seghal in 2013). The restrictions were imposed to protect British artists from international competition, but with a global art world, as clearly seen in the places that these exhibitions have been held, they now seem parochial and foolish. The top age limitations means that “late bloomers” such as Phyllida Barlow and Rose Wylie never got a chance to be nominated to this still important prize. And important it is. While I am writing this piece and the ink is not yet dry on the press releases, the galleries are sending out congratulation notices to their nominated artists. 

In 1997 I appeared on Channel 4 after the announcement of the Turner Prize as part of a debate positing the question as to whether painting was dead. The short list that year was all women, Christine Borland, Angela Bulloch, Cornelia Parker and Gillian Wearing (Gillian Wearing won) and not a painter in sight. I was defending painting and its central role in art. Famously Tracey Emin stomped out, making it wonderful television for all the wrong reasons. Looking at this year’s list, and recently having walked around the British Art Show 8, it seems the defense is still necessary. Painting certainly is dead to a certain breed of curator if not to the public in general. Being slippery and perplexing is just not enough; let’s give our viewers something to enjoy and fill our minds so we may remember it the next day. 

Exhibition opens 27 September at Tate Britain, tategallery.org 

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