Dexter Dalwood: A brush with death

From Kurt Cobain's greenhouse to Sharon Tate's living room, Dexter Dalwood's paintings are haunted by mortality. Peter York delights in the morbid brilliance of this year's favourite for the Turner Prize

Can Dexter Dalwood, figurative painter, possibly win this year's Turner Prize? Absolutely everything's against him. He is, for instance, the bookie's favourite, with William Hill quoting odds of 2/1. According to one of those curious experts that W. Hill pitches up to explain the odds for all manner of events, Dalwood is "well known and easy on the eye".

You could contest the first, he's not exactly Damien or Tracey yet, but the second is undoubtedly true. Whereas his competition – The Otolith Group, Angela de la Cruz and Susan Philipsz – are what could be described, in the bookie's own familiar language of the turf, as rather hard going. De la Cruz does poignantly deconstructed canvases, The Otolith Group do massive film and video installations showing footage of, amongst other things, the legacy of ancient Greece or austere London in the 1960s. And Susan Philipsz with a "z" does aural art, voice tracks of herself singing sad songs medium-well, designed to create the atmospherics of place – under a river bridge, for instance.

So what hope has Dexter Dalwood, with his 1980s US-soap sounding name and his large decorative figurative canvassy canvasses suited to houses as well as large galleries and bridges? One critic has already described his work as "glib". As Dalwood himself says: "I haven't had a generous press in this country. Post-Pop painting is not quite the true religion here."

The basic idea of a Dexter Dalwood painting is so consistent, so apparently easy to grasp, that spoofs start running through your head moments after you've first seen one. A Dalwood – the kind of thing he's been working on since around 1999 and the kind of painting shown in the Turner exhibition – shows an imagined place, most often a domestic interior. It'll be the house or setting for a real person – always famous and usually dead – and often for a memorable event. So, for instance, the Hollywood room where Sharon Tate and others were murdered by the Manson family in 1969. Or Kurt Cobain's greenhouse. They have a spoofy echo of classical history painting of the "X after the battle of Y" kind, but the scenes are drawn from recent media memories rather than martial mythology and the characters are mostly celebrities rather than great leaders. And they're usually not there.

You, the viewer, do the rest. Just add blood and imagine the corpse (Dalwoods frequently feature death sites). So in Sharon Tate's ominously still and sunlit room you're wondering where her beautiful butchered body might be – it's hidden in front of the well-observed sofa with its back to us in front of the free-form fireplace. This is historically accurate because Dalwood has read Vincent Bugliosi's account of the Manson murders, Helter Skelter, most carefully. (And Henry Wallis's Death of Chatterton was a teenage favourite of his).

Figurative, decorative, celebrity-based and developed around resonant events, a Dalwood is highly "accessible" as they say in Artland. And it can only get worse. Dalwood already has a big dealer and a following, particularly in America. He's with Gagosian, the positively global contemporary art dealer, and his pictures are saleable and pricey. Charles Saatchi has already bought into him (and out again) for the Neurotic Realism show in 1999.

Dalwood is, of course, a gift to spoofers who like to imagine, say, Peter Rabbit's burrow, SamCam's kitchen, or murdered MI6 agent Gareth Williams' bathroom, for his canvasses are that bit camp and kinky. They're sometimes camp in their choice of subject matter, sometimes in the composition and particularly in the detail. The detail of interiors from William Burroughs' Tangiers to Diana Vreeland's red "jewel box" Manhattan apartment. I'm not saying that Dalwood is a hyper-realist who shows every shag of the shag-pile but you have to understand the curious visual language of these kinds of interiors to suggest them with a brush stroke or a block of colour. In fact a Dalwood isn't what's called painterly, something with the craft on show. They're fairly flat and the light is usually hard and bright, floodlit, flash-lit or fluorescent.

And as for the kinkiness, there's lots of death; celebrated, violent, early death of the kind that sticks in the prurient public imagination – mine anyway – for decades. The trivial pursuits of later hours pub discussions. Dalwood hasn't, I think, done Michael Hutchence's hotel bedroom or Sal Mineo's alleyway, but he could have. Dalwood is hot on: "The Patrick Bateman imagined violence theme – American Psycho is a fantastically interesting book".

Dalwood's paintings are clearly rooted in familiar works – things Brits know now, directly or indirectly such as early British Pop Art, especially its Big Daddy, Richard Hamilton, and West Coast Pop Art, even Hockney in the Bigger Splash period. And you can see parallels with successful contemporaries like Peter Doig, him of the sad exteriors seen through undergrowth. They share a sense of borrowed memory and the intensity of place though they diverge on practically everything else. You don't, so it seems at first, need to mug up too much to get to where Dalwood's coming from. "There's an English tradition of artists who deal with the interior, but my dream-space is an American fantasy."

Some rather odd comparisons come to mind, unbidden. Guy Peellaert, for instance. Peellaert was briefly famous in the 1970s for Rock Dreams, a book of paintings with text by Nik Cohn, the English essayist, whose New York Magazine piece of 1976 gave us Saturday Night Fever. Peellaert's pictures imagine or recreate key scenes in the life of rock legends – like little Phil Spector being teased by bullies at high school. Or you think of Alison Jackson, the English photographer and film-maker who convincingly reconstructs imagined episodes in the lives of global legends with lookalikes – Diana and Dodi with their brown baby, or the Beckhams and Blairs doing practically anything.

But – and here comes the science – Dalwood's work is actually miles from any of this. It's made in a tremendously clever way, with collages – cut-outs and cut-ups – as the working model. He'll slice things from magazines and art books that underwrite and illustrate his big themes and then paint a picture of the idea. He's very interested in the art of the past but nervous about its power. "You look at Poussin, then you have to shower yourself in Warhol to avoid the reactionary feeling."

So a Dalwood setting exists first as a collage, drawn from high art and low places, a plan for a painting full of references, big ideas and big sofas. Cut-ups and borrowings have a long history in art and a shorter one in pop – Bowie via William Burrough's cutting up of texts and reassembling them – and Dalwood certainly knows his history of pop. But it can be a critical problem: "It's difficult to see an artist as serious if you're interested in this and that. 'How can you make sampled work into a point of view?' is what they say."

Once re-assembled in those flat, bright acrylics it doesn't matter if you recognise the references – this isn't The Painted Word (Tom Wolfe's 1970s essay about the kind of contemporary art that only works for 500 people across the world who know the master theory). But Spot the Borrowing is fun and it focuses your reaction. Sunny von Bulow (or Heiress in a Coma!) has a large chunk of Millais' Ophelia of 1852 in the middle of it. The master of allusion puts this kind of thing in all over the place.

Some critics like it because it adds complexity and depth of field; the rest of us like it because it makes for richer patterning. Dalwood's Rimbaud in Paris has an engaging brown swirly-whirly Rhodes-y pattern on the bedside wall. Actually, he's taken it from Richard Hamilton's picture, The Citizen (1981-83), based on the H-Block "dirty protest" that took place in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. (And it means he knew Rimbaud was never that hygienic.)

I first met Dalwood at a contemporary art dinner party right out of central casting – a critic, a curator, Gilbert and George, a cult TV film-maker, and so forth. Knowing a bit of his history, I wondered if we'd ever met because at 16, he was a punk starlet, the bass player with The Cortinas, and for about 18 months in the 1970s I'd been obsessed with punk. The Cortinas had clever song titles such as "Fascist Dictator, Defiant Pose", "Ask Mr. Waverly" and "I Trust Valerie Singleton". All clever, sneery stuff.

The Cortinas were middle-class boys from Bristol who were signed to CBS and produced several albums as part of "the punk plot to unseat social democracy". But as Dalwood admits, "you can't identify yourself through music" and was out the other side and on to St. Martin's at 21, during the Blitz wine bar years, a contemporary of John Galliano and, later at the RCA, alongside Tracey Emin. "The art schools were still distinctive then – St. Martin's from Central, Goldsmith's from Chelsea or Camberwell." But he didn't, so he says, hit his stride as an artist till he was 37.

It was Dalwood's antiquarian bookseller father and his sculptor uncle, Hubert Dalwood, who gave him an idea of the art life. Hubert was one of the glamorous white hopes of British sculpture of the Anthony Caro generation. He died early at 52 but Dexter can still remember him turning up fresh from, say, a Venice Biennale, with his smart sports car and latest girlfriend. That was what "Big Art" could do.

Now approaching 50, Dalwood has matured from the cutest-looking Cortina into an altogether more American Gothic style. He looks faintly worrying, like he might be a difficult interview. He isn't. Conversation topics are the key. Get him talking about Richard Hamilton and he's away; Bret Easton Ellis and he's airborne; the problems of subsidised middle-brow public art – he's not one for sculpture parks – and he becomes really animated.

And his definition of his work is compelling: "So many artists that I would meet, when you saw their work, weren't making art that they were really interested in. I've always thought it's impossible as an artist to do work without it being about everything you're interested in, encompassing things you read, things you see, things you think about, things you imagine, things you fantasise about. It took me a long time to work out how to do that."

I love this work: what Dalwood does and how he gets there. I love its take on alternatives and counterfactuals, his ways of imagining pop history. I don't even see why he shouldn't make the move from work that occasionally looks a bit schematic to the consistently seductive – lovely stuff like William Burroughs (2005) or Herman Melville (both in the Turner selection). After all, he's doomed already.

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