Richard Wright: A different frame of mind

Richard Wright's fresco on the walls of Tate Britain won him the Turner Prize – and as two new shows demonstrate, he's still finding beauty by thinking beyond the canvas
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The Independent Culture

Richard Wright, a tall, softly-spoken and articulate man, was 49 when he just snuck in under the Turner Prize's age restriction as a prize for the under 50s, and was reasonably little-known when he was nominated last year.

He created a quaveringly delicate exhibition for the Turner Prize show, a fresco in gold leaf, painted directly onto the gallery walls of Tate Britain that seemed to echo both William Blake and J M W Turner – artists that Wright had come to see at the Tate as a young man. The painting was essentially abstract, but was filled with soft pastoral shapes, and seemed to stretch back into the history of the gallery and its collection. Tiny shapes like line-drawn suns seemed to fill the warmly lit galleries with light. A Rorschach-like doubling of the image accentuated its strangeness. It was accompanied by two small red wall paintings above a door that looked a little like the gently bleeding cross-section of a fish. These seemed to punctuate the space and to lead the viewer through to Lucy Skaer's exhibition in the next room, which featured a whale skeleton. The show was, in its beauty and its gentility, impossible to argue with, and Wright walked away with the prize.

It was the rampant commercialism of the art market during the 1980s that turned Wright off painting on canvas. He felt that he didn't want to contribute to producing more and more stuff for people to buy, and so, in the 1990s, began painting straight onto walls. "There are too many unnecessary objects," he has said. Wright's approach is about more than just foregoing canvas, however. He never swamps a location with extra shapes, images and ideas, but rather draws on the existing details of the space itself. This can make for a stressful installation period – most often when he begins installing he is unsure what the work will be, where it will go and what exact form it will take. Wright often sites his work in rather forgotten corners, fragments of the ceiling marked by pipes or sockets – small sections of walls in corridors or door frames useless to anyone else. At Edinburgh's Ingleby Gallery, for example, he painted inside the back of the gallery's bookshelf. At London's Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street, a building which is so shop-front like that everything inside it is visible to passers-by, Wright made a delicate silver painting on the ceiling, based on a straight-lined, cubic pattern that brought to mind clean-white cube architecture. However, he also creates larger-scale works, which appear to make visible the atmospherics of an entire room. Wright's use of lines of perspective, which often employ a small repeated motif or pattern, create the impression that air has become visible, that we can see the invisible elements of a room that give it a particular "feel".

It's now Scotland, Wright's home (he moved from England when he was 12 years old, and lives in Glasgow), that has the chance to celebrate the artist, with a permanent work in Edinburgh's Dean Gallery, commissioned by the Edinburgh Art Festival, and a solo show on his home turf at Modern Institute in Glasgow. There's much sense from both exhibitions that Wright has now hit a confident stride – both exhibitions are ambitious and transcendent responses to architecture. While Wright's Turner Prize exhibition was rather overwhelming in its beauty – particularly in the shimmering gold leaf – it's a set of reasonably simple motifs that mark out his new large-scale works. The process, however, is anything but simple.

Wright's Dean Gallery commission is in the stairwell of a building now used as a modern-art gallery, but it was previously a hospital for orphans. The architecture of the building is confident and solid; the railings on the stairs are very tall, for example, dwarfing the visitor into feeling a little too small, and the ceiling in the roof leans in at the apex, so that it seems that the walls might be falling in. In the centre is an elaborate ceiling rose, based upon a honeysuckle fleur-de-lys. It's on this honeysuckle shape that Wright has based his design for the ceiling – a small black floral shape that is repeated across the white ceiling in different shapes and angles. They seem to spin out from the corners, where they are densely packed and small, out into areas in which they are painted larger, but with more space around them. The walls seem to hum with tension, and burst with history. The black honeysuckle resembles a far more sombre version of those wind-tossed flowers that surround the shell-riding Venus in Botticelli's famous The Birth of Venus. They might seem like the tiny souls of those who once inhabited the building in its former use – a place devoted to those lives that were tossed around anchorless on the breeze – or the melancholy dark petals of disease blown in from the streets outside. Interestingly, though Wright's usual insistence that his works be painted over can have the effect of making one appreciate the beauty of the here-and-now, this work is more likely to make one reflect on its permanence. It will remain when we are gone, for curators to protect and future visitors to puzzle over.

Over in Glasgow at Modern Institute, Wright's work is back in its more impermanent state. This is his first solo show at the gallery since he won the Turner Prize and since the gallery moved to a bright new space in a former washhouse (it was, for years, run out of a rather pokey site in a tenement building in the city). Now that the gallery has a new slanted roof with windows, letting the blue sky in on a clear day, Wright has made visible elements of light and pressure within the space. On the far wall, blue curved triangles are arranged in such a way that it appears as though the sky is trying to punch out through the wall in the same triangular way that it does in the roof. If you look at it another way, the perspective lines drawn by the patterns of blue shapes are such that it seems as though there is a further gallery space beyond the wall, lined by blue walls singing with light and colour. Look closely, however, and you'll notice that Wright has singled out some of the gallery's forgotten elements for attention. A supporting beam high up in the ceiling has a little red painting blossoming from its side as though it were puffing, straining, perhaps bleeding from the effort of holding the sky up, Atlas-like for the gallery. It's this combination that is so typical of Wright, and what makes his work so humane. The large, atmospheric painting that can knock you sideways is accompanied by a nod to all the supporting actors in the architecture. To the beams, doorways and shelves that open up spaces for us, and let the light in.

The Stairwell Project, Dean Gallery, Edinburgh (; Modern Institute, Glasgow ( until 23 October 2010