Tom Lubbock: This year's Turner Prize foursome share common ground

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The job of the Turner Prize jury isn’t just to come up with four lively and upcoming artists. They’ve also got to come up with four reasonably distinct ones. These artists will appear in a show together for three months, and a stream of visitors will be invited to compare them. It’s important that they are able to tell the difference between the entries.

This year’s foursome is Roger Hiorns, Enrico David, Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright (I give them in the order of William Hill’s odds, starting with the favourite). If you didn’t know their work already – or even if you did – you might find hard to tell where one part of the exhibition stopped and the next started.

There’s plenty of common ground. There are wall markings (Skaer, Wright); there are liquid shapes (Wright, Hiorns); there are powdered materials (Hiorns, Skaer). There are points at which three of these four could almost be the same artist. Still, this doesn’t mean that the odd-man-out is the best.

The odd-man-odd is Enrico David, and his work is a bit silly. It’s a sort of punch-and-judy psychodrama, a romp in a perverse shop window. You have a tableau made of miscellaneous effigies. There are propped up canvases with cartoony characters, banging drums, showing their bums. There’s a stuffed black cloth figure, his limbs stretched out and droopy. There are papier-maché puppets like humpty-dumpties on rocking-chair legs. It’s rude. It’s crazy. It’s quite inventive. But there could be more of this stuff, or less of it, and it wouldn’t make any difference.

Lucy Skaer’s work: what’s it about? Do I care enough to do the homework? There’s always some background thinking, tenuously connected to a curious exhibit. There’s a group of 26 replicas of that modernist classic, Brancusi’s Bird in Flight, but made from coal dust and resin. Pretty...but why? There’s the huge real skull of a sperm whale hidden inside a chamber, and glimpsed only through vertical slits. Startling...but why? I know I could read it up. I feel sure she’s got an interesting mind. I’m not sure it’s the mind of an artist.

Roger Hiorns does surprising things with surprising materials. His main piece here almost fills his allotted space: it’s a swirling sea or landscape, made of finely powdered stuff, poured onto the floor, in various rippling tones of grey. It lies there messy and fragile at your feet, or it would do. But (inevitably) Tate has surrounded it with a floor barrier to keep the public’s feet back, and its essential sense of risk is lost. Still, this spread of dust is beautiful and spectacular.

Hiorns’ art also puts its faith in what you might call the hidden ingredient. You’re asked to be excited by what something is made of, and by its associations, even though you could never tell just from looking. What is this grey powder? Check the label. “Atomised passenger aircraft engine”. What? Was there a momentary flinch when you thought it was actually passenger that had been atomised? But no, this dust is only the engine of a passenger aircraft, finely ground down. So what, though? It could be any kind of metal, ground down. Some connotation of plane crash? Don’t try and give us the willies.

Richard Wright has the longest odds, and I fear he won’t be much of a favourite with the public. His art is precise and laconic. But stand still for a while. Wait for his room to empty (it probably will). Involve. Wright takes a bare room and animates its space with tactical wall markings.

He fills one wall here with a vast, centred, symmetrical design. It’s painted in gold leaf. It’s enormously elaborate and detailed, with connotations of baroque ornament, rocker tattoos, oil patterns floated on water. On the opposite wall, high up above the doorway, there is a pair of small red explosive insignia. And between them, between this large complex field of gold and this small shot of red, the empty space of the gallery is held and balanced. Beyond that, I don’t have much to say about this work – except that it seems to be in perfect focus, and I kept going back.

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