Gavin Turk: a YBA up to his old tricks

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Gavin Turk made his name as Britart's chief prankster. But at a retrospective of his 20-year career, Michael Glover finds him recycling the same joke once too often

The YBAs, those edgily aggressive provokers of outrage of the early 1990s, seem thoroughly tamed by now. Tracey votes blue and wears hats. Damien's stock, once so high, is on the gentle slide. And what of Gavin – Turk, that is? Although he didn't go to Goldsmiths, he was among them, wasn't he, with his posturing waxwork of a gun-totin' Sid Vicious in the Elvis pose? Now, 20 years on, and with the support of a respectable and beautifully appointed gallery in a quiet Mayfair mews, the script has been polished and redrafted, and we are calmly being invited to look back at 20 years of his development as a serious artist. Prestel has just published the very first monograph of his work – 400 pages of it, for a cool £45. Turk, it seems, was always quietly cerebral and slightly set apart from the rest, keen to be investigating serious issues of process, identity, art-historical authenticity.

Just like Giovanni Bellini then. Five hundred years ago, the great Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini was in the habit of signing his own paintings in a very distinctive way. His signature would often be found, neatly written in Latin script, on a scrap of paper attached to a framing device within the painting itself – such as a balcony. The purpose was three-fold: to trumpet his own fame as its author; to draw attention to the fact that the painting was an act of making or “process”; and to encourage us to marvel at the brilliant craft of the illusionist.

Fast-forward to 1990. In that year, a 23-year-old, Guildford-born painter called Gavin Turk who had failed to gain an MA at the Royal College of Art because his degree show had consisted of nothing but a blue faux English Heritage plaque in his own memory, made a work called Title, which consisted of his own signature painted in black across three panels. He was doing so in order to draw attention to issues of authorship and authenticity.

The argument runs like this: a work of art cannot be truly authentic unless it is signed with the name of its maker. Unlike Bellini, however, Turk did little other than make a feature of his signature. There was a point in isolating the artist's signature in this way, of course. Proof of authorship is crucial. Perhaps the hallowed signature alone would do. Perhaps a signature can be a work of art in itself, and Turk's own signature would be a name to conjure with in the fullness of time. So ran the joke which, regrettably, ran and ran.

Turk was setting himself up to be the prankster among the YBAs – and so it has continued. But he is a prankster with too few tricks up his sleeve. Over the next 20 years, as we can see when we look around this retrospective of his work in London, Turk played and played with the same idea. One work here, for example, is called One Thousand, Two Hundred and Thirty-Four Eggs, and it consists of a wall-hung display of white egg shells, mounted on a white, rectangular board. Some of the shells have been broken – with the utmost care, it has to be said. Trace the flow of the breaks with your eye, and you will find that you are reading the artist's signature. On another wall, three egg-shaped panels of 2013 hang side by side. Each one has been gouged into or punctured – which is undoubtedly an act of homage to the slash paintings of Piero Manzoni. Once again, if we stand back and look at the overall patterning, we will see that the violations form the shape of a G and a T.

Leaving aside the issue of whether it is of interest to see the same idea recycled again and again, another question we need to ask ourselves is this: is the replication of an artist's signature and all that Turk is said to be urging us to think about issues of authorship and authenticity, no matter what form it might take, quite enough, emotionally and intellectually? Would it have been enough for Bellini? Of course, it is a joke with serious intent – in part. But a joke in a sleek Mayfair gallery never comes cost-free.

That is one of Turk's regular tricks as a maker, and it is the reason why his dealer has decided to call him “a conceptual artist”. A conceptual artist is one who ruminates before he makes, and what he makes is often nothing more nor less than the sum of those ruminations about the coming act of making. In short, there is precious little space for the intuitive. Turk has two other ideas up his sleeve. He pays homage in his works to past masters such as Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte, Andy Warhol and Carl Andre by referring to, building upon, and perhaps ironically commentating upon, their achievements. He does all this very sleekly, with pleasing lashings of harmless good humour – there is a drip painting here in the manner of Jackson Pollock called The Nubians of Plutonia. It all looks so calculated to please the elderly subversive with a modicum of art-historical background reading.

And, thirdly, he reminds us yet again of the marvels of illusionism by playing extravagantly with trompe-l'oeil. A bin bag and a crumpled sleeping bag are dumped on the floor but all is not quite as it seems. Both are made of painted bronze. Refuse is a bronze simulacrum of a bin bag, painted in black gloss, wrinkles and all, to resemble plastic. This too is art, the work seems to declare. And it is art that looks, ironically, both self-conscious and perfectly at home on the polished parquet floor of this Mayfair gallery. It is also entirely odourless.

Gavin Turk: the Years, Ben Brown Fine Arts, London W1 (020 7734 8888) to 14 June

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?