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
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'