Gavin Turk: a YBA up to his old tricks

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

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The Independent Culture

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