Turner Prize 2009, Tate Britain, London

This year’s shortlistees bring a welcome return to solemnity and skill – and not a condom in sight

Is it just one’s senescence that makes this year’s Turner Prize seem so safe, so traditional?

Where once you might have expected condoms and flickering light bulbs, the work of the 2009 Turner contestants is well-mannered to the point of reticence. Even the crowd at the show’s press view seemed better behaved, somehow, bowing from the waist and waving each other through doorways with hushed after-yous. Soon there will be a dress code dictating hemline and sleeve length, and then a Turner Prize Royal Enclosure where Wills and Harry will take tea with Tracey Emin. I, for one, applaud.

Actually, the politeness of this year’s prize is not a middle-aged illusion. The four shortlistees – alphabetically, Enrico David, Roger Hiorns, Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright – really are well behaved, their work having nothing to do with the schlock served up in Tate Britain from 1995 to 2005. That forgotten organ, the hand, features heavily in the submissions, and there is even an occasional appearance from the heart. The Turner has absolutely nothing to tell us about the kind of art being made today, but it does alert us, year by year, to the kind of choices made by art juries. Just as, in this chilly day of recession and terrorism, toad-in-the-hole has staged a comeback on restaurant menus, so solemnity and skill seem to have returned to the Turner Prize for the first time since Rachel Whiteread won it nearly 20 years go.

The sole exception to this trend is, perhaps, Enrico David, the only one of this year's contestants whose work brought back that toe-tapping annoyance of a decade ago. I suppose one could prattle on about the experiential overlap between sculpture and performance blah blah blah, but actually I just find David's kind-of-subconscious Weebles and draft-excluder monsters arch and over-rehearsed. Reading Jung on childhood is fine, but do we really want to see it acted out? No.

I've long been a fan of Richard Wright, and his piece for the Turner show isn't his fault. Left to their own devices, Wright's wall pieces – they're often baroque fantasies, sometimes, as here, in gold leaf – creep up on you, leaving you with a sense of having half-seen something wonderful from the corner of your eye. I'd say Wright's best work is done when he finds a wall that intrigues him and is given the chance to respond to it. Here, though, he was presented with a choice of four monumental surfaces, each the wall of an art gallery. The resultant large-scale mural, a combination of damask motifs and vaguely Goya-esque forms, feels institutional rather than sweetly and typically subversive.

It isn't often that I get the opportunity to blight the chances of two Turner contestants at once by tipping them both for success, but Roger Hiorns and Lucy Skaer seem to me hugely deserving of this year's prize. You'll recall Hiorns' Artangel piece, Seizure, a council flat in dreariest south London which the artist hey-prestoed into a geode by pumping it full of hot copper sulphate and leaving the solution to cool.

The result wasn't just a nifty scientific trick: Seizure was also deeply moving – redemptive, alchemic, gold from social dross. I usually think boy artists shouldn't be let anywhere near chemistry sets, but Hiorns has once again shown that this needn't be true. His main entry in the Turner show, an untitled floor piece, pulls off another material miracle. Made in part of powdered cow brains, the work is both immensely clever and an island of the Romantic imagination – brainy in every way possible. And, as with Seizure, Hiorns' new piece feels heartfelt, suffused with memory and loss.

The only big show of Lucy Skaer's work I've seen was earlier this year at the Kunsthalle in Basel, and I was frankly swept away by it. This was odd, since Skaer's art is extraordinarily and intently quiet. I think it's fair to say that the woman has a thing about furniture, her table-based works in Basel having been replaced at the Turner by others featuring chairs.

One paper piece bears the inked imprint of the seat and legs of a plain deal chair, the shapes forming a skeletal alphabet. This resonates with the sperm whale skeleton Skaer has entombed in one wall of her room, and with a group of coal dust totems, called Black Alphabet, that stands nearby. Skaer was one of the highlights of this art year for me, as she is of the 2009 Turner Prize show. So take your fivers to the bookies, and put them on someone else.

The Turner Prize will be awarded on 7 Dec

Comments