Shock: it's not a load of rubbish

Turner Prize 2000 | Tate Britain, London
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The Independent Online

October again: long nights, hearty soups, that familiar ache behind the eyes that comes from thinking about the Turner Prize. Can a competition that whittles down an entire year's worth of art-making to a single winner really tell us anything useful about our times? Or is the whole thing merely a media beanfeast, creating a school of mediagenic art like Saturn vomiting up his children? Does the ceremony, filmed like the Oscars and funded by a television channel, reward work or shape it? It's the kind of thing to exercise a broody art critic in the dark watches of the night.

October again: long nights, hearty soups, that familiar ache behind the eyes that comes from thinking about the Turner Prize. Can a competition that whittles down an entire year's worth of art-making to a single winner really tell us anything useful about our times? Or is the whole thing merely a media beanfeast, creating a school of mediagenic art like Saturn vomiting up his children? Does the ceremony, filmed like the Oscars and funded by a television channel, reward work or shape it? It's the kind of thing to exercise a broody art critic in the dark watches of the night.

Except that this autumn, the ache behind the eyes is noticeably slighter. For those of you who have despaired of the Turner Prize in recent times, this year's shortlist of four will be an echo from those long-lost days when a typical list might include (as it did in 1991) such solid workers as Anish Kapoor, Fiona Rae, Ian Davenport and Rachel Whiteread. It isn't merely that all four of this year's competitors are of a recognisably high quality. It is that the judges' choice seems to hint at some kind of new consistency in British art, and one that finally turns away from that tired post-post-postmodern ironising of the YBAs.

As you will have read, the finalists are: a painter, Glenn Brown; a conceptual artist, Tomoko Takahashi, who makes room installations out of rubbish; another painter, Michael Raedecker, whose canvases use craftish things like embroidery to create eldritch landscapes; and Wolfgang Tillmans, who sees his work as eliding the worlds of art and magazine publishing. With the exception of Tillmans, the work in this year's Turner show is noticeably hands-on and highly wrought: a thing that in itself suggests some kind of new mood, although whether this exists in ateliers and art schools or merely in the minds of the judges is a moot point.

Thus Brown's canvases, which typically take works by other artists - Fragonard and Frank Auerbach are two favourites - and reinvent them. A Brown Auerbach will reproduce the latter's gloopy impasto but in a perfect flat glaze: using a fine squirrel-hair brush and infinite patience, Brown paints not actual impasto, but the portrait of impasto - Auerbach in image, but reduced materially to the very thing that Auerbach is not. The sense of tension between levels of finish in a work like The Marquess of Breadalbane is extraordinary: the woman in the painting is not so much portrayed by Brown's faux-brush-strokes as devoured by them. Under the artist's crazily acute brush, the mark-making of other painters comes to seem like megalomania. Brown's new impasto sculptures - anamor-phic creatures apparently made entirely out of pigment - take this Frankenstein tendency to extremes, paint assuming its own life rather than merely portraying life in its subjects.

Raedecker also uses paint sculpturally, although here the intent is topographical. Thus the swirls and ridges of his big new canvas, 100,000 Years, become the contours of some primordial landscape seen from a pterodactyl's-eye view. It's easy to dismiss Raedecker's subjects as cheesy: the picture windows and shag-pile carpets of childhood, lit rooms seen across dark gardens, landscapes like out-takes from The Lost World. His materials encourage this reading by being the kind of thing your granny might have done: bits of embroidery here, stick-on feltwork there. But the point of Raedecker's work, like Brown's, is the creation of unease: newness from nostalgia, unfamiliarity from the familiar.

The opposite is true of Takahashi, whose one-room installation, Learning to Drive, makes order out of chaos. If you had to reduce this piece to a word, it might be "taxonomy": Takahashi's (very Japanese) preoccupation is with the idea of there being a place for everything and everything in its place. So punters are herded through her work by crash-barriers and no-entry signs, past trashed objects - industrial shelving, bookcases and the like - that are largely to do with ideas of containment. Which, on a meta-level, is what the work is about: junk turned into a vast, orderly swirl, things like gravity spelt out in four walls of rubbish. What rescues Learning to Drive from banality is the fragility of its construction. There is a sense, literal and figurative, that the whole thing might just collapse, which gives the piece an emotional charge lacking in artists like Cornelia Parker.

Which leaves Wolfgang Tillmans, whose work I make no pretence of being able to see as anything other than fashion photography. Tillmans' entry is arranged as an enormous professional carte-de-visite: his shots are hung in groups or sporadically, by turns focused, fuzzy, monochrome, colour, abstract, representational, on the walls or in vitrines. You could choose to see the whole thing as a piece of three-dimensional editing, Dazed and Confused rendered in four walls.

But why should you? It seems to me that this is a throwback to the bad old Turner Prize, a media-sponsored event flattering itself by claiming the media as art. As you might expect, Tillmans - young, gay, fashionable, in every show this year from "Apocalypse" to "Protest and Survive" - has generated more column-inches than his three fellow competitors put together. Which, given the mediacentric closed loop of recent Turner Prizes, would automatically mean that he would win. But he shouldn't; Glenn Brown should. We'll have to wait to 28 November to see whether the apparent seriousness of this year's competition is anything more than pigment-deep.

Turner Prize 2000 exhibition: Tate Britain, SW1 (020 7887 8008), to 14 January, 2001

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