Gillian Carnegie: Flower power

Few in the art world know her. Charles Saatchi owns none of her pictures. She is so private that she nearly refused to be shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Yet this 'conventional' painter is on the verge of becoming the nation's best known enigma

'Turner Prize shortlist shocks art world" was the headline in The Independent on Friday following Tate Britain's announcement that a painter was among the four artists in the running for the controversial gong this year. It was the kind of response usually reserved for the latest outrageous antics by one of Britain's mischievous conceptual artists. But this time the surprise was that a woman who makes representational still-life and landscape pictures could be regarded as "outstanding" by judges notorious for seeking out work that challenges both artistic convention and good taste.

'Turner Prize shortlist shocks art world" was the headline in The Independent on Friday following Tate Britain's announcement that a painter was among the four artists in the running for the controversial gong this year. It was the kind of response usually reserved for the latest outrageous antics by one of Britain's mischievous conceptual artists. But this time the surprise was that a woman who makes representational still-life and landscape pictures could be regarded as "outstanding" by judges notorious for seeking out work that challenges both artistic convention and good taste.

Once the initial surprise was over, the next question on everybody's lips was: "Who is Gillian Carnegie anyway?" When I phoned around to quiz the editors of art magazines, so few of them knew anything about her that I began to wonder whether she existed at all. Could it be an elaborate hoax?

"She doesn't do interviews and she's not an art world person," observes Charlotte Edwards, deputy editor of ArtReview. "When I saw a picture of her in the newspaper, I was amazed. She looks like she's been caught emerging from a burrow or something." Andrew Wheatley, a director at Cabinet, the London gallery that represents the artist, confirms her existence but says she is an intensely private person - and always has been - whose policy has been to avoid publicity for herself, so much so that she thought very hard about whether to accept the nomination for the Turner Prize and all its media brouhaha.

The biographical facts issued by the Tate offer little help. Carnegie was born in Suffolk in 1971, studied at Camberwell School of Art and was awarded a Masters degree in painting by the Royal College of Art in 1998. She lives in North London, is ex-directory (as is her father) and we know she has a boyfriend called Kalvin because she exhibited a portrait of him in her most recent show. Even the specialist art media have failed to learn much more about her.

But the fact that her work is also so little known confirms just how dominant the noisy, all-singing all-dancing forms of conceptual art - unmade beds, sharks and all the rest of it - have become. Carnegie's work has, after all, been on display at Tate Britain as recently as 2003, when several of her paintings, including close-up views of her own backside, appeared in the group show, "Days Like These". But their impact was drowned out by screeching video installations and the vast, eye-dazzling floorwork by Jim Lambie, her fellow competitor on the Turner shortlist.

How, then, did the maker of these small, technically proficient paintings come to be in the running for such a high-profile prize? Enough public nominations must have been received by the Tate for the judges to think it worth making a trip to see her work, although that early stage of the process remains as mysterious as ever. After that, it was simply a matter of the strong impression the paintings made on the panel when they visited Cabinet to look at them back in February.

"There were just a couple of still lives and a portrait. But each one wrong-footed the other," says Louisa Buck, one of the judges. "What look like conventional paintings are anything but. They are actually conceptually rich; they interrogate painting; they make us think about how and why we look at it." What she means, I think, is that Carnegie's rural scenes, naked bodies and rotting flowers are not to be confused with straight representations of the amateur kind, but are academic investigations of a much higher intellectual order.

"She's a painter who talks conceptually," says Karen Wright, the editor of Modern Painters magazine. "She deals with the same issues as Sam Taylor-Wood or Anya Gallaccio - it's about the fragility of life, the desire to return to more innocent times." Andrew Wheatley puts it another way: "She works in traditional genres - landscape, still life, portraits - but what she does is unload and reload them. That complexity becomes visceral, their physical nature is quite compelling. And there's pleasure to be had from them, too."

According to the critic Barry Schwabsky, writing last April in the highly respected Artforum magazine: "Carnegie turns back toward the fusty hues of old pictures rotting beneath their own varnish, not to reclaim some former solidity but all the better to verify her forms' ultimate evanescence." Phew. It's arguments such as this that will be invoked to make us believe her work sits comfortably alongside the more "conventional" conceptual artists on the Turner Prize shortlist.

But The Independent on Sunday's art critic Charles Darwent is having none of it. "I don't think she's that amazing a painter. I definitely see her inclusion on the shortlist as a nervousness on the part of the Tate selectors who are trying to out-Saatchi Charles Saatchi. Because he's getting into painting, they're worried about being left behind. I think painting's so over. It's not like when [Jacques-Louis] David was painting. It doesn't have a frame any more. It just feels like corn dollies to me."

Darwent does however concede that Carnegie's work has its merits. "She really worries about paint; she uses quite a lot of impasto - it's quite expressive, very live. She's certainly working in a tradition rather than being a conceptualist who works in paint."

Louisa Buck, though, rejects the accusation that shortlisting the enigmatic Carnegie is just a way of chasing the Tate's rival Charles Saatchi, whose exhibition "The Triumph of Painting" is on show at his South Bank gallery. "That's just bollocks," she howls. "We didn't go out to tick boxes or make a big statement about painting. It doesn't need to triumph; it's always been at the centre of debate. This is just work that's very complex and very conceptually rich. That's why it's on the shortlist."

Although one critic I spoke to swore he had seen one of Carnegie's paintings on the wall of the Saatchi Gallery, a little bit of research reveals that the advertising mogul owns none of her work (Turner Prize artist not discovered by Saatchi shock!). This is a shame because it means that the artist has eluded the public yet again and that we will have to wait until the Turner Prize show at Tate Britain in October before we can judge her work for ourselves. Will painting triumph when the winner is announced on 5 December? Louisa Buck is not giving anything away. And Charles Darwent is sticking firmly to his guns. "I'm putting my fiver on Lambie," he says. Which sounds exactly like the kind of answer the reclusive Carnegie would be happy to receive.

Turner Prize 2005, Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8008), from 18 October

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