Turner Prize: The good, the dull and the bland

Four artists are in the spotlight after being nominated for this year's Turner Prize, but most of the contributions on show offer little passion and inspire less interest
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The Independent Online

If you put a gun to my head, or threatened even the smallest violence, I would immediately say: give the prize to Jim Lambie. I prevaricate only because the work he's showing here isn't what makes him good. But Lambie is not a boring artist, at least. Of the other three on the shortlist, two are quite boring, and one very boring. And did the judges who chose them, or the Tate curators who put the show up, notice this at all? Is "boring" even a word in their vocabulary?

Lambie can be startling. His work conjures up a world of pop-culture hedonism, fandom and devotion, the romance of decor.

He's known for his striped and zig-zagged floors, shimmering, dazzling, druggy surfaces, made from multi-coloured or black-and-white tape; and for sculptures which are like pieces of pop tribal art, home-made fetish objects, magic sticks wound round with coloured threads of wool, a mattress sown all over with a thousand miscellaneous buttons.

Their titles are often song titles. Their ingredients are bits of gear, stuff from market stalls and thrift shops, low-fashion, cheap, shiny. He uses belts, head-bands, bangles, gloves, high heels, vinyl LPs and turntables, mirror shards, gloss paint, lashings of glitter. Their making is low-craft, but intense, suggesting the adornment of a well-loved possession, a fan's collaged bedroom wall, a DIY attempt to simulate some luxury item from cheap materials. They're invested with feelings.

The work here is not. Mantelpiece bird ornaments, enormously enlarged, with paint cast over them; another dazzle floor which doesn't really dazzle; a silhouette of the Kinks made into a Rorschach blot - I'm sorry this is what's on show, it's all rather smart and distant, exactly what Lambie's best work isn't.

The two quite-boring artists are Darren Almond and Gillian Carnegie. Almond has done a variety of brittle and slightly pretentious works about time and memory: a large mechanical flip-clock, the seconds passing loudly - "clack-clack-clack"; a replica of the bus-shelter at present-day Auschwitz; and long-exposure photos of nocturnal landscapes under moonlight.

His projection installation here is softer. Four screens show Blackpool details, waltzers' feet moving around the dance floor, the illuminated windmill turning, a luminous fountain flowing, and an old woman (his grandmother) turning her gaze between them, all to a dreamy piano theme. It's perfectly pleasant and wholly characterless.

Carnegie is one of literally dozens of artists who do figurative painting with a self-conscious, disruptive twist. Why she was chosen, rather than any of the others, I've no idea. Her pictures are not interesting to look at or think about.

You have, say, a scene of tree-trunks done entirely in uniform black paint - only the thick brush strokes do the depicting. Or you have a more normal, freely painted picture of a tree with some totally meaningless brushstrokes interrupting it. Or there's a close-up painting of a woman's bottom, and you can't quite tell what it's interested in. This permits curator chit-chat about "an obstinate desire to disrupt any visual or narrative resolution" - well yes, but you can do that with or without a bit of life, and Carnegie does it without much.

The really boring artist is Simon Starling. He does work about travel and globalisation and economics, usually involving something being converted into something else. He thinks exactly like a curator. I mean, it's normal to find some gap or tension between the kind of thing that curators write about an artist's work, and the work itself. The work may be weak, but it's never quite as plodding as they make it sound. With Starling's work, there is no gap.

The caption about Tabernas Desert Run says: "He crossed the Tabernas desert in Spain on an improvised electric bicycle. The only waste product the vehicle produced was water, which he used to paint an illustration of a cactus. The contrast between the supremely efficient cactus and the laboured efforts of man is both comic and insightful." And you think, crumbs, that sounds dull, and you turn to the work - the customised bike, the terrible watercolour - and there's nothing to add.

It may seem odd that art should often turn out to be the career of choice for the thumping bore, but so it is, and it's not really surprising. Artists are supposed to have their trademark themes and pet issues, to be concentrated and obsessional, and a bit laconic too. No wonder it's a vocation that attracts the driven and the dreary in almost equal measure. And no wonder many art-folk simply can't tell the difference. But Lambie is not a dullard, and somehow he slipped through.

The Turner Prize 2005 exhibition, supported by Gordon's, runs from 18 October to 22 January 2006 at Tate Britain. Admission £5

Simon Starling

1967 Born Epsom, Surrey

1987-90 Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham; 1990-92 Glasgow School of Art

Lives and works in Berlin and Glasgow

Shortlisted for solo exhibitions at the Modern Institute, Glasgow, and the Fundacio Joan Miro, Barcelona

A shed and a bicycle are the physical manifestations in this show of the pilgrimage-like journeys at the heart of Starling's work, which deals with themes of globalisation, ecology and mass production. The bicycle, and accompanying watercolour of a cactus, are from Tabernas Desert Run 2004 in which Starling crossed a Spanish desert on an improvised electric bicycle fuelled by hydrogen and oxygen. Its only waste product was water, which was then used to paint the cactus. The shed is from his work Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2), for which he dismantled a shed from the banks of the Rhine, turned it into a boat which he floated down the river with the rest of the timber on board, and re-made for display at a museum in Basel. Rachel Tant, Tate curator, said: "Starling's work is distinctive in its concern with the making of objects. For each project, he has learned particular skills - model-making, boat-building, engineering, lampshade- fabrication, horticulture - but always stopping short of complete mastery."

Gillian Carnegie

1971 Born Suffolk

1989-92 Camberwell School of Art, London; 1996-68 Royal College of Art, London

Lives and works in London

Shortlisted for her solo exhibition at Cabinet, London

Carnegie presents a range of her classically inspired oil paintings, which have clear references to the history of art, ranging across the traditional genres of still life, landscape, the figure and portraiture. They include two from her series of "bum paintings" - fragmented self-portraits cropped at torso and thigh, recalling Courbet's The Origin of the World - as well as heavily painted black canvases clearly inspired by Kasimir Malevich's famous 1913 painting Black Square.

Lizzie Carey-Thomas, a Tate curator, said: "Gillian Carnegie appears to be a traditional, academic, figurative painter with highly accomplished painting dexterity. But what she is doing is challenging the expectations we bring to them. She's painting things in a way we recognise, but there's an obstinate awkwardness at the heart of all her paintings, forcing you to examine what we're looking at."

For example, close up, Carnegie's own Black Squares paintings are not simple monochromes but night-time woodland scenes. "They invert the macho tradition of the monochrome heralding the demise of representational painting by planting a conventional landscape at its heart," Ms Carey-Thomas said.

Jim Lambie

1964 Born Glasgow

1990-94 Glasgow School of Art

Lives and works in Glasgow

Shortlisted for his solo shows at Sadie Coles HQ, London, and Anton Kern Gallery, New York

This musician and DJ takes the title The Kinks for his gallery-filling installation dominated by a striking black, silver and white-striped floor made of continuous lines of tape, part of a series under the collective title Zobop. One was seen at Tate Britain a couple of years ago in the "Days Like These" exhibition. The Kinks band themselves are represented in a black silhouette at one end of the gallery, while three giant bird sculptures adorn the space at intervals. The use of glitter, gloss paint and buttons to customise junk-shop finds is typical of his work.

Lizzie Carey-Thomas, a Tate curator, said: "Jim Lambie wants to create a direct hit, to overwhelm the viewer so they have a completely un-selfconscious response. Lambie moves towards an art of pure pleasure which, he proposes, can elicit sensations analogous to the out-of-body, out-of-mind effects produced by listening to music."

Darren Almond

1971 Born Wigan, Lancashire

1990-93 Winchester School of Art

Lives and works in London

Shortlisted for exhibition at K21, Kunstammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

For his Turner Prize show, Almond presents If I Had You, a work originally commissioned and produced two years ago. It is a poignant video installation starring his grandmother and shot in Blackpool where his grandparents honeymooned. A slow-moving projection shows Almond's grandmother, a stroke victim, on her first trip back to the Tower Ballroom since her husband's death 20 years earlier where she watches a couple ballroom dancing. Haunting piano music plays while a brightly-lit windmill turns its sails on another screen.

In its theme of remembrance, it follows other work such as a series begun eight years ago for which Almond borrowed bus-shelters from Auschwitz in exchange for newly built replacements. This year, he negotiated the exchange of a further 12 shelters, setting "quiet memorials" to the Holocaust in each continent.

Rachel Tant, a Tate curator, said his work explored the physical and emotional effect of time on the individual. "His art is characterised by a slick, minimal aesthetic manifested in objects of technology, industry and transport. Yet despite this apparent anonymity and detachment, the human subject is at the heart of Almond's work. "