Diamonds, crystals and bare backsides – it's Turner time!

Jury goes for showmanship and theatricality in £25,000 prize show

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Wednesday 29 April 2009 00:00

Ever since its conception, the Tate Gallery's Turner Prize has been attacked and pilloried for its left-field choice of artists to represent the best in contemporary art.

And every year, the gallery defends its shortlisted contenders as serious-minded artists rather than publicity-hungry showmen and women.

This time round, however, Turner Prize judges are making no apologies for the flamboyance of their shortlist. They may have just thrown down the gauntlet to the traditionalists by coming up with the most uncompromised selection for years; a list of four who appear to have a similar level of showmanship to the Young British Artists of the 1990s who made the Turner Prize the visual arts "spectacle" of the year.

There is Enrico David, 43, an Italian-born artist who surpasses at creating a "camp theatricality" in his textile figures of bare-buttocked builders, club-wielding harlequins, dandies and masked commedia dell'arte silhouettes, who is favoured by the likes of Charles Saatchi.

He has been nominated for his solo exhibitions "How do you Love Dzzzzt By Mammy?" in Basel and "Bulbous Marauder" at the Seattle Art Museum. His work has been described as both "seductive and degenerate" and his pieces include wood-cuts of himself, trousers dropped, against a wooden doll.

Roger Hiorns, 34, is a sculptor known for his "chemical interventions". His work has included an installation from a gutter with a flame emanating from it outside Tate Britain.

Last year, he produced Seizure, in which he swamped a condemned London flat with copper sulphate crystals which Tate described as "a magical cave of blue crystals" and for which he is partly nominated for the Turner prize.

Lucy Skaer, also 34, has created public artwork which involved taking up a paving stone in Glasgow, placing a diamond and a scorpion on a pavement in Amsterdam, and sneaking a moth and butterfly pupae into a criminal court in the hope they would hatch mid-trial.

The only curveball among the outrageous list of nominees is the highly established Richard Wright, 49, who draws on gallery walls and is listed by the powerful gallerist Larry Gagosian as one of the most important artists alongside Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain and chair of judges, said that while Wright's work was "discreet and self-effacing", the others showed a sense of bold performance and "flamboyance".

"There is a certain performance quality or showmanship to them," he added.

Dr Andrea Schlieker, who is among the five-strong jury which includes the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, said all the nominees had a sense of the "alchemical and magical" about their work. She said all four artists also presented a return to the traditional art of drawing as well as hand-crafted material.

"They often take cheap materials and transform them into something exquisite," she said.

The prize, established in 1984, is awarded to a British artist under 50 years of age for an outstanding exhibition over the past 12 months.

Work by the four shortlisted artists will be shown in an exhibition at Tate Britain, opening 7 October, and the winner of the £25,000 prize will be announced in December.

Critic's verdict: Michael Glover

Richard Wright

Wright is a draughtsman who often turns up to do his work in situ. It's not usually preconceived. He looks at a space and sets to work, drawing and drawing with his hand, laboriously. It could be any of a great variety of things – baroque curlicues in a rhythmical formation, or a mixture of geometrical shapes overlaid with circles. He tries to impose a new rhythm upon any space where he works, depending upon the nature of the drawn dance he's proposing, with a kind of shy, courteous delicacy. It's all quite unemphatic – especially given the fact that the drawings often get painted over after the exhibition is closed. So Wright is into evanescence, vanishing, ego suppression. How un-Turner can you get?

Lucy Skaer

Skaer bases a lot of what she does on found photographic images, as in a fine piece that was recently exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery called Diagrams and Banners. Here we stared at a curiously ghostly image of a dead man, with blood coursing down his face, and painted, fairly faintly and delicately, in red enamels. But this image – which seemed to be receding from us as we examine it – slowly melded with and merged into another image, the patterning of a chinese bowl. So what began in a randomly chosen photographic source first of all changes into a painting, and then ended up as a kind of eerily shifting collage. It was work of real subtlety.

Roger Hiorns

Hiorns is certainly a spectacle man. In Seizure, it felt like walking around the interior of a giant gemstone-encrusted cave. Over at Tate Britain on another occasion, a fire grate out in the street was suddenly seen to spout a jet of flame. The flames of Hades had risen to the surface! The only thing missing were the howls of the damned. So if art is about all-enveloping, in-your-face spectacle, and if the only truly thrilling and soul-stirring night of the year is Firework Night, Hiorns is your man. But isn't no-holds-barred spectacle really the role of popular entertainment?

Enrico David

His pieces posture and fling themselves about exhibitionistically. They are loosely in the tradition of commedia dell'arte, but crude and unsophisticated by comparison, too intent to hammer home tediously obvious points about gender politics. They are folksy – he is fond of needlework. They are screamingly, if not jarringly, colourful but lack delicacy or profundity. This man is keen to be applauded for being outrageous and desperate to make works that look swooningly pretty. This vamped-up, look-at-me-and-what-I've-done-sweetie manner palls after five seconds of close examination.

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