/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on December 8, 2009 at 8:28 am
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A masterpiece that will disappear in January

The result of the Turner Prize – the UK’s leading modern art prize – has just been announced. It’s been given to Richard Wright for his untitled wall painting – which will disappear in January when the exhibition closes.

Shimmering golden patterns... but you have to get up close to see what it's really about

Shimmering golden patterns... but you have to get up close to see what it's really about

Wright’s works are almost always site-specific; his Turner Prize entry was painted on the wall in Tate Britain, and gilded. It looks a bit like the flock wallpaper of an old-style Indian restaurant until you look closely at the patterns he’s created, which are much more subtle. Rather than clashing red and gold, he’s used subtle gold tones that play against each other, so you have to look carefully to get a sense of what’s really going on. Or stand back, and you’ll see abstract shapes emerging from the mass of detail; like Magic Eye, but far, far more subtle.

A neat piece of parody but NOT the winner of the Turner Prize!
A neat piece of parody but NOT the winner of the Turner Prize!

If I have one big criticism of some of the works that have been put in for the Turner Prize it’s that they are all big effect, but once you’ve ‘got’ the concept, there’s nothing more to them. Wright’s work on the other hand is something you want to take a good, long, leisurely look at; it invites you to gaze, and to think.

And it will disappear after the exhibition closes, because it will just be whitewashed over. That’s rather poignant – and it’s something the artist himself welcomes, because his work is all about loss and fragility.

In fact, you should listen to him talk about his work, because he says it so much better than I could in an interview with The Guardian. Some artists can talk about their art, and some can’t; he is definitely one of the most articulate.

Traditionalists may be a bit conflicted in their response to this prize, I think. Normally, they protest, it’s given to installation art or sculpture – so this prize should be right up their street. It’s being given to a pure painter, a painter working with centuries-old techniques of pouncing, gilding, hand drawing (though he does admit to using a photocopier). You can even spot little bits of Blake in the work – little sunbeams and rays – paying homage to the artist whose work is one of the great draws of the Tate Britain collection.

And yet this is installation art, in a way; it’s not figurative, it’s about architecture as much as painting, it’s a response to a specific space, not ‘great art’ on a canvas.

Actually I love it to bits – it reminds me of the very best Arabic calligraphy, incredible abstraction and detail put to the service of some greater end. The way the colours almost disappear, the way the pattern shimmers, the way it forces you to focus if you want to see it – and nearly disappears if you approach it the wrong way, or the light isn’t quite right; this is enigmatic, slightly hesitant art, in one way, but immensely self-confident in the obsessiveness of the finish and the effect of a whole wall covered in gold. Definitely worth going to see.

You’ll also get to see the other three shortlisted artists’ work if you visit the exhibition – Enrico David, a surrealist working in multiple media; Lucy Skaer, who works with abstract drawing, sculpture, and installation to create rather brooding, meditative works; and Roger Hiorns’ immensely charismatic works which use fire, chemicals, and steel to arrest the eye and create wonder. (If you ever had a home chemistry set when you were a kid, and wanted to know what would happen if you filled your entire house with copper sulphate solution, you should look at what happened when Roger Hiorns did exactly that. It’s fascinating.)

You might also run into The Stuckists on your way into the exhibition. A bunch of traditional artists protesting against BritArt, PopArt, abstraction and modernism,they usually set up a blockade on the prize announcement night, and sometimes other days too. In fact, they’ve actually become exactly the kind of art installation they hate!

Where: Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain, Millbank [map]

When: till January 3rd, 10.00-17.40

How much: £8, free for under-12s


Richard Wright: no title 2009
Photo credit: Sam Drake and Gabrielle Johnson, Tate Photography
Courtesy the artist; Gagosian, London; The Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and BQ, Berlin

Turner Prize Reject by Marcus JB on flickr

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