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April 21 2012

Glasgow international festival of visual art

A liberating spirit of openness and local involvement – and free lunch – make the city's 2012 art festival winner

In Glasgow, in the marble grandeur of the Mitchell Library, you can borrow a work of art with your books. The librarians will help you choose between a Korean watercolour and a Russian abstract. They don't just stamp your card, or fine you when the art is overdue, they will come to your home and mount Alec Finlay's beautiful word work on the wall or install Henna-Riikka Halonen's marvellous underwater film on your DVD so that you can watch the swimmers perform what amounts to a satirical ballet-cum-circus at any hour of the day or night. The librarians are, of course, artists in disguise.

At Transmission Gallery, artist-run since 1983, they are reading Finnegans Wake every lunchtime in solidarity with reading groups from Antwerp to New Mexico who have been reciting that stupendous novel (sometimes from memory) for decades. On the walls are works that have no market price, since they are simply gifts exchanged between the artists themselves; nor are the names of these artists declared. Anyone can spot Alasdair Gray's mordant two-part graphic sequence, but who made this alarming moss-covered mask or that fantastical curved landscape?

Interpretation, context, value: all are undisclosed. Visitors will have to make up their own minds purely by taking a good old-fashioned look at the actual art.

Leaving with your free CD of Gogol's The Overcoat, you might cross the Clyde to the Tramway, where dancers in Russian costumes shaped like letters of the alphabet are cutting and sculpting that cavernous white space with their disciplined sweeps and arabesques. You can join in, if sufficiently high on the hypnotic black-and-white patterns that progress in geometric series across the wall, and not too afraid of your own nervous laughter.

This multimedia environment, by the Los Angeles artist Kelly Nipper, looks like a cross between Merce Cunningham, Peter Greenaway and the dynamic art of the Russian constructivist Alexander Rodchenko. It is meant to draw you into its all-embracing structure, make you a component of its grand design. And it works. Some of us hung back among the alphabet cushions, but others were soon losing themselves on the dance floor.

Openness – that's the spirit of this year's Glasgow international festival of visual art; openness, involvement and an honest directness. It's what you might expect of the city itself, with its famous warmth, but it is characteristic of the art scene too. Transmission may be the oldest, but it is by no means the only artists' co-operative. Of the 50 or so venues in this year's festival, almost half are run by artists, or writers, or writers who are also artists.

Go to their flat at 83 Hill Street and John Shankie and Andrew Miller will give you lunch in exchange for your conversation; food for thought. Go to the house of the painters Merlin James and Carol Rhodes, at 42 Carlton Place, and you will see an extraordinary miscellany, including paintings by Sickert and Derain, to make one ponder how (and when) contemporary art becomes the art of the past. The Turner prize-winning photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is showing new work in the house of the Turner prize-winning film artist Douglas Gordon.

And the oldest of all the city parks, Glasgow Green, has been handed to Jeremy Deller for the installation of an exact facsimile of Stonehenge in inflatable form. Everyone is welcome to leap to their heart's content among these precious stones, this sacred site, no need to be confined (or charged) by English Heritage. The tinge of sacrilege enhances the free-for-all.

GI, as they call it, has a better balance of the local and the international than any other art festival in Britain. Perhaps that is because in Glasgow they so often amount to the same thing. Many of the most prominent shows this year are by artists born or based in Glasgow who have a huge following overseas, such as Richard Wright, Karla Black and Rosalind Nashashibi.

Black has filled the Gallery of Modern Art with 17 tons of sawdust, layered in shades of chocolate and vanilla like a gargantuan block of tiramisu. She calls it, in her increasingly sententious way, Empty Now. Tiny incidents involving makeup are taking place on its crumbling surface, while smaller breakaway events occur on the floor – miniature trees seem to grow back, reconstituted, as it were, from the sawdust. And above it all, colossal swags of polythene and sticky tape dangle like Spanish moss from the ceiling, turning the Corinthian columns into a forest of tree trunks.

The associations run free: cakes, classical arenas, spit-and-sawdust pubs, glossy spiders' webs connecting the ruins of some enchanted wood, baroque, rococo, Carl Andre, Richard Serra (she's always nudging at art history). But that is all. Black is simply delivering enormous hints, and huge headaches for the gallery guards. Her whimsical confections are beginning to seem too much like a trademark.

I loved Nashashibi's 16mm film, Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies), a work of outstanding empathy and grace. It shows members of the Scottish Ballet rehearsing scenes from Sleeping Beauty, in turn observed by members of the public. A quartet of old ladies is charmed. A child is surprised. A grandmother is so guilelessly receptive that the camera cannot stop watching her eyes.

The film has no obvious narrative, no climactic incident; its only action, as it were, is the twining of two strands – the dancers, straining, diligent, often apologetic, and the way in which the rehearsal is slowly becoming a performance. So subtle is this convergence that when the pale winter's light traces the profile of two principals towards the end, it is a revelation to see who they really are. The camera glides down to the handcuffs at their waist: two amazed Gorbals policemen.

I'd like to think they might turn up at the Tramway too, for today's chance to be an extra in The Making of Us, a collaboration between artist Graham Fagen, theatre director Graham Eatough and photography director Michael McDonough which, from its dress rehearsal, seems tantalising in its every possible outcome. And there are many, for the scenes of an actor's life and the moral choices he makes to get to the top will be performed in promenade like a medieval mystery play (a noose awaits) while simultaneously filmed from many angles to incorporate the extras' spontaneous responses, then edited accordingly. It's a conceit of real ingenuity, turning the film (and the film industry) inside out. The result will be screened, with further surprises, exactly where it was filmed in the Tramway.

Art festivals throw up hundreds of images and ideas all at once, too many for the mind to carry forever, or even just for the days spent in that city. Sometimes the experience is more burdensome than fulfilling. But this year's GI feels rich, dense, organic, inspiring. I shan't forget the testimonies of the last surviving members of Glasgow's socialist Sunday schools, assembled in Ruth Ewan's celebration of that singular movement which educated so many poor children, nor the images of their May Day parades (Leningrad on Sauchiehall Street, as one recalled).

Nor the belated realisation that Richard Wright's abrupt and delicate drawings, at Kelvingrove, are far more powerful in their epigrammatic way than the wall-sized works that won him the Turner prize.

In Tillmans's show I saw the night sky over Kilimanjaro in a magnificent photograph that beggars belief, as the stars appear to twinkle in front of the distant peak; a poetic truth in that the mountain came after the stars.

And in the grounds of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's House for an Art Lover I had the true festival joy of stumbling on something new: Henry Coombes's coruscatingly zany black- and-white film I Am the Architect, This is Not Happening, This is Unacceptable, in which architecture fights art to a thrilling soundtrack and overtones of Fritz Lang, Francis Picabia and those Russian constructivists. Hard to say in all the wild invention, but I think art won.


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October 17 2011

Glasgow's Turner connection

Why does Glasgow keep producing so many Turner prize winners and nominees? Could it all be down to this man? Charlotte Higgins investigates

Over the past few years, there has been a distinctly Scottish flavour to the Turner prize. Last year, the winner was Glasgow-born Susan Philipsz, for a sound installation she created in the seedy, dank shadow of a bridge over the Clyde. The year before, it was Richard Wright, for his intricate, painstakingly made wall paintings; he did his masters at the Glasgow School of Art and still lives in the city.

This week, the work of all four shortlisted artists goes on show at the Baltic, Gateshead – and two are Glaswegian: Martin Boyce, whose sculptures do fearful things with modernist interior design; and Karla Black, who uses lipstick, pastel-coloured candles, eyeshadow and sugar paper as her materials. Artists based or born in the city who have been shortlisted in the recent past include Jim Lambie, Christine Borland, Cathy Wilkes, Lucy Skaer and Nathan Coley. There have been two further winners in Douglas Gordon and Simon Starling.

If the Turner prize provides a rough-and-ready compass bearing for visual art in Britain, the needle has for some time been twitching towards this grandiose, grandiloquent, sometimes rough-and-ready city. Why? A clue can be found in the first issue, from September 1991, of the contemporary art magazine Frieze. It contains an interview with three artists in their early 20s. They have just graduated from the Glasgow School of Art. They are articulate, cocky and funny. They seem to know, with an intense certainty, that they are artists, not just art-school graduates. One writes off, with breathtaking chutzpah, a then-prominent school of Scottish painters as "a tiny, unimportant part of the international art world". Another, while admitting such a formulation is crass, says their own work has "more to do with hip-hop and the Face than Constable". These young guns are Douglas Gordon, Nathan Coley and Martin Boyce. Five years after the interview, Gordon – now best known for film works such as 24-Hour Psycho and Zidane – won the Turner prize.

Something very particular happened at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s. A group of young Glaswegians – including Coley, Gordon, Boyce and Borland – began to study a new course: environmental art, led by the now-retired David Harding. "They were confident and confrontational and questioning‚" says Harding, when we meet in his flat among the elegant terraces of Glasgow's west end, a picture of Bob Dylan on the wall, a Peter Seeger LP propped on the piano. "I was astonished by their articulacy."

The course was not traditional painting or sculpture. It was, say its graduates, about ideas. The context for making work was as important as the work itself. The department was not based in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed main building, but in a former girls' school that was used as a site for making work. "It was an amazing place," says Harding. "There were basements with 50 children's sinks in them, history books lying around in piles. There were attics, strange, devious, different rooms. An Escher-like staircase. One half of the school was locked off and forbidden. Of course, the students broke in."

The students were required to do art projects outside the school, to find sites, negotiate with owners. "They began to be wheelers and dealers. They had to forage in other departments to get access to dark rooms, printing facilities. They had," says Harding, "a piratical attitude."

It was an attitude in tune with the times. As Coley says, "We were children of Thatcher. Doing it for yourself was in the air. It seems crazy what we did now: we'd get money for international projects out of a combination of ignorance and blind confidence." Down south, a group of artists – many of them graduates from Goldsmith's, London – were also operating in a new way. But if some of these Londoners, quickly dubbed YBAs, were selling to Charles Saatchi and making work with the quickfire cheerfulness of billboard ads, that certainly wasn't happening in Glasgow. The YBAs were entrepreneurs; the Glaswegians were scavengers. Their work was more lyrical, less immediate.

I meet Coley at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, a hive of quiet industry with its neatly organised metal and wood workshops and its 45 artists' studios. Coley's trim space is hung with work-in-progress: a series of photographs with certain areas blanked out with gold leaf: new work for a solo show in London next year. There was nothing magical about his and his friends' success, he says. "It was really, really hard work." It is clear, though, that there was a set of propitious circumstances that affected not just these young people in Glasgow, but the art world internationally. Moira Jeffrey, art critic of the Glasgow-based Herald newspaper, points out that the artists emerged "at a politically desperate moment. We forget how horrible the late 1980s were. It was the dwindling Tory era. In Glasgow, the situation was economically dire, but there was a good education system and student grants – and you could live cheaply." There was also, she says, a certain power "in the fabric of this city, built on sugar, ships and slavery. It is a very ambiguous heritage, but incredibly grand."

Perhaps the most important factor, though, was the web of relationships established between those students from the late 1980s – a way of interacting that seems to have set the tone for the Glasgow art world since. According to Harding: "We partied a lot. Drank a lot. And with people like Douglas, Martin, Nathan, I'd go to their weddings, their children's christenings, birthday parties, and still do."

The students fell in, and sometimes out, of love with each other. They mostly lived near each other, up on the windy heights of Garnethill near the art school. Gordon went out with Borland, and shared a flat with Katrina Brown, now a curator, who went out with Coley (the latter couple are still together). Brown is now director of The Common Guild, a gallery based in a house in Glasgow belonging to Gordon. Later, Gordon was best man at Richard Wright and Sarah Lowndes' wedding; she now lectures at the art school, and has written a study of the city's art scene called Social Sculpture.

After graduating, a rite of passage for many was to sit on the committee for the artist-run gallery, Transmission, which had been set up in 1983 to instigate all kinds of international projects. According to Coley, "There was a mixture of gallusness, confidence, and being a bit wide." Gallus is one of those almost untranslatable Scots words that hovers somewhere between uncompromising, bold, swaggering and unstoppable. Harding uses it, too. "They were gallus. They were going to prove that they could do something." They also, crucially, helped each other. Coley says, if a curator comes to Glasgow to see you, "There's an unwritten rule that you introduce them to someone else, too."

Borrow a book from a pop star

It wasn't a paradise; it was a struggle. There was some public funding, and the artists were often helped by unsung, visionary civil servants. But when the city's Gallery of Modern Art opened in 1998, it totally – and scandalously – ignored the new wave of Glasgow artists. Brown thinks that that early institutional blindness has been damaging, particularly to Glasgow's ability to support a market for contemporary art. "If your city gallery is saying Beryl Cook is an important artist, maybe you don't want to buy a Douglas Gordon," she speculates. The economics of the scene, she says, are "fragile".

This autumn, Sorcha Dallas, a Glasgow gallerist, announced she was closing her doors, citing the combination of the removal of the Creative Scotland funding that allowed her to visit international art fairs, and the recession. "It's not that there aren't rich people," says Dallas. "It's just that they choose to spend their money elsewhere. People here would be more inclined to buy a Jack Vettriano than a Douglas Gordon." Environmental art graduate Toby Webster, who co-founded The Modern Institute, a commercial gallery that has been of huge importance in promoting the work of the major Glasgow artists, says it is important for him to be in the city, "two minutes away from where the artists work". But most of his buyers live elsewhere. Perhaps the scene is so close-knit because its leading lights remain relatively unsung in their own city.

Is the Glasgow scene a flash in the pan, a one-off alchemical combination of people, place and time? The scene has, of course, changed. Different kinds of students have been attracted by the city's rising reputation, coming from England and abroad (at first, they were nearly all natives). Some of the early wave have stayed or drifted back to Glasgow, Borland, Boyce, Coley and David Shrigley all live here, no longer young guns, but established artists in their 40s. Jeffrey believes pop musicians set an important example, showing that you didn't have to move to London to make it. "It set a paradigm. Stephen Pastel, of the Pastels, had an international career, and he worked in a library. You could go and borrow a book from your favourite pop star. The people you'd see in the pub were selling records all over the world."

Harding has seen great changes to art-school education, funding cuts chief among them. His department was merged with sculpture. A decade ago, he retired. But he still has faith in students, he says. According to Jeffrey: "I had a period where I worried that Glasgow School of Art would become a posh finishing school: but people come here and start behaving like Glaswegian artists."

I ask Sarah Lowndes if she believes Glasgow will continue to produce Turner-shortlisted artists, or whether we are reaching the end of an era. She reels off younger but already established names such as Torsten Lauschmann and Lorna Macintyre; and mentions younger artists, too, "bright sparks" such as Tom Varley and Rebecca Wilcox. "There's a network that's not predicated on commercial success, but on the idea of community," she says.

And now for a song

In search of a younger scene, I head to a gallery called the Duchy, carved out of an old shop near St Mungo's Cathedral; it's a slightly ramshackle part of the city being smartened up for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Here, Glaswegians Lauren Currie, 26, and Ainslie Roddick, 24, are putting the finishing touches to their new show. The two – Currie, a graduate of Dundee's Duncan of Jordanstone college; Roddick, from the Glasgow School of Art – met when they were working in a deli, and set up the Duchy out of a conviction, says Currie, that "there needed to be somewhere for our generation of artists".

They turned next door into studios and rented them out to raise income for the gallery. They converted the space themselves. These immensely self-possessed young women, in their energetic but co-operative way, seem to have much of the spirit of their predecessors. "The older artists are accessible," says Roddick. "They go to shows, and there's something that keeps them here. It has given people a confidence that you can stay in Glasgow as an artist." This is a not-for-profit space; they are not interested in running a commercial gallery. "It's not needed," says Roddick firmly.

Towards the end of our conversation, Harding says something out of the blue: "The singing – that was really important." There was always lots of singing, he says. Every year, he would host a Burns supper in his flat. All the guests were expected to recite a poem or song. There is something remarkable about imagining these cool, perhaps rather belligerent, young artists standing up and singing, say, Scottish songs from their childhoods. Harding remembers one night in particular: "Before Douglas started singing, he said, 'I want to tell you a story. A curator was asking me: what were you taught in Glasgow? Where did it all come from?' And Douglas said, 'Singing.'"


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May 06 2011

Artists kiss goodbye to London

The Turner prize shortlist – determinedly non-metropolitan – shows that the British art scene is broader and more geographically spread than ever

Every year the Turner prize shortlist is drawn up by four judges with individual tastes, outlooks and backgrounds. There is no continuity, and the prize is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather aims to rigorously reward the four best exhibitions staged by artists under 50 who are based in Britain. There's a limit, then, to the grand, sweeping conclusions one can come to about the state of the art based on the year's Turner prize contenders. And yet, and yet... there is a sense in which, taken together, the nominations, over their 27-year history, provide a crude kind of barometer to taste and trends in British art. Even that's not simple, though. It's easy to talk about a kind of Britart "heyday" in the mid-1990s for the prize: Damien Hirst won in 1995 and Gillian Wearing in 1997; but it was the sui generis Douglas Gordon who won in 1996; and Tracey Emin, though she was nominated in 1999, lost out to Steve McQueen, too much of an individual to be plugged into a YBA classification. And of course, it's impossible to distance the Turner prize from its reception: the prize has always been "about" how its artists have been labelled by the media as much as what its artists' practices have actually been aiming to achieve.

Bearing in mind all those provisos, then, what I would nevertheless extrapolate from this year's shortlist is that the centre of British art seems to be drifting away (and not before time) from London. This year, there are two Glasgow artists, Martin Boyce and Karla Black, on the list. Of the others, Hilary Lloyd is based in London but painter George Shaw in Devon. Last year's winner was Susan Philipsz, who was born in Glasgow, studied in Belfast and lives in Berlin. The year before that, was another Glasgow artist: the English-born but Scotland-raised Richard Wright, who studied at Glasgow School of Art and still lives in the city. Lucy Skaer, who also trained in Glasgow, joined him on that shortlist. What we are seeing is the success of a generation of artists, now mid-career, who were educated at Glasgow at the height of its powers (some, but not all, coming from the environmental art department which had such effect on those who passed through it). It's interesting that none of the artists on this year's list completed their undergraduate degrees in London (it was Sheffield and Newcastle for Shaw and Lloyd).

There's only so far you can go with this: next year every shortlisted artist will probably live in Hackney. But I'd like to think – as juror Katrina Brown put it – that the geographical spread is a sign of the increasing maturity of the contemporary art scene in Britain. It is no longer concentrated in the few square miles around east London, but finds ways of flourishing all around the country: surely something that is echoed – and will be helped in the future – by the proliferation of contemporary art galleries outside the capital, from the beautifully refurbished Mostyn in north Wales, to the about-to-open Hepworth in Wakefield and FirstSite in Colchester, the newly minted Turner Contemporary in Margate and the recent Mima in Middlesbrough and Baltic in Gateshead – the last being where, appropriately, the Turner prize exhibition will be held this year.


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April 12 2011

This week's arts diary

Turner winner Richard Wright does a castle makeover, plus new orchestras to watch, and the Tate Modern's new lieutenant

Turner winner Richard Wright's castle makeover

In the many-towered Lismore Castle in County Waterford – once the home of Sir Walter Raleigh; later of chemist Sir Robert Boyle; now part of the estates of the Duke of Devonshire – the present occupier, Lord Burlington (son of the duke), has followed the family tradition of commissioning art. Back in the day it was Van Dyck and Canova who received the family's patronage; now it's Richard Wright, winner of the 2009 Turner prize, who has created an extraordinary painting (pictured below) in a turret-like folly in the castle grounds known as the "monkey house". The Wright wall-painting is part of an exhibition curated by Polly Staple, director of the Chisenhale Gallery in east London, in the gallery space carved out of a previously disused wing of the castle. The exhibition, called Still Life, brings together textured flower paintings by Gillian Carnegie with works by Seth Price, Mark Leckey and Anne Collier. Well worth a look – and a wander around the glorious castle gardens – if you are heading to Ireland over the summer.

New orchestras to watch on the Royal Philharmonic shortlist

The shortlists for the annual Royal Philharmonic awards, which reward the best endeavours in classical music, have been announced, ahead of the prize ceremony on 10 May. (Playwright Mark Ravenhill, whose debut opera production, The Coronation of Poppea, has just opened at the King's Head theatre in London, will be guest speaker on the night.) It's great to see that for the ensemble award, the mighty City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is up against two very youthful outfits – the fabulous National Youth Orchestra, and Aurora, a dynamic group of players, many in their 20s, who are making a name for themselves as an exciting new force in the sometimes conservative world of classical music. They've just had the good news that they will receive regular funding from Arts Council England; and you can see them at Kings Place Concert Hall in London in May, where they are presenting a short series devoted to the hip New York composer Nico Muhly. Their leader is Thomas Gould, whom I saw last week leading the Britten Sinfonia (another regular gig for him) in works including the virtuosic Sitkovetsky arrangement for strings of Bach's Goldberg Variations. He's been out of music college for only a handful of years, but his musicianship is enthralling. A talent to watch.

Another top lieutenant for the Tate

Chris Dercon has just – without fanfare – started work as director of Tate Modern. The Belgian steps into a role as director of the most outstanding success story in the recent history of British museums, but he must also deal with the ongoing fundraising headache of its £212m extension, which will not be finished in time for the Olympics, as originally promised (though the underground oil tanks should be in use by then as a venue for video and performance art). One staff member raved to me about Dercon – noting that Nicholas Serota, director of Tate, has appointed two top lieutenants (the other being Penelope Curtis at Tate Britain) with the guts to stand up to him.


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August 04 2010

Prickly customers

Cactii on parade, steps to nowhere, and a vast psychotropic dome . . . Jonathan Jones on the two Turner prize-winning artists who are lighting up this year's Edinburgh art festival

As I walk up the Scotsman Steps, a neglected walkway rising from central Edinburgh to the Old Town, I notice a trickle of urine slowly heading in the opposite direction – down towards the Fruitmarket Gallery. There, appropriately enough, Martin Creed is exhibiting his plans for this sorry thoroughfare. The 2001 Turner prize-winner wants to cover every single step with a different coloured slice of marble from a different part of the world. Sadly, his idea has been much delayed, as a redevelopment scheme has to take place first; in the meantime, visitors must make do with Creed's show at the Fruitmarket instead.

Down Over Up, a series of ruminations on the theme of steps and stairs, gives an insight into the Scotsman Steps project. I go in. I go up. I go down. Yup, this is a staircase. Up. Down. I don't think about it that much. Do I want to? Do I need to? Creed has rigged things so that every step triggers a musical note from speakers on the stairs. It's like walking on a synthesiser. Ping, I step up. Pong, I step down. It is often said, of a certain kind of contemporary art, that it makes you aware of your own body and its position in the world, but I don't feel aware of anything much more than the fact that I'm going up and down. Meanwhile, in the lift, a choir sings angelic scales: up from bass to soprano, down from soprano to bass.

On the ground floor, the artist has painted diagonal black stripes along a wall. This doesn't seem to do anything except accentuate the unshapeliness of the gallery. Maybe that's why he put it there; Creed does like to annoy and confound. His Sick Films (films of people being sick) and Shit Films (do I have to elaborate?) are not shown here. At the top of the stairs, a sculpture soars upwards, tall and thin, like some stiff Giacometti. It's made of Lego. It seems as deliberately shocking as those films, in the gleeful way it invites that remark: "A child could do this." It's a good joke. Yes, Creed seems to be saying, a child could do this; after all, this is a kid's toy, do you have a problem with that? No, no problem, but it doesn't give me any deep satisfaction as art, either.

It's as if Creed wants to make sure his art never becomes respectable, which it easily could: many of the works here are gorgeous drawings and paintings. The sketches explore the spectrum of colours, his blueprints perhaps for the Scotsman Steps. From a distance, they stand apart from each other, like musical notes of intense colour, gracefully varied, yet repeating a minimalist sequence that might have been composed by Steve Reich. Only up close do you discover that they were drawn with a felt-tip pen. They are revelations of how close beauty is to us, if we only knew it.

The paintings are slighter: colourful stairs and ziggurats. They remind me of old 1970s film posters for Italian movies, with their cartoon-like reductive style. One row of drawings is juxtaposed with a row of cactus plants: like many other works here (even a rank of nails) the cactii rise in height, an echo of the musical scale. Again, the absurdity of organising the spiky green plants in this way, giving them a hierarchy, is funny.

Towering above all this are Creed's stacks of chairs and cardboard boxes. These simple sculptures have an instant elegance – each a perfect example of the readymade, of the belief that art can be put together from the ordinary, with only the slightest effort. Throughout this show, Creed's appetite for lumpen reality collides with a longing for harmony, the harmony of the musical scale. Still, taken as a whole, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that it's all a contrived, half-serious, half-ironic pose. There is too much of nothing here, too many variations on one idea.

Two ancient Greek artists once competed to draw the thinnest line. The one who got closest to nothing was judged the greatest. In this sense, Creed is made to seem loud and self‑regarding next to Richard Wright's more convincing self-effacement. Before Wright was shortlisted for the Turner prize last year, few people had heard of this Glasgow painter. Then he unveiled a gold wall painting at Tate Britain that dazzled everyone and won the award.

Wright gave up making paintings to sell because he felt "there were too many things". Now he paints on walls, and lets his works be covered over, destroyed even, after a few weeks. But at the Dean Gallery, he has been persuaded to paint something permanent. Called The Stairwell Project, this is a meticulous network of black, flower-like shapes rising into one of the Dean's towers.

Illuminated by natural light from four windows, it seems to change constantly. I saw it on a cloudy day, with creamy clouds glowing in the windows and interacting richly with Wright's design. The work reveals the artist's fascination with perspective. It's as if the glitter was for London, the serious exploration for Edinburgh. Is this wall painting even better than his Turner winner? It certainly lives up to it, and cleverly answers critics who thought his mural was just decorative. Here, Wright achieves an effect just as powerful, through the creation of illusory space; he deploys the same understanding of design that let Renaissance artists and fresco painters make landscapes and clouds seem real.

This is no 3D gimmick, but a subtle, shimmering and richly ambiguous mist of marks. Wright has calculated complex patterns that lead your eye into warped, receding dips of fictional space. A divide seems to open in the pale air and your mind slips through, in an almost psychotropic state. How does he do it? With interfoldings of flecks and spots that echo one of his painter heroes, Titian. Just as Titian used brief, dappled brushstrokes to create a smoke of colour, so Wright deploys fragmentary marks to enchant the light.

His means are ancient, his sources historical, but Wright's art is profoundly of our time. Its theme is intoxication, ecstasy: 1960s psychedelic album covers fire his imagination alongside Titian. Here is painting remade as a drug. These two exhibitions offer two models for art in this century. Creed is the hero of an art that seems to inhabit the perpetual now, while Wright creates something very new from the very old. I hope Wright's triumphant work is the future of art.

Down Over Up is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (0131-225 2383), until 31 October. The Stairwell Project is at the Dean Gallery (0131-624 6200).


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January 12 2010

Richard Wright's Turner winner erased

Any thought that Richard Wright's Turner-prize-winning fresco – an exquisite abstract work in gold leaf – ought to be saved for posterity can be abandoned: Tate Britain's art handlers sanded and painted over the work at the end of last week, following the closure of the Turner prize exhibition. Wright didn't see it go: the Glasgow-based artist tends not to linger at the grave of his works. This is what the artist wanted. Wright's pieces are intended to be ­temporary, to exist in the memory ­after their destruction. Visitor figures to the show this year were 77,000, a ­little down on last year's 92,000.


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December 08 2009

Winning ways

Last night Richard Wright won the Turner prize. Here's how the evening unfolded



A new Renaissance for the Turner prize

Dazzling but elusive, Wright's work reminds me of Leonardo and Michelangelo. Catch it before it disappears

One of the great things about the 2009 Turner prize – and it has been a wonderful 25th year – was reading visitors' response cards. In previous years, the comments people pin to the wall have often been sceptical. But this year, most took the opportunity to enthuse about their favourite artwork. Even though I had a vote on the jury, I couldn't resist doing the same. My anonymous note said: "Richard Wright – genius."

I was won over by Wright even before I saw his wonderful room at Tate Britain. While he was creating it, he also made a silver painting on the ceiling of the Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair. Light from the gallery's long window produced sublime and elusive effects in a perspective illusion that evoked Islamic decoration, or the mathematical designs of Leonardo da Vinci.

Ah, Leonardo. While I was on this jury I was also finishing a book about Leonardo and his rival Michelangelo, which will be published in April 2010. It was surprisingly easy to shift gear between the Turner prize and the Italian Renaissance. And the theme of my book probably predisposed me to love Wright: it is about vanished wall paintings. And Wright makes wall paintings that vanish.

Wright is, in my opinion, one of the worthiest Turner winners ever. He's also one of a handful of painters to have won it since I started following the exhibitions in 1993.

He is a painter for our time – and only for our time, because he does not want his works to last. His view of his art, his acknowledgement of its mortality, is deeply moving. The abundance and generosity of his room at Tate Britain first seduces and delights you, then becomes ever more impressive, resonant and rich.

See it before it fulfils its destiny and becomes a lost masterpiece, a dazzling memory.


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December 07 2009

Richard Wright wins Turner prize

Site-specific painter whose understated yet radical works are rooted in fine-art tradition wins judges' vote

Adrian Searle: All that glitters is not gold

The creator of a subtle and unashamedly beautiful fresco in gold leaf has been named the winner of this year's most prestigious UK art prize. Glasgow-based Richard Wright, 49, used the age-old, painstaking techniques of the old masters to make his glistening wall painting for the Turner prize exhibition at Tate Britain in London. And yet when the show closes on 3 January 2010, it will simply be painted over in white emulsion and lost for ever.

Wright was, until the early 1990s, a figurative painter on canvas. He has since transformed his practice and started creating abstract images on walls. He might be seen as the opposite to the kind of Turner prize contender who captured headlines and provoked controversies at the peak of the Young British Artists boom.

By their very nature, his works – which cannot be transported, bought or sold, and which always have a temporary life – exist outside the art market. "The most important thing is that the paintings are painted over," he has said.

The paintings are also made with a high degree of craftsmanship and skill – qualities, rightly or wrongly, often seen as lacking in Turner prize nominees by the award's critics. Wright's work for this year's exhibition drew on traditional fresco techniques: creating a cartoon, tracing it on the wall, painting over it in glue and then gilding it.

The Turner prize judges "admired the profound originality and beauty of Wright's work". His artworks, which are often determinedly unspectacular, quiet in their mood and lack titles, are created specifically for a particular architectural environment. For the piece he created for the Turner prize exhibition, he was inspired by memories of travelling down from Scotland to London to visit the then Tate Gallery on the overnight bus; one night to get to London, a day in the gallery looking at a single work, and the night to get back.

Seen from a distance, Wright's golden fresco is an abstract confection. It's an enormous, complex, symmetrical shape that might remind one of a Rorschach inkblot, but close up you can make out shapes that suggests sunbursts or clouds, recalling the landscapes by Turner or watercolours by Blake that can be seen elsewhere in the gallery.

At 49, this was Wright's last chance to win the Turner prize, for which only artists under 50 are eligible. Born in London in 1960, he studied at the Edinburgh College of Art and, in the 1990s, at Glasgow School of Art. He was nominated for the award following exhibition at the 55th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, and the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. In 2007, he created a work for the Edinburgh international festival in an empty Georgian house in the city's New Town, in which repeated dots set in sweeping curves were made on walls and ceilings.

He has said: "In the end, the position of the work could be half of the work for me. In the first instance, the work has the possibility to effect or change the way you are drawn through the space. It therefore has the potential to reveal the space in a new aspect."

Wright, was awarded the £25,000 prize tonight, at a ceremony at Tate Britain by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. He beat three other shortlisted artists: Enrico David, fellow Glaswegian Lucy Skaer, and Roger Hiorns. Each of the runners up receives £5,000.

Lucy Skaer's work shows in a room leading off from the wall painted by Wright. She shows sculptures made from compressed coal dust inspired by Constantin Brâncusi, as well as a work called Leviathan Edge, the skull of a sperm whale, barely visible behind a screen.

Roger Hiorns, who recently covered a London flat in copper sulphate solution so that every surface – including taps and lights – grew a crust of bright blue crystals, has shown a sculpture consisting of the metal dust from an atomised passenger jet engine. And Enrico David created a tragi-comic stage-set of an installation, featuring giant eggmen, the face of Kenneth Williams, and a builder baring his backside.

The judges for this year's prize were Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; broadcaster Mariella Frostrup; Andrea Schlieker, the director of the Folkestone Triennial; and Jonathan Jones, a Guardian art critic. The chair of the judges was Stephen Deuchar, who steps down as director of Tate Britain later this month.


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The story so far

This year's Turner prize nominees seem strangely in tune with one another, exploring simliar themes of life, death, rebirth. But how will the judges pick their winner today?

It's been with us for a quarter of a century and has become shorthand for art-as-shock. But this year's Turner prize has been a quiet affair. The big story of 2009 is that there has been far less shouting than usual; even the tabloids have failed to work themselves into much of a froth. But that's hardly a bad thing. For my money, this is one of the best Turner prize shows for years – not least because it's one of the less sensational. Has the prize finally grown up? Have we?

Wandering around Tate Britain in the wintry gloom last night, just a handful of visitors in the gallery, I was struck by the correspondences between the work on show, the way they circle around similar, somewhat introspective themes: death, life, rebirth. Lucy Skaer's suspended whale skull – the show's big highlight – finds an echo in Roger Hiorns's installation, where bovine brain matter is turned into little pellets, and where a jet engine has been ground to dust and spread like a slick over the gallery floor. Enrico David's installation turns the drama in on itself: it's a strange dumbshow of surreal figures, perhaps the people in the artist's head. Richard Wright's breathtaking wall work, painstakingly done in gold leaf, offers itself as a kind of Rorschach blot – a pattern into which you could read anything, if only you stared long enough. Some years, you get a sense that the shortlisted artists are trying to out-shout each other, competing as to who can make the most noise. For the first time that I can remember, they seem to be talking the same language.

A quick refresher on the way it all works. The five judges – outgoing Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar, broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, curators Charles Esche and Andrea Schlieker, and our very own Jonathan Jones – meet this afternoon to decide on the winner (the whole affair is so shrouded in secrecy that we're not permitted to know when it actually happens). Technically, they're only voting on the work for which each artist was shortlisted, not the stuff you see at Tate Britain; but it's difficult to believe they'll ignore the show entirely – not least because they're meant to take into account the comments that members of the public have left in the gallery. The winning artist will be presented with their £25,000 cheque by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy at a ritzy gig at Tate Britain tonight; the other three with a consolatory £5,000. The cat will be out of the bag at about 7.45pm, live on Channel 4 News.

And of course here, so do check back then for the latest news, plus video and pictures from the ceremony. To keep you going in the meantime, Adrian Searle has recorded a rather beautiful video, revisiting the show a few months after it first opened, and we've launched quick refresher guides to each of the shortlisted artists: Enrico David, Roger Hiorns, Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright.

The big question, of course, is who should win. The bookies have voted firmly for Roger Hiorns, whom William Hill have rated at 10/11 – a spokesman suggested that there's been a series of large bets on him to win, possibly from art-world insiders (who said no one wanted to gamble on art these days?). Myself, I'm toying with the idea of Richard Wright, though I fell in love all over again with Lucy Skaer's work when I saw it last night. In short, I can't decide. Maybe I'm not alone: when I was at the gallery last night, I caught one of the judges sneaking a final look around. So it's all to play for.


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