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October 22 2011

Turner prize 2011 - review

Baltic, Gateshead; Hayward Gallery, London

George Shaw is an oddity in recent Turner prize history in that his paintings do exactly what they say on the tin. The tins in question are the little pots of Humbrol model paints with which he creates his meticulous one-size-fits-all scenes from the place he grew up, Tile Hill in Coventry. Eight of them are presented for his Turner prize 2011 show at the Baltic, four of which are new pieces. They quickly do away with arguments about sentiment and the limitations of simple depiction, and demand that you look.

If there is a soundtrack playing behind Shaw's compositions of the returned-to terrain of his 1980s adolescence it is the Specials' "Ghost Town". He finds traces of human occupation in his excavation of this recent past, like the shades of scrubbed-out graffiti on an end-of-terrace wall, but mostly this place is as emptied of life as Pompeii. He chooses his angles carefully. The places he dwells on, like his past itself, are boarded up and closed down to him. In the brick-built lock-ups of The Resurface even the ingrained child's-bike landscape of puddles and potholes, the gravelly contours of empty Sunday afternoons foregrounded in much of Shaw's painting, has been Tarmac-ed over.

Elsewhere, he can get only as close to the boxy houses of a new cul-de-sac as the wonky builders' fencing and rutted brownfield no man's land will allow. In The Assumption, his old primary school may have been razed but the gates remain stubbornly locked – one strut pulled out of true by some forgotten accident – along with the vestiges of the "Keep Clear" sign on the road.

Shaw's hobbyist's paints and Airfix eye for detail capture the diminished postwar reimagination of his corner of the city with an obsessive, metallic precision: the slowly accreted landfill mountain of black plastic sacks in The Same Old Crap; the brilliant comic incongruity of Landscape With Dog Shit Bin, an omphalos of council scarlet in the centre of a landscape leached of green by the drabness of the day and the neglected tiredness of verges and hedging.

Philip Larkin, another Coventry exile – Shaw now lives in north Devon – would have loved these paintings, but they are made with love as much as any kind of bitterness. They are also a hard act to follow.

The three other Turner nominees at the Baltic all make a strong fist of it, though. Martin Boyce is also much concerned with the interface between concrete and jungle. His work interrogates the implications of early modernist ideas of nature, in particular a photograph of four angular "tree" sculptures made by the artists Joel and Jan Martel in 1925.

He uses the leaf forms to create a kind of prefabricated ode to autumn; at ceiling height the stylised leaves become an elaborate lighting rig; flattened art deco versions of the pattern are adopted for ventilation grilles and a three-dimensional take becomes a waste bin. The floor is littered with paraffin-paper leaves artfully blown into piles.

Within this idealised municipal park, Boyce makes more personal statements; his angular forms are the basis of a self-invented hieroglyph typeface, etched into the school-desk surface of a work table inspired by an Eames design and referencing a Calder mobile. A utopian breeze from the 1920s seems to threaten to blow through these works and animate them – of nature and public spaces recrafted in harmony by the artist – but they remain as curiously inert and ghostly as George Shaw's shopping precincts.

Next door, there is creative nostalgia of a different kind in Karla Black's pastel swags and scrunched-up sugar paper hills and valleys which fill the room. The smells and colours are of a nursery school, and Black's make-believe landscape looks like a wilful return to more innocent artistic freedoms. She colours her polythene clouds by whacking them in a bin bag full of Early Learning Centre chalks until the colour sticks; pink bath bombs have part-exploded on her chalky hillsides. Beyond the sense of play there are primal psychologies at work, of a pure infant engagement with colour and material and form and, through adult eyes, all the loss of wonder it implies.

Hilary Lloyd's films are also hung up on barriers to wonder, especially the difficulties of looking itself. Moon is a pair of vertical screens on each of which 21 moving images of a full moon behind a clock tower outside the artist's window are projected. None will stay still for a moment; they flicker and bounce and move in and out of frame. You are reminded of the fragmentary rods and cones of vision, the way even the solidest of objects is pieced together from flickering fragments in the brain. Lloyd emphasises partiality – Shirt, a concentrated close up of a striped and spotted fabric, is a limited but smart illustration of how looking is as much to do with language as form – and you find yourself beginning to apply the same doubts to the complicated bridges and buildings that make up Gateshead through the adjacent window.

Going straight to the George Condo retrospective at the Hayward in London, after these discreet and concentrated slices of attention on Tyneside, is perhaps not the ideal juxtaposition. Condo's world is decidedly broad brush and translatlantic.

Having hung out with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the heady New York of 1980, Condo has trademarked a personal purgatorial cartoon world that is one part Francis Bacon, two parts Bugs Bunny. His satirical objects are the perceived grotesques of our times – The Stockbroker a jug-eared knucklehead with his pants down, a limp rag doll standing in for his manhood, or The Executive, who is pictured, for comic effect, beneath a dangling carrot (the Queen, in nine versions, and Jesus, in two, come in for similar Looney Tunes treatment).

Much is made of Condo's internal menagerie of characters – as if this were unusual among cartoonists – and the speed at which he works. His more recent semi-abstractions tend to ape art history standards – harlequins in search of a Picasso or whatever; Old masters are recast with his speciality gurning faces, in the same spirit that the Chapman brothers defaced their Goyas, but without the sacrilegious questions raised.

Satire generally requires some specificity; Condo mines instead the archetypal – the homeless drunk woman with a windmilling drinking arm; the dinner-jacketed toff with an unhinged libido – and attempts to make it extreme enough to resonate.

It didn't, for me, as a rule. I liked his Uncle Joe not so much for the figure's post-coital leer and the champagne glass balanced on the upturned sole of his foot, but for the fact that his mad, staring eye was somewhat reminiscent of Steve Bell's Tony Blair and the visual echo seemed fitting. In this kind of context, Condo's portraits of Her Majesty, goggle-eyed in most, a carrot through her head in one, surprise principally for their laziness. Quite endearingly, the artist acts as his own cheerleader in the catalogue – though the unlikely duo of Will Self and Kanye West also tout his genius. "They may not be pretty," Condo explains of his portraits, "but I think we can all see ourselves in these pictures; they are so hideous and yet so utterly real." Speak for yourself, George. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 21 2011

World of miseries

In the compact surrounds of Gateshead's Baltic gallery, George Shaw's miserabilist suburban brand of metaphysical painting marks him out as a strong contender for the 2011 Turner prize

The exhibition spaces given over to the four contenders for the 2011 Turner prize at Baltic in Gateshead are smaller than at Tate Britain, where the show usually takes place. This is no bad thing: the artists have to be concise.

When she represented Scotland at this year's Venice Biennale, Karla Black completely overdid her installation, and her Baltic show is much tighter, though still a joyous, childish mess. The way in is through a kind of airlock of dangling, paint-smeared polythene sheeting, like going into a spray-shed in a garage. Suspended precariously on bits of sellotape, you think the whole thing might collapse at any moment. Dried colour, poorly adhered to the plastic, sheers off in crumbly shards onto the floor.

Beyond are nests of scrunched-up cellophane and great wodges of torn and folded paper, painted in thin pinks and aqueous greens, the insipid tints of bath products and the poster paints kids use. A faint odour of deodorant and moisturiser hangs over Black's room-filling terrain of bulging, crinkled paper. It's like a kindergarten rockery. There's even a sort of grotto to rustle through.

Amid it all are Lush bath bombs, like little pastel cannonballs, and drifts and mounds of chalky pigment on the floor. I wish it were all more precise, or added up to something magical. I want more mystery and pleasure. I feel like mum, hands on hips, shouting: "Clear up all this mess NOW, or no TV for you!" This is painting or sculpture by other means, but it's all indeterminate abstraction, with its little formal niceties, the rips and folds and dustings of colour, the occasional finger-painted daubs. Black's work is fading on me, fast.

While Black attempts a sort of pre-linguistic, haptic play, Hilary Lloyd revels in a kind of techno-fetishism. Her room at the Baltic is alive with images, screens, trolleys and swanky suspension units. The ranks of projectors, the pole-mounted screens, the DVD players and monitors are as important as the hovering, flickering images they display. Images of part of a tower block shuffle about one screen, sheering and joggling against milky whiteness. Here they come, there they go. The rhythm of their passing is nice. In another work, the pistonlike movements of an unknown, silhouetted object – it could be a sink-plunger – thrust this way and that against a wooden floor.

The camera dwells on a patterned shirt, looking like an indoor landscape in a white room and, on a second screen, drifting off into static, or an inverted bleached-out after-image of the same thing. I am not really sure what I am looking at. Nor whether to sit and look, wander about, focus on the images, at the apparatus, even at my own shoes. All this drifting is the point, I think. One wall of Lloyd's space is a floor-to-ceiling window. Against it two screens, mounted one high above the other, display a fragmented, nocturnal London. Low-volume police sirens wail from the speakers. Big Ben hoves in and out of view. Is that the moon, or headlights in the night? The fragmentary images jerk and wallow around with a kind of rhythmic urgency, against the real, elevated view through the window, Newcastle and Gateshead going round a bend in the river. The real view wins.

Soon, all Lloyd's paraphernalia of projectors and DVD players, monitors and digital HD-branded hardware will look out of date. Later it will acquire a kind of redundant technology retro-chic. The images they display will be as inscrutable and inconsequential as they appear now, still swaying, going in and out of focus, still doing their thing, interminably as well as to no particular end. Paradoxically, that's when they might become interesting.

I like Martin Boyce's room very much. It feels like a place that's both real and fictional, present and past. From the decorative, fake ventilation grilles set low down in the walls to the suspended ceiling of flip-flapping white metal shapes hanging beneath the lights, casting a dapple of geometric shadows over the walls, it is a good place to be. The centrepiece is a library table, all canted angles, hidden over-slung lighting, solidity and frippery, confusing itself with a hanging mobile that dangles from above on a chain. Taking its inspiration from a library table by French designer Jean Prouvé, the table has a wood worktop inscribed with fragmentary letters and words, like an old school desk. It is an object you'd like to sit at, thinking complicated thoughts.

Boyce's installation is a play on modernist high style, with a twist. Most of all I like the geometric autumn leaves, made from waxy crepe paper, that drift and pile up in corners of the room. The whole installation is a play on insides and outsides, mental space and physical place. Look in the wonky rubbish bin and its binbag turns out to be woven, like an upturned, involuted jumper. I can't catch all the references to utopian modernist aesthetics, but just being here is pleasure enough. Perhaps Lloyd and Black want their installations to be places to be and linger in, too, places to sit and wait and ponder. But I guess the crowds won't allow that kind of meandering desultory contemplation.

George Shaw's paintings, on the other hand, depict places you want to escape from. You can take Shaw out of Tile Hill, Coventry, but you can't take the post-war housing estates out of Shaw. This is his perennial subject, with its abandoned 1950s follies, the Barratt homes and 60s semis, the scruffy woodlands and graffitied shop-fronts. Where Constable might paint a distant farmboy in a red shirt, to counterpoint all the bosky greenery, Shaw gives us a red-painted dogshit bin.

The feral woodlands, the brown field sites and the wanton atmosphere demarcate a familiar zone. Lucian Freud and Michael Andrews sometimes painted a similarly forlorn decrepitude, and, at his best, so did LS Lowry. Shaw records a perennial Sunday – or possibly Thursday – afternoon in indeterminate weather, and there's never anyone about. Shaw's paintings are always rendered in Humbrol enamel, the paint hobbyists and kids hard at it with their model plane kits use. Or did, before computer games took over.

Shaw has eight smallish paintings in the Turner show, some of which were shown in his immensely popular exhibition at the Baltic earlier this year, for which he was nominated. Shaw is popular because he speaks about his corner of England – though it could be anywhere – with a kind of melancholic truth. Shaw's art chimes in with an England of Tony Hancock and Philip Larkin, Orwell and Morrissey's Every Day is Like Sunday. Shaw's is a miserabilist suburban sort of metaphysical painting. The paint itself has a nothingy, curdled quality, like the place and the weather it depicts. It's all atmosphere, or the lack of one. And his art is always the same, everything just getting slowly worse and unloved and a little more embittered, just like England itself.

Should Shaw win? I prefer the hope I find in Boyce, whose elegant, astringent aesthetic appeals. There's hope in what he offers. But somehow I think Shaw should win, with his small miseries. He gives us the world we live in. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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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.'" © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 14 2011

Turner prize, Frieze, Wilhelm Sasnal – the week in art

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Jonathan Jones's top shows to see this week

Turner prize 2011
This year the north-east plays host to the most controversial and influential art prize in the world. A promising shortlist boasts George Shaw (yeah!), Hilary Lloyd, Karla Black and Martin Boyce.
• At Baltic, Gateshead, from 21 October until 8 January 2012

George Condo
Crazy and to be honest, really fascinating American painter, schlocky and sensational, this show promises to one of the autumn's best surprises.
• At Hayward Gallery, London SE1, from 18 October until 8 January 2012

Wilhelm Sasnal
A powerful and haunting German modern painter – what, another? – exhibits eerily ambiguous works.
• At Whitechapel Gallery, London E1, from 14 October until 1 January 2012

Anri Sala
Sound and vision resonate in this show by the Albanian film and video artist.
• At Serpentine Gallery, London W2, until 20 November

Kerry Tribe
Ghosts and space travel are among the themes of Kerry Tribe's Dead Star Light. Obviously not the real themes – it's about memory and time and stuff like that.
• At Modern Art Oxford until 20 November

Up close: five artworks in detail

Rodin, The Thinker, first cast 1902
A massive figure rests head on hand in an image of melancholy that goes back to medieval carvings such as the Queen in the Lewis Chessmen. Rodin first created his Thinker as a pensive witness to the sufferings of the damned on his swarming Gates of Hell, a vision of Dante's Inferno. Later, large versions were cast and it became the modern world's icon of introspection.
• At Burrell Collection, Glasgow

William Blake, Milton, c1800-1803
Blake wrote that Milton was of the devil's party but did not know it. He believed the real energy of the 17th-century republican's poem Paradise Lost lies in the rebellion of Satan. His portrait of Milton is the visionary communication of one great mind with another.
• At Manchester Art Gallery

Goya, Interior of a Prison, c1810-14
All the clawing anxieties that shape the mad universe of Goya's darkest paintings pervade the sepulchral depths of a prison in this sublime painting. Here is a glaring example of how Britain's art collections can be overlooked: this vision of cruelty and suffering would grace any museum in the world ... how fantastic that it glowers in County Durham.
• At the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham

Rembrandt, Portrait of Titus, c1658
The art of Rembrandt is as enduring as his life was fragile. Rembrandt suffered so much, including many bereavements. His son, portrayed here with such love, died before him. But in art, young Titus will live forever.
• At Wallace Collection, London W1

Manet, The Execution of Maximilian, c1867-8
Manet takes traditional genres and makes them new. His idea of modern painting is to deliberately, and constantly, reveal how modern life disfigures and traduces the old nobilities, as expressed in artistic tradition. In this great, damaged work he turns to the genre of history painting to show the brutality and cynicism of modern politics.
• At National Gallery, London WC2

What we learned this week

Why Chloe Sevigny is encouraging us to "Never stagnate, never stop" – and perhaps to take up pole-dancing

Why a giant egg, peeking eyes, pecking pigeons and a Paramount Pictures peak have come together

How Adrian Searle and Sarah Lucas ended up in bed together

What David Hockney, Kristen Scott Thomas and Ed Vaizey's favourite artworks are

How a hermit crab made a Brâncuşi head his happy new home

Image of the week

Your Art Weekly

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October 06 2011

Muted masterpieces: contemporary art that does not need the wow factor

Richard Wilson's 'lake of oil' was the first artwork to give me a theatrical thrill. But there are quieter, more subtle artists on the march this autumn, such as Turner prize nominee George Shaw

What work of art first made you feel the wow factor? This does not mean just being impressed by, or loving, a work of art. I mean the particular theatrical vibe of contemporary art, that thrills, entertains, and diverts the spectator in a way that makes you just say ... "Wow."

The British modern art season is about to enter mad mode. With the new Tate Turbine Hall commission, the Turner prize, and the Frieze art fair all imminent, it is time to gargle and exercise your vocal chords ready to say ... "Wow." Or perhaps just say it in your head, and skim-read some art theory so you can mouth more impressive phrases. Or stay at home and watch television, or do the garden. Hey, I didn't have this bright idea of compressing a year's modern art into a week. Don't turn on me about it.

Anyway, the first work of art that brought the contemporary wow factor home to me was Richard Wilson's sleek and dark, reflective and apparently bottomless lake of oil, 20:50, which I first saw at the old Saatchi Gallery in Swiss Cottage. Walking for the first time down the narrow aisle between the two halves of the room-filling installation, with oil pressing against their edges, held in by molecular forces as it peeped over the steel walls, was awe-inspiring. The glassy reflections created a sense of floating in the air, so you felt at once menaced by oil and in danger of falling: as I write this I remember that strange sensation of both claustrophobia and vertigo.

Here we are, and you can still see that definitive work of contemporary art at the relocated Saatchi Gallery today. In the early 1990s, critics often carped that the taste for the wow factor was really the product of Saatchi's advertising sensibility. He even bought a pickled shark!

Now we know it was more than that. Something about the theatricality of today's art liberates and greases the pleasure principle. That thrill of going to a museum and getting a theme park ride is very real, and apparently universal.

Yet this autumn, among the rides, there are some imitations of a quieter art. The Tate Turbine Hall stole Saatchi's thunder long ago and is today the definitive arena of culture as spectacle. Yet this year's artist there is Tacita Dean. Her films, drawings, photographs and montages resist the wow factor. They make you think instead. She is truly serious, and in the best way mysterious, and her Tate piece promises to be a real event, not merely as spectacle but as sombre, subtle, complex art.

Similarly, in the Turner prize, the most fascinating contender is George Shaw, a painter of depth and passion. Shaw is a quietly miraculous artist. His paintings are eerie scenes of the ruinous edges of modern British life. Surreal and silent, they beckon your imagination. Nothing could be further from the culture of wow than the art of George Shaw. No one has ever seemed a more deserving candidate for the Turner prize.

So the real artistic wonders this autumn will leave the wow factor far behind. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 29 2011

Mark Wallinger: ponies, politics and a police box

The work of the Turner prize-winning artist is the subject of an iconic new book. Here are some highlights

September 03 2011

Self Made – review

This intriguing feature-length documentary by 1997 Turner prize artist Gillian Wearing is simple in conception and infinitely complex, both morally and aesthetically, in execution. A newspaper ad invites members of the public to participate in a method-acting experiment that would lead to them discovering their inner selves, which would be realised through scenes dramatising their alter egos. Seven applicants, mostly from the north-west of England, are chosen, all go through classes conducted by the charismatic teacher Sam Rumbelow, and five are channelled into mini-films that range through a troubled daughter playing Cordelia, a professional Lear, a would-be suicide identifying with the last days of Mussolini, and a sad 40-year-old romantic casting herself as a working-class Celia Johnson in a deadly serious reworking of Brief Encounter. This is a glib, exploitative project that toys with vulnerable people. It is perhaps of limited interest to popular audiences, but of value to film and drama students. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

August 29 2011

A nose for the truth

People open up to Gillian Wearing. So the artist made a feature film in which members of the public divulge their innermost secrets – with shocking results

At the Turner prize ceremony in 1997, Gillian Wearing drank a bottle and a half of champagne before the main announcement. She was on the shortlist, but assumed she wouldn't win. The whole scene was pretty overwhelming back then, she says. Interest in young British artists was at its height, the ceremony was televised, and the fascination around the prize kept building. Two years later, there would be frenzied debate over Tracey Emin's unmade bed, and two years after that would come the screaming celebrity zenith, when Madonna turned up to hand over the award.

After Wearing's name was read out that night, she made it to the stage, thanked her family, then drew a blank. "One of my friends lives in Amsterdam," she says, "and he told me that the next day, in a Dutch newspaper, they wrote that: 'A very inarticulate person won the Turner prize.'"

Wearing laughs uproariously. She has an abiding fascination with articulation, with the ability to communicate clearly, honestly, succinctly; much of her work, which will be collected in a retrospective at the Whitechapel gallery next year, has involved drawing out people's most private thoughts, eliciting confessions about the events and ideas that hulk darkly around our subconscious. After finishing her art degree at Goldsmith's in 1990, for instance, she began the project Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say, in which she approached people in the street and asked them to write something on a piece of paper and then be photographed.

The work involved breaking down inhibitions; both hers and theirs. "You just feel like an idiot stopping people in the street," she says. "You think: why am I actually doing it?" Her answer came when a man she approached, the very image of a well-groomed, self-satisfied banker, scrawled "I'm desperate", and held it up for the camera.

In her first film for the cinema, Self Made, released on Friday, Wearing encourages seven people to explore the hidden sides of their nature, the alter egos and fantasy figures they keep private; it's an extension and progression of some of her earlier video projects. In 1994, for example, she placed a small ad that read: "Confess all on video. Don't worry, you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian." The ad copy became the title of the piece. From behind masks, and beneath wigs, individuals confessed to putting scabs on their boss's pizza, having sex with prostitutes, making dirty phone calls, stealing a school's computer. The video is by turns fascinating and chilling. She returned to similar territory with Trauma, in 2000, and Secrets and Lies, in 2009, in which nine masked people confessed to everything from drinking menstrual blood to murder.

'Suddenly, people were crying'

Self Made started with another advert, reading: "Would you like to be in a film? You can play yourself or a fictional character. Call Gillian." Two thousand people replied, and Wearing whittled them down through a series of auditions. The final seven took part in a three-week Method acting workshop, a process that would open them up and strip them bare, leading to the moment when they each performed a short, scripted drama based on their own idea – what Wearing calls their "end scene", five of which are in the film.

There has been a mixed reception since the film started screening at festivals last year; not surprising, since it is an emotionally wrenching, uncompromising, sometimes horrifying piece of work. It is also incredibly powerful. In one early scene, the group is simply doing breathing exercises – sounding long, constant notes, and then huffing hard – and it seems so primal it's no surprise when some eventually burst into tears. It was a scene like this that Wearing encountered when she attended her first ever Method workshop with Sam Rumbelow, the acting coach who appears in Self Made. He started talking to the group about drinking a cup of coffee, trying to stir up their memories, "and all of a sudden I saw people shaking," says Wearing, "and their backs shuddering, and they were actually crying. There was an emotional outpouring, which is really just about people relaxing and admitting, 'OK, let's not pretend I feel happy. I feel sad.' It's a kind of emotional truth."

In Self Made, these sessions lead the participants in vastly different directions. The two women's end scenes explore their feelings of being unloved; the three men's are violent – one a moment of grotesque, elemental aggression against a pregnant woman. As the filming of this last scene came closer, Wearing grew more and more worried, "because it was a very extreme idea, and I was having cold feet. I said to him myself, 'You can change your idea', but he was really keen, and as soon as I knew that it was important to him, and that he really wanted to do the piece, I was completely behind it."

Wearing is clearly brilliant at opening people up to this very deep level of communication, yet over the course of our interview in her studio she describes herself as "totally inarticulate" three times, as well as "completely", "really" and "very" inarticulate. She's referring mostly to her earlier days, to growing up in Birmingham, the middle child of a butcher mother and TV salesman father. She "hated senior school with a vengeance", she says, losing interest in books after starting at a comprehensive that pioneered large class sizes. Wearing didn't really read between the ages of 11 and 28, and so her ability to construct sentences suffered arrested development.

When Arbus met Greer

She left school with no CSEs, having been demoted from O-level classes six months before the exams. In her early 20s she started secretarial work at an animation studio, decided she liked the look of what her bosses were doing, and went to study for a BTEC at Chelsea College of Art and Design. (Her lack of O-levels was overlooked by an administrator who asked for her star sign, and nodded approval at the fact she's a Sagittarius.) She made a friend at Chelsea who felt her inarticulacy was "a sign of intelligence. He couldn't understand what I said, because I had a Birmingham accent and I mumbled a bit, so he thought I was saying something far more interesting than I actually was. When I got more articulate, he found me less interesting." She laughs again, hard. "The subliminal messages had disappeared."

She says all this swinging back and forth on her chair, legs corkscrewing around one another, long hair secured with a sparkly clip. She is in her late 40s, but only her salt and pepper eyebrows speak against her girlishness. Her inarticulacy seems consigned to the past. We have a great conversation, engaged and engaging, and it's only when I play back the tape I see her point. She tells me she talks too fast – she once walked out of a question-and- answer session, hurt after an audience member shouted "We can't hear you" – but this is only half the story. Her words slow down and speed up, her Birmingham accent segues in and out, she talks clearly one moment, mumbles the next. At one point her voice becomes childlike, recalling her 1997 work, 2 into 1, in which she had a mother mouth a tape recording of her young twin boys describing her, and the boys mouth a tape of their mother describing them. I realise there's something faintly clamorous about Wearing – as if a whole group of people were struggling to break through her skin.

Over the last decade, Wearing has been working on a series in which she recreates photographs, using prosthetic masks to exactly reproduce old, often formal, family portraits. Her eyes stare hauntingly from within the image of her mother, father and brother. She has also taken photographs of what she calls her "spiritual family", masked up to resemble Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol.

When I ask what scene she would have acted out herself in Self Made, Wearing says she would have appeared as Arbus, and tried to recreate a scene from the early 1970s, when the photo-grapher took a portrait of Germaine Greer. She notes that Greer didn't enjoy the session, "and I just thought that would be interesting, that relationship, two very powerful, strong women, in the same room together". She should write to Greer and ask her, I say. "That is what I'd like to do. I've always been tempted to write that letter." It's just a question of finding the words. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 20 2011

Rise of the prize: are juries taking over the arts?

Arts prizes seem to be everywhere – but who are the judges and should we let them shape our cultural landscape?

Our culture is turning into one long awards ceremony. Last week alone saw the BP Portrait award, the Art Fund prize and the shortlist for the Samuel Johnson book prize. As a judge on two recent prizes, including the portrait award, I have taken a certain amount of pleasure in the way a jury can make a point, even advance an argument; how an interesting choice of shortlist, a convincing winner, can convey ideas about art. But that's one way of looking at it. At times there seems to be a new prize announcement every few days. Can this really be good for culture? And what drives it?

Dramatists were awarded prizes in classical Athens, and Sophocles was a frequent winner, so clearly prizes are not incompatible with great art. But surely there are drawbacks to a culture dominated by competitions and awards. The rise of the prize means the public is more and more guided by official taste as embodied in juries. It is often said the critic is a dying breed. But juries are replacing critics, and they exert influence in a far more questionable way. A jury does not have to explain its decision to the public; does not have to say why one artist is better than another. Yet while critics are constantly questioned, the decisions of juries seem to be taken incredibly seriously.

That is a mistake. I have been on two juries. When I was involved in the Turner prize as well as this year's BP Portrait award, I did what a critic should do, and wrote pieces explaining and defending my point of view. In doing that I hopefully made clear that it is a point of view, a personal opinion: no more. But I also saw, on both juries, how things work behind the scenes and how easily bad, biased decisions might be made.

Jury decisions are not presented, usually, as arguments, but as truth from on high. The dangers are obvious. No music prize would ever have recognised the Velvet Underground or the Sex Pistols when it mattered (though doubtless some venerable rock award has acknowledged them in their dotage), and no art prize ever noticed Vincent van Gogh. Outsiders and rebels have little chance of impressing juries. The tendency of prizes, in other words, is to perpetuate the establishment taste of the day – and a culture like ours, in which prizes gain increasing power over the arts, needs to beware of sinking into a conservatism that measures the worth of an artist like that of a cabinet full of trophies.

The popularity of prizes may be a response to excessive cultural pluralism. The internet has democratised opinion, but perhaps this frightens and exhausts us and we want to be told what is genuinely good. It may also reflect a kind of consumer caution. With a prizewinner you have a guarantee of quality. In reality, art is always a risk, the new is always debatable, and no prize can be anything except an expression of taste. All juries should have to explain their decisions, because that makes it clear that a perspective is being offered, an opinion proffered. As a prize juror I urge you to take them with a large pinch of salt. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 04 2011

The 54th Venice biennale - review

From rolling news footage to anti-capitalist slogans and the last work of an artist killed by sniper fire, the medium and the message went hand in hand at this year's biennale

A Centurion tank flounders on the lawns of the Giardini, massively overturned, its undercarriage exposed like a giant cockroach beneath the blue Venetian sky. The gun barrel, laid flat, looks no more lethal than a limp proboscis. But as you gingerly approach, the whole machine abruptly starts up into motion, propelled by a runner on a treadmill harnessed to the tracks. Deafening, violent, shocking even in its impotence, the work is called Track and Field.

This is the eye-opener to the US pavilion at the 54th biennale and the loudest and punchiest affront in the place. The Centurion is a British creation, but let that pass, perhaps as further evidence of the special relationship. For this is an art tank, with a strong conceit and a cunning pun of a title, yoking imperialism, mechanisation, personal/political goals and much more, with the overall notion of pounding the world.

By the Cuban-American duo Allora & Calzadilla, it could also stand as an emblem of this biennale. For Venice, this time round, is nothing if not political. It is dense with an art of rapid response. It might have looked quite different in January, for instance, before the Arab Spring and the fleet reactions of international artists from Andorra to Azerbaijan, showing here for the first time along with Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe and many others in what seems to be a global scramble to secure the last of the 20-year spaces the city is currently leasing for up to £1.4m in the newly converted outreaches of the Arsenale.

From al-Jazeera to CNN to BBC World, newsreel spools its way through the entire event, almost to the point of becoming a medium in its own right. Obama is in Ireland, then London, then back in the White House. Gaddafi appears and disappears in Tripoli. Strauss-Kahn takes the perp walk in Angel Vergara's Belgian pavilion, in which TV news flashes across seven screens while a gentle paintbrush dabs away at the luminous glass surfaces, as if trying to make sense of the onslaught of appalling images of lust, violence, greed – the seven deadly sins in grim total – turning television into both the base and the source for a new kind of helplessly beautiful abstract expressionism.

There are dark memorials to the Libyan dead and banners on the facade of the Romanian pavilion decrying western hegemony in global politics and culture (a dig at the "choking-on-money mercantilism" of the biennale itself). Bahrain was forced to pull out, and Lebanon could not make it after its coalition government dissolved in January. At the Welsh pavilion, Tim Davies is showing omni-purpose military ceremonies reduced to the absurd as raw recruits march round and round in ever faster and more meaningless circles.

There came a point, in the long march through the Arsenale, where it even seemed as though one was watching the filmed burial of Bin Laden himself, somehow bootlegged into Venice, as two soldiers solemnly performed the exequies at sea. It turned out to be the remains of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, secretly ejected as far from land as possible for exactly the same reasons, so there could be no future memorial and no nation could serve as a final resting place, a parallel most piquantly made in Israeli artist Dani Gal's superb film Night and Fog.

At the time of writing, a young woman has just been released from jail in Saudi Arabia for agreeing to stop campaigning against the ban on women driving. No driving, no voting, and yet women are apparently allowed to represent the nation at Venice as if their work was as harmless as tatting. Sisters Raja and Shadia Alem have juxtaposed a twinkling oval lagoon on the floor against an upright oval of obliterating blackness that looks as if it could be snapped shut like a clam. The artists speak obliquely in the catalogue of "the black silhouettes of Saudi women" and the eternal light of Venice. One would not wish to understate the political content of this piece.

And nobody could ignore the dreadful testimony in the Egyptian pavilion, where video of Ahmed Basiony's last performance – 30 Days of Running in the Space, in which the artist runs on the spot dressed in a bubble of polythene, his breath misting its surface – is interposed with footage he shot in Tahrir Square during the pro-democracy demonstrations. This is where Basiony was shot and died. May he rest in peace.

Reality for the biennale art crowd, such as it is, came on the VIP opening day as the vaporetti went on strike to protest against staff cuts. The Grand Canal flowed almost empty, just the odd gondola and barge, like some living Canaletto. The pavilions were eerily quiet, the Arsenale nearly deserted. Money stayed away, though it lurked in the monstrous yachts moored along the quayside, including Roman Abramovich's palazzo-dwarfing liner.

In the Giardini, there were more publicists than collectors, pursuing more coverage than ever in the biennale's century and more history. But eventually it was business as usual. The latest variation on the principle that art is a safe bet in risky times: even the catalogue bags are now hailed as limited edition "artworks".

The art of the 54th biennale, by contrast, is generally sober, inventive and intelligent. There is a preponderance of installations and environments. More than one artist conjured the ordeal of the Chilean miners with lift shafts and underground chambers. Sigalit Landau dreamed up a salt bridge to unite Jordan and Israel across the Dead Sea; some poetic hope. In the US pavilion, athletes performed heroic contortions to turn themselves, ever so briefly, into human flags for the fought-over island of Vieques.

Japan had Tabaimo's vast projections – a hybrid of animated manga and Hiroshige on acid – cascading down curved and mirrored walls in a dizzying fantasy of Japan "receding into isolation in the face of globalisation" (says the artist). Iraq's inaugural pavilion had six artists' interpretations of water, including a fine semblance of the rippling reflections beneath Venetian bridges ingeniously fashioned from ribbons and foil.

Across the lagoon, in Palladio's great church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Anish Kapoor was raising the Holy Ghost with a cloud of smoke that spiralled and shivered up through the nave. In the Arsenale, one of James Turrell's immense lightworks was sucking the crowds into its numinous pink void.

I thought the Dutch pavilion was a fantastic reprise of a Mondrian painting in three dimensions, connected by stairways, but that's the problem with the forced harvesting speeds at Venice. Four more hours and I might have understood, from laborious texts and performances, that this was in fact a trenchant critique of cultural infrastructures.

Cindy Sherman was being turned into wallpaper, her various self-transformations blown up to billboard size in ILLUMInations (get it?), the main group show organised by the respected curator Bice Curiger. Germany's artist, film and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief died of lung cancer last year so his pavilion became a memorial self-portrait.

Films from his career were screened around a cathedral of pews and altarpieces, crowned with Beuys's hare and alluding to other artists at the heart of Schlingensief's Fluxus oratorio. Harrowing, funereal, with the idea of art as tragic salvation, the experience was agonisingly oppressive and I was rapidly out of there.

The British pavilion is supposed to be Mike Nelson's crowning achievement, partly because it so convincingly transforms that dainty tearoom of a building into a warren of interconnected backrooms of the sort you mind find in a Venetian workshop or a Turkish slum. Tools and benches, concrete floors and strip lighting, filthy mattresses and ancient tellies glowing in the windowless gloom: the atmosphere is of impoverished and unseen lives.

Not that there is anyone here, except the trespassing art crowd. You follow the clues – naked light bulbs, Turkish carpets, mysteriously marked calendars – through a labyrinth that seems to lead to the same empty chamber, except (of course!) that there are really two. Nelson has been doing this for so long he must know that the intellectual experience of his buildings within buildings is always countered by the human urge to work out the floorplan. And nothing dispels the mystery quite like having a guard warn against banging your head on the next low beam.

Generally atmospheric, specifically elusive: that's what the installation should be. Each mise en scène is conspicuously designed to evoke claustrophobia, bewilderment, unease. Yet I felt not the slightest frisson. Nelson will one day make a great work, one that exceeds the spectacle of his flawless craftsmanship to transport one to another chamber of the mind altogether. But this is not it.

The dominant triad at Venice always used to be Britain, America and Germany. But Ireland, Wales and Scotland eventually got their own pavilions and Scotland is showing Karla Black, shortlisted for this year's Turner prize, at her best with a palazzo full of sculptures, fashioned from soap, paper and even make-up, evoking Alps, stalactites and rococo architecture in cornetto colours.

Lately, though, France is the place to go and this year's artist is surely its greatest: the veteran Christian Boltanski. The pavilion is filled with an immense and complex scaffolding around which images of newborns spool at a hectic pace, instantly summoning – the open structure is everything here – a vision of the brain reeling images through its unimaginable interstices.

One born every minute: that seemed the thought. But the numbers racking up in digital lights were running to the tens of thousands within seconds. And in one part of the pavilion, these images are spliced with those of adults, so that death and birth are appallingly comingled. Press a button and time stops momentarily so that you may look upon these faces. But eventually a terrible klaxon sounds and the machine grinds down. The images freeze and it now seems that the babies are not just sleeping but perhaps actually dead. Imponderable mortality made real, Boltanski's work is profoundly affecting.

But the most devastating work in the whole of the 54th biennale is not by a living artist but a long-dead painter. Three Tintorettos have been hung in the Giardini for the first time, including The Stealing of the Dead Body of St Mark, with its apocalyptic lightning, fleeing figures and utterly reckless composition.

Tintoretto's work is a thunderclap of a painting by an experimental genius. There is nothing to touch it here for newness. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 31 2011

Karla Black: 'Don't call my art feminine'

In the Palazzo Pisani, Glasgow-based Turner prize contender sculpts cosmetics into peach and pistachio 'cave paintings'

In the 15th-century Palazzo Pisani, Karla Black has made the kind of work that whets the appetite for the Turner prize, the award she is tipped to win this December: boulder-size bundles of sugar paper chalked over in shades of peach and pistachio and bedecked with talcous mounds of plaster powder; sheets of paper sprayed with fake tan; and balsa wood painted with eyeshadow. In one series of rooms, the floors are scattered with soil on which sit industrial-size cubes of soap from toiletries chain Lush, a sponsor of the exhibition.

Don't, though, whatever you do, call this apparent onrush of girliness feminine. She finds this description of her art disgusting. "It is ridiculous and annoying," she says. "Why do people call it feminine? Because it is light, fragile, pale? Because it is weak, impermanent? When you start going to work on it you realise how ridiculous the description is. How can a work of art be feminine?"

It is certainly Black's year. Aside from being the insiders' favourite, neck and neck with painter George Shaw, to win this year's Turner prize, as Scotland's representative at the Venice Biennale she has been thrust on to the largest and most prestigious international stage for art.

Though not an official participating country – Mike Nelson represents the UK in the Biennale proper, eligible to win the Golden Lion for the best national exhibition – this is the fifth time Scotland has staged its own "collateral" show, an increasingly important platform for the nation's artists. Martin Boyce, fielded by Scotland in 2009, is also shortlisted for the Turner prize.

Her sculpture, Black says, is absolutely non-representational. "There is no image, no metaphor," she says. Rather, the point is the sculpture's sheer materiality, its heft and presence and fact of being in the world as it confronts the viewer. The use of materials gleaned from Boots' cosmetics counter, she explains, is not a kind of feminist critique of sculpture – "though I am a feminist". It is, she says, not as simple as that: "When I am spraying fake tan on paper I am actually thinking of people making cave paintings. They would hold the colour in their mouth and spit it out: that was the first spray paint."

This autumn, Black will be preparing for her Turner prize exhibition at the Baltic centre for contemporary art, Gateshead. Having been far from a household name, she will be pushed out into the public gaze, her work seen by thousands and pored over by the media. "I'm pleased," she said. "But I am keeping my head down. I have a lot of work to do and I am concentrating on it. Next year it will all be over, and it will be someone else's turn."

Karla Black is at the Palazzo Pisani (S Marina), Calle de le Erbe, Cannaregio 6103, Venice, from Saturday until 27 November © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 04 2011

Turner prize shortlist – the expert view

A critical look at the work of the four candidates: two very different types of painter, a video artist and a sculptor

All of the artists here could easily have been included seamlessly in any Turner shortlist of the past decade. Is this George Shaw's moment? Somewhere, on an English housing estate, it is always a George Shaw moment – a dull Sunday or a walk-the-bloody-dog empty afternoon. His paintings of 1960s estates and hinterlands are defiantly local and prosaic, but probably look exotic and poetic to viewers from abroad. And there is something Larkinesque – as well as Hancockesque – in his work. Perversely anachronistic, at his best he achieves a kind of universality. The tedium in Shaw's dutiful technique matches the places he depicts. To describe this as minor art also catches the mood exactly.

Karla Black's work is painting by other means. Her work is all about surfaces and materials – scrumpled polythene sheet, powdery makeup, glistening conditioners, drools of body lotion. It's as if she started making herself up for a Friday night but found herself painting instead. What she does manages to be at once tacky and beguiling, oddly pretty and pretty horrible; this is to do with the physical properties of her everyday materials and their associations – to the cosmetic and to all that faecal paint the abstract expressionists once flung about. Its all makeup and make-believe. Both a parody of painting and a homage to it. Black's work frequently makes me laugh, nervously.

Bodies also appear and disappear in Hilary Lloyd's videos, films and slide-show presentations. Lloyd is as much into the hardware of projectors, screens on shiny metal poles, the techno-dreck of wires and boxes, as the images of cranes and bridges, motorbikes and bodies they project.

All this technology will soon look dated. Lloyd's art frequently bores me, but I keep thinking I'm not clever enough, not hard-wired for it. I'm always aware of a dry little academic commentary starting up in my head. Then another thought intrudes: can I stop watching yet?

Martin Boyce's sculptures and installations often relate to utopian, modernist design. Lots of artists are currently mining this territory (even Shaw's work makes reference to it), and it is beginning to feel a bit of a cliche. But this is the world whose legacy we live with. Angular neon-tube trees – that look like they're doing calisthenics, drifts of fallen leaves, a hosepipe snaking through a metal grille, all have their place in his work.

If Black's work looks like painting but somehow isn't, Boyce's looks like sculpture, but is just as much a sort of mangled décor. That's what a lot of art is now, for better or for worse. Shaw or Black to win! © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Turner prize shortlist 2011: the artists – in pictures

Painters George Shaw and Karla Black are joined on this year's Turner prize shortlist by sculptor Martin Boyce and video artist Hilary Lloyd

Turner prize 2011 shortlist announced

Painters George Shaw and Karla Black, sculptor Martin Boyce and video artist Hilary Lloyd are finalists at Baltic, Gateshead

There may be two painters on this year's Turner prize shortlist, but traditionalists should pause before sighing with relief.

One of them paints landscapes in the kind of enamel paint used for decorating model trains and aeroplanes; the other counts lipstick, bath bombs and bronzing powder among her unorthodox materials.

The painters, George Shaw and Karla Black, are joined on the 2011 prize shortlist by sculptor Martin Boyce and video artist Hilary Lloyd.

Prize juror Katrina Brown, director of the Common Guild in Glasgow, said the list was not representative of "one school, or cluster, or movement – there is every medium in the mix and it has a diversity and maturity about it".

In contrast to the Young British Artist-dominated shortlists of the 1990s, when the centre of UK artistic life appeared to be the few square miles around Shoreditch, this list is determinedly non-metropolitan, with only one of the artists – the Newcastle Polytechnic-trained Lloyd – based in London.

"It is a sign of the maturity of the art scene in Britain that it is not all concentrated in the capital," said Brown.

Indeed, the whole prize will turn its back on London this year: the annual Turner prize exhibition, which opens on 21 October, will be hosted by the Baltic gallery in Gateshead.

It is the first time in the show's 27-year history it has been held outside a Tate gallery and only the second time it has been held outside London.

Shaw, who studied in Sheffield, lives and works in Devon while Black and Boyce are based in Glasgow – where the last two winners of the prize, sculptor Susan Philipsz and painter Richard Wright, were brought up.

Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain and chair of the jury, said that the Glaswegian focus was testament to the strength of the training available at Glasgow School of Art in the 1990s.

Curtis said of the two painters: "One may be seen as innovative but is actually quite traditional, while the other seems quite traditional but is actually quite innovative."

The work of 38-year-old Black involves cosmetic products – including nail varnish, eyeshadow and moisturiser – deployed on a grand scale in large installations that look more sculptural than painterly.

But juror Godfrey Worsdale, director of Baltic, said her work could be compared to that of the abstract expressionists, the artist hurling cosmetic products across a surface just as Jackson Pollock cast paint over canvas.

According to Brown, there is a conscious play on the gender associations of what she called Black's "girly" palette of cosmetic pastels. But the artist also uses more "macho" materials, such as soil and earth. Black represents Scotland at this year's Venice Biennale.

The apparently traditionalist Shaw, 44, paints the landscape of his upbringing – the Tile Hill housing estate in Coventry.

In some ways his paintings appear photorealistic, but his palette is restricted by the Humbrol enamel paints he uses – materials usually more associated with hobbyist model-makers than with the Turner prize shortlist. These paints render his scenes "muted and sombre" with a curious surface sheen, according to Brown.

His art depicts "forsaken places" – the dull, dark corners of postwar housing projects – and his paintings are often imbued with a "sense of foreboding" and appear to hover uncertainly between the present and the past of Shaw's adolescence, said Brown.

Landscape With Dog Shit Bin (2010) is one of his less romantic titles; but he can also give his bleak, Midlands views grand titles from the annals of art history, such as Assumption.

Boyce, 43, creates sculptural installations that often reference the modernist design of the early 20th century.

A set of designs for concrete trees made by the modernist French designers Joel and Jan Martel (1896-1966) have been a special focus for him: he has used the twins' forms in sculptures, and even created a kind of alphabet out of their shapes.

Lloyd, 46, is nominated for an exhibition at the Raven Row gallery in London, which she filled with video projections that also became, along with their AV equipment, a kind of sculptural installation.

Unedited, and unfolding in real time, her films might focus on a motorway bridge under construction or the movement of a crane.

The Turner prize winner will be announced at a ceremony in Gateshead on 5 December.

Aside from Brown, Worsdale and Curtis, the judges are curators Vasif Kortun and Nadia Schneider. Previous winners of the prize include Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Mark Wallinger and Martin Creed. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 08 2010

This one's for you, Glasgow

Turner prize star Susan Philipsz comes from a long line of innovative artists and musicians with Glaswegian roots

Douglas Gordon, who in 1996 became the first Glaswegian artist to win the Turner prize, was once asked what he had been taught at Glasgow School of Art. His reply was simple. "To sing," he said. "Not how to sing, but simply to sing."

Those words now seem prophetic. On Monday night, Susan Philipsz, another artist born and raised in Glasgow – although now based in Berlin – followed in Gordon's footsteps. Philipsz was nominated for the Turner for her sound installation Lowlands (2010), which consisted of recordings of the artist singing a 16th-century lament for a drowned lover, originally played beneath three bridges on Glasgow's River Clyde before being transposed to Tate Britain.

Since 1996, no fewer than 10 artists associated with Glasgow have been nominated for the Turner, including Christine Borland (1997), Martin Creed (2001), Jim Lambie and Simon Starling (both 2005), Nathan Coley (2007), Cathy Wilkes (2008), Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright (both 2009). Of these, five won: Gordon, Creed, Starling, Wright and Philipsz. It's a reflection of the way in which Glasgow has emerged from post-industrial decline to become the UK's main art centre after London, with a reputation for producing innovative and highly acclaimed artists and musicians.

But there's more to it than simply that. Many of the best-known artists from Glasgow emerged from the Environmental Art Department at the city's art school (where, as it happens, I also teach). Students were encouraged to produce art outside studios and galleries ("with or through people", in the words of the course description). Crucially, they were also expected to seek permission to install their work in the public domain, breeding both confidence and an abiding interest in context and site-specific work. Those interests were evident in their post-graduation projects, notably the 1991 Windfall exhibition, organised by Douglas Gordon, Martin Boyce, Nathan Coley and others in the disused Seaman's Mission by the Clyde, and positively reviewed in the inaugural issue of Frieze magazine. The obvious parallel is with Goldsmiths College, London, and you might compare Windfall and the 1988 Docklands exhibition Freeze, which precipitated the beginning of the YBA phenomenon.

That comparison only goes so far, however. Collectors of contemporary art in Glasgow are few and far between, and the city certainly has no equal to London gallerist and collector Charles Saatchi, so often credited with creating much of the hype around the YBAs. The establishment of The Modern Institute by Will Bradley, Charles Esche and Toby Webster in 1998 and more recently, the young commercial galleries Sorcha Dallas and Mary Mary has changed that situation to a certain extent, but Glasgow remains a city in which many artists make work that they do not expect to sell. Much of the most notable art that has emerged from the city since the early 90s has been deliberately non-permanent, short-term and ephemeral, and made on very tight budgets. Without the relentless enthusiasm of people mounting exhibitions, playing gigs and throwing parties in tenement flats, pub basements and disused buildings, none of it would have happened at all.

Philipsz's Lowlands, which was commissioned for Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, underlined the importance of live music in generating a sense of community in Glasgow. The three adjacent Clyde bridges where Philipsz's work was installed were built during the late 19th and early 20th century, when Glasgow was the workshop of the world and the fourth largest city in Europe, after London, Paris and Berlin. At this time folk traditions flourished in the worker's inns, taverns and shebeens around the city's Bridgegate, Saltmarket and Gallowgate – where bars like The Victoria and The Scotia are still active gathering places for folk singers and musicians today. Indeed, last year's Turner prize winner, painter Richard Wright, supported his work during the 80s and early 90s by playing banjo and guitar at numerous ceilidhs and gigs around the city – and now plays in alt-pop band Correcto with Franz Ferdinand's Paul Thomson.

Wright is by no means unusual amongst his peers. Many of Glasgow's best-known artists are also musicians, such as Jim Lambie, who was once in a band called the Boy Hairdressers and still moonlights as a DJ. Cathy Wilkes performed with all-women collective Elizabeth Go, and 2008 Jarman prize winner Luke Fowler plays in experimental band Rude Pravo. Most of the city's best-known bands, including Franz Ferdinand and The Phantom Band, have members who trained at Glasgow School of Art.

The city's art and music scenes have grown in tandem because, as Glasgow-based writer Nicola White, put it in a 1995 essay, "Parties matter. They are part of the glue that holds any artistic community together, compensation for pursuing what is, at heart, a very solitary line of work." When Douglas Gordon took to the rostrum in 1996 to accept the Turner prize, his first thought was to thank his family and the people he called "the Scotia Nostra". Susan Philipsz, too, dedicated her award to her family and friends, saying "this is for you". She couldn't have put it better.

Sarah Lowndes is the author of Social Sculpture: The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene (2010) © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 07 2010

Sonic boom

Susan Philipsz has won the Turner prize – using just her own voice. So was her night marred by the student protests? How did she get into sound art? And what's this about a run-in with Stephen Fry?

Monday's Turner prize ceremony was the oddest – and in some ways the most moving – that most regular guests of the annual event can remember. Students and lecturers from London art colleges staged a "teach-in" protest during the day in Tate Britain, where the award was due to be announced in the evening. At closing time, many refused to leave, remaining in the entrance hall.

Later, at the event itself, only a makeshift barrier separated the student protesters from the party-goers in the central gallery of the museum. The students – demonstrating against cuts in public funding to higher education for arts, humanities and social sciences – were invisible but audible, and the talk inside the party, where guests included culture minister Ed Vaizey, was of little else. Many at the party had attended art schools or taught in them, and, despite a certain discomfort induced by their sipping champagne while the young protesters continued with their demonstration just metres away, approved of the protest.

Anjalika Sagar – half of the Otolith Group collective, which was shortlisted for the prize – went outside to give a speech of solidarity to the students and returned clutching a crumpled banner. Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, also spoke to them sympathetically. And the winner of the £25,000 prize – Glaswegian Susan Philipsz, whose piece consisted of a recording of her soft and sonorous voice singing a traditional Scottish lament over the River Clyde – remembered it the morning after just as an artist who works in sound ought: "It was a surreal experience. The particular acoustics in the gallery made it seem like it was a dream – the way the cheering and the chanting carried."

Some artists might have felt a little irritated by their moment of glory being so noisily hijacked, but Philipsz is a veteran of the barricades. In her acceptance speech, she expressed her sympathies – even if, in the heat of the moment, she blurted out that "education is a privilege not a right", which might well be taken as a prophecy. When we meet at Tate Britain the following morning, she corrects herself. "Education is a right not a privilege – as I used to say myself on demos."

In fact, before Philipsz went to art school at the age of 23, she devoted herself to political activism in her hometown. She had always wanted to be an artist, but reckoned her time could be more usefully channelled into promoting political causes. This was in the mid-1980s; she is 45 now. "We campaigned against the poll tax. And the miners' strike. We used to collect money outside shopping centres – 'Dig deep for the miners'; 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out.' I thought of doing politics more seriously. I passionately believed we could change the world – that there could be socialism in our time. Those were heady, idealistic days."

So what happened? Where did the idealism go? "I know my works aren't overtly political, but . . . " She hesitates. "But I did use the Internationale in a work." Remarkably, given the fact that she has had three hours' sleep, she starts to sing, in that sweet voice . . .

Arise, ye workers from your slumber,

Arise, ye prisoners of want.

For reason in revolt now thunders,

And at last ends the age of cant!

She made the work in 1999: a recording of her voice, singing this anthem of international socialism, was installed in an underpass in Ljubljana, Slovenia. "When I hear a big group singing that song," says Philipsz, "it makes me want to cry. But with my solo voice it was ambiguous. It was unclear whether it was a clarion call to action, or a lament for the past." She says she remembers an old lady, tears streaming down her face, singing along in what may have been Slovenian or Russian.

In the end, what got her to art school was her sister Barbara, one of five siblings. (Four of them made it to the event to celebrate. Mum and dad stayed at home: "Mum was dancing in front of the telly.") Back then, Barbara was attending Bellarmine Arts Centre in Glasgow, building up a portfolio to get her into art college. So Philipsz joined the class, too. Barbara then got in to Glasgow School of Art, and Philipsz didn't. Instead, she was offered a place at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, part of Dundee University.

There, Philipsz took part in student protests against cuts to grants, and reminisces about an occupation of the university. "We had all slept in the library and, at the crack of dawn, we were put into pairs and designated our own room." She and a fellow student were put into "what looked like the nerve centre of the university" – a cupboard-size room humming with giant computers.

After an altercation in which "someone tried to shoulder the door", there came a polite knock. Could the university's rector have a word? They said yes. "And in walks Stephen Fry. He looked like a giant. He had a really deep tan as if he'd been helicoptered in from his holiday. He said, 'Look here, I am sympathetic to your cause, but do you really think this is the right way of addressing it?'" Fry was sent off with a flea in his ear by Philipsz's fellow protester.

Later, she studied as a postgraduate in Belfast. So, though she  is Glaswegian, her background is different from that of so many artists who, graduates of the city's art school, have ended up as nominees for or winners of the Turner prize, including Richard Wright (last year), Simon Starling (2005), and Douglas Gordon (1996). "I think it was a good thing I left," she says. "Though it's so hard to tell. It's been a different route from a lot of my peers."

The work that clinched the prize was the installation Lowlands Away, under three bridges of the Clyde in Glasgow, made for the art festival Glasgow International. In fact, she has had relatively little work shown in her hometown, and mourns the fact that Lowlands Away ran for just two weeks – and, during that time, aircraft were grounded by the Icelandic ash cloud, so many potential visitors were prevented from coming to the festival from overseas.

Soft voice on a brutalist walkway

It was the period in Belfast, she says, that really formed her as an artist and saw her gravitating, as a sculpture student, towards sound, in particular recordings of her own voice. "I had always liked singing, and I started thinking about the physicality of singing – becoming aware of the space created by the voice in the body, and how it projects into the space around you." The fact that her voice is untrained is part of the power of her work – there is a fragility, a humanity and a sheer ordinariness to her voice that draws the listener in, adding an emotional depth to the otherwise formal intent of her work, which is about the way that sound can fill, explain and animate a space.

A six-part piece, Surround Me, commissioned by Artangel, can currently be experienced in various locations around the City of London: walkers happen upon the melancholy sounds of 16th- and 17th-century English madrigals and rounds as they wander past London Bridge, the Bank of England and the strange brutalist walkways of the financial district.

Philipsz has, for the last nine years, lived in Berlin with her partner Eoghan McTigue; it's a city that's home to so many British artists, including Gordon, Ceal Floyer, and former Turner prize nominees Tacita Dean and Phil Collins. She plans to host a Burns night this year, with homemade haggis (she honed her technique last year by stuffing enough offal into a pig's stomach to feed 30 people, brave woman).

She has no plans to come home, though she can sound wistful about Scotland and London. But then a hint of wistfulness seems to flow through both Philipsz and her work. "I sometimes miss – Eoghan would laugh at me, he doesn't think I can change a lightbulb – I sometimes miss the physicality of making things," she says.

But, as Serota said at the prize ceremony, with an ironic nod in the direction of the chants of the demonstrators, now seems to be all about sound.

• The Turner prize exhibition is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 3 January 2011. Details: © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Sound and fury

Last night Susan Philipsz won the Turner prize, but the evening was dominated by art students demonstrating against cuts

December 06 2010

Susan Philipsz wins Turner prize

Susan Philipsz' work makes you think about place, space, memory and presence: it opens up your feelings

Susan Philipsz winning the Turner prize is the right result, and I feel the same pleasure in her win as I did when painter Tomma Abts won in 2006. In both cases I was impressed by the artists' originality - not a word you hear much in contemporary art circles, their inventiveness, and the difficult yet accessible pleasures their art can give.

Dexter Dalwood's paintings seemed to me too brittle, too clever and contrived to win. He was let down by having too many works in the show, too few of which were in themselves compelling. Each painting was a compendium of styles and references, and it all felt a bit too dutiful and congested. I much prefer Angela de la Cruz's work, with its painful humour, honesty and knockabout abjection. But De la Cruz's work seems to me to be at a moment of transition. Having only recently returned to work following a debilitating stroke, her ensemble of recent and older paintings and sculptures was as much a statement of intent as a fully achieved exhibition. Last month, de la Cruz won a coveted £35,000 Paul Hamlyn award. This is as valuable and prestigious as winning the Turner Prize.

Like De la Cruz, the wider exposure of the art of the Otolith Group collective has been valuable. It is as though Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar wanted to make life as hard on the audience as possible. I took a perverse delight in the fact that they made us work at their art, which is as erudite as it is sensual, as sexy as it is filmic. But they have an almost academic streak that makes one think one is in a classroom or study centre.

Philipsz is the first artist working with sound to have won the prize. I can imagine people saying she is just a singer, with the sort of voice you might feel lucky to come across at a folk club. But there is much more to Philipsz than a good voice. All singers, of course, are aware of the space their voice occupies, of the difference between one hall and another. We know it ourselves, singing in the shower. But the way Philipsz sites recordings of her voice is as much to do with place as sound. She has haunted the Clyde and filled her box-like Turner installation with the ballad Lowlands; she has called across a lake in Germany and had her voice swept away by the wind on a Folkestone headland.

Her current Artangel project, Surround Me, insinuates itself down alleys and courtyards in the City of London, her voice like an Elizabethan ghost, singing melancholy works by John Dowland and other 16th and 17th century composers. I have stood in shadowy old courtyards and between gleaming office blocks, weeping as I listen. And how many artists can you say that about?

Her sense of place, and space, memory and presence reminds me, weirdly, of the sculptor Richard Serra at his best. Her art makes you think of your place in the world, and opens you up to your feelings. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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