A report by Mark Hudson for London’s Telegraph.
Britain’s most notorious art prize underwent a seismic change in 1991, when entry was restricted to artists under 50, ushering in the era of unmade beds, sliced-up cows and lights flashing on and off. Overnight, the Turner Prize went from a sedate means of rewarding established artists – from Howard Hodgkin to Gilbert and George – to a way of launching younger artists who were being groomed for success by the art establishment. An excellent case in point would be last year’s winner, Helen Marten, then 31, who had been tipped for greatness since she was a student at Oxford’s Ruskin School of Drawing.
This year, the prize has come full circle, with the award open, once again, to artists of all ages. The result is an exhibition with a very different feel from any Turner show I’ve seen before: with less emphasis on glitzy star-making, less intellectual navel-gazing and more of the themes and ideas that the non-art specialist might actually care about. Yet there’s a danger that the prize may once again become an award for past achievement, rather than for work reflecting art today.
While much has been made of the “international” character of this year’s shortlist, with none of the artists ticking the “White British” box, all represent, in one way or another, what it means to be British today – even Andrea Buttner, who is actually German.
Born in Birmingham of Jamaican parents, Hurvin Anderson, 52, is that rarity in the Turner Prize, a proper painter who rigorously interrogates the processes of his crafts. His work is about the business of looking, whether he’s painting dense Caribbean forests in layers of dripping paint (recalling his multi-million selling near-contemporary Peter Doig), or the Birmingham parks where he played as a child, (his various attempts to paint the scene over-layering each other in a way that brings to mind the master of dour Slade School-realism, William Coldstream). In apparent contrast, images of barbershops strip the surfaces back to stark Mondrianesque abstraction – with images of great black political leaders isolated in Is It Alright To Be Black?. This is patently serious, resonant stuff, contemporary in its evocation of multi-cultural Britain, but unapologetically absorbed in timeless painterly values.
Born in Stuttgart, but based in London, printmaker Andrea Buttner, 45, is another artist obsessed with process. The best things in her display are enormous etchings – over five feet high – with richly textured, swirling marks created by transposing greasy finger-marks from mobile phone screens onto metal plates. Even in those unconsidered actions, Buttner implies, we’re creating ephemeral beauty – or forms, at least, that can be given value as art. Large woodcuts, however, harking back to German expressionism feel deliberately clunky (but still clunky), while a photo-display on the philosopher Simone Weil, borrowed from Berlin’s Peace Library, is highly intriguing, but it’s not her work.
Rosalind Nashashibi, 44, makes what might be called anti-documentaries, harking back to Seventies leftist Counter Cinema that attempted to subvert “bourgeois” filmic norms. Her subjects are real, but any information gleaned is in spite of Nashashibi’s “alienation” techniques, as she runs the film backwards, focuses on apparently irrelevant details and cuts whenever there’s any danger of emotional engagement. Vivian’s Garden, about two German artists, a mother and daughter, living in the Guatemalan jungle, generates a muted sense of threat, but in defiance of Nashashibi’s best endeavours to drive us from the viewing-space: a scene with the daughter packing for a trip to Greece seems to last an eternity. Electrical Gaza, a portrait of her notional paternal homeland – the Croydon-born filmmaker’s father is Palestinian – doesn’t seem to offer any of the benefits or privileges of close personal involvement with the subject. While her shoot was aborted after an official missive telling her it was unsafe to continue, just about any frustrated filmmaker could have thrown together this collection of inconclusive tracking shots and still-born personal encounters.
As always, the mixture of quasi-narrative films, which require the viewer’s attention for a fixed period of time, with more traditional exhibition formats where the viewer sets the pace, feels unsatisfactory. Born in Zanzibar and the oldest of the four, Lubaina Himid, 63, is a veteran of the Black Art movement who has been fighting, since the early Eighties, for recognition, not only of black British artists, but of the presence and contribution of black people in Britain for many centuries.
Her magnum opus here, A Fashionable Marriage, is a restaging of a scene from Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode (the original of which contains two black servants) as a collection of collaged and cut-out life-size grotesques. The braying lord’s ruff is formed from a clump of rotting rubber gloves, while the bride’s head is a cubistic composite of photographs of Margaret Thatcher. This is an uproarious composite of British society, created by an outsider who is also, of course, an insider; a work that deserves to be far better known.
The rest of Hibid’s display, however, is less convincing: a series of pages of the Guardian newspaper in which areas are painted out to reveal what she appears to see as unconscious racism, specifically – in the way images of black people are used – feels rather dated, if not in its racial paranoia, then certainly in the way Hibid has chosen to express it.
A Fashionable Marriage is the most impressive single work here, and the Thatcher reference is telling: the piece was created in 1986. Only one of the works in Hibid’s display – the painting le Rodeur – was executed over the past year. Hibid seems to be the popular favourite for the award, but, while it would be good to see her recognised for her achievements as activist, teacher and artist, that seems to go against the spirit of this award. So for rigour, consistency and invention in art that is actually being produced now, I’m backing Hurvin Anderson for this year’s Turner Prize.
Until Jan 7; 01482 613902; hull2017.co.uk. The winner will be announced on December 5.