Gavin Turk: his work is mature and yet provocative; he has made a living as an artist and not sold out; and his ideas retain an urgency from not being overstated. But who is Gavin Turk? This exhibition provides a timely opportunity to unravel one of the forgotten stars of the YBA movement.
Turk’s practice has often revolved around ideas concerning authorship, authenticity and value. ‘The Years’ reminds us that Turk handles these ideas with great intellectual subtlety rather than manufacturing them to the point of sterility, and they are lusciously infused with a keen sense of history that neither gushes nor diminishes into obscurity.
Gavin Turk, Holy Egg (Pink), 2013,173 x 122 cm; Courtesy of the Artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts Ltd.
Turk is not concerned with the rampant commercial artworld creation of value, but with a continual critique of the very concept of value in art. Refreshingly, the value of art is a perennially open question and not an unassailable tautology. The famous rubbish bags, such as Refuse (2012), still have the power to enact their dual critique: on the one hand, a comment on the dreary complaint that modern art is ‘rubbish’, but also, a rumination on the legacy of Duchamp. The joy of Turk’s work is precisely this wry counterpoint between a banal joke and a clever idea, where you never quite know which it is supposed to be.
Indeed, Gavin Turk has a confused identity in his work – he is only a name and a fluid point in art history. So we have the artist’s initials rendered in bullet-like holes on Technicolor eggs (Holy Egg, 2003), in reference to Fontana, or his signature rubbish bag on the surface of a gleaming mirror as a nod towards Pistoletto (Pistoletto’s Rubbish, 2013). The relentless appearance of the artist’s name is essential to the strand of his work focused on authorship. The most ecstatic version of which in this exhibition is the huge Pollock drip painting, The Nubians of Plutonia (2009), created by Turk dripping his signature over and over again. You marvel at the brashness of a Pollock repeatedly signed by Turk as a statement of ownership or theft of intellectual property from history – as if authorship, authenticity and ultimately value meant anything at all. This, the most edifying joke in the show, is brilliantly curated so that, as you enter the gallery, you are so captivated by the glowing neon and shiny mirror ahead of you, that the Pollock eventually just creeps up on you as you make your circuit round the gallery.
Gavin Turk, The Nubians of Plutonia, 2009, Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 400 cm; Courtesy of the Artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts Ltd.
This exhibition offers a careful selection of work that perfectly demonstrates Turk’s intellectual clarity and aesthetic prowess. Considering the ingenuity, humour and complexity of his work, not to mention the fact that he has made millions for Hirst by pioneering painted bronze, it is a wonder that Turk is not just a bit more famous than he is. Turk’s problem is that he has not been shocking or spectacular or gruesome enough for the YBA generation. Instead he chose to make art which constantly ensures that you never quite know what’s going on. It is this perpetual uncertainty, coupled with a conceptual programme that cuts against the grain of current values, that makes Gavin Turk an important and appropriately underestimated contemporary artist.
(Image on top: Gavin Turk, Evil Eye, 2012, Poured acrylic paint on tondo canvas, 150 x 150 x 3.5 cm; Courtesy of the Artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts Ltd.)