I would like to make a bet with you. See the melodramatic self-portrait here, of a ghostly face overlaid with red camouflage? I bet you thought it was Andy Warhol. Go on, admit it. But take another look. Focus on the eyes. They’re too fiery to be Warhol’s.
His were smaller and deader. And he didn’t have Johnny Depp cheek-bones, either. Andy had a podgy potato face. So, this is the camouflaged self-portrait of someone else’s camouflaged self-portrait.
It’s actually Gavin Turk, that sneaky and circular Brit Artist, whose art is so damn sneaky and circular, you are never certain whether what it achieves is worth achieving. Turk was the chap who created the sleeping bag that looked as if it had a down-and-out sleeping in it, which Charles Saatchi used to leave lying around in the vestibule of his posh gallery at County Hall. I witnessed someone giving it a kick to wake up its nonexistent occupant. Then there was the blue plaque proclaiming “Gavin Turk Worked Here 1989-91”, which he exhibited as his degree show, and which resulted in his not getting a degree. His pièce de résistance, however, the closest he has come to creating a signature work, was the life-sized model of Sid Vicious singing My Way that he showed in Sensation. Except that it wasn’t Sid Vicious – it was Turk, looking exactly like Sid.
These are the contributions of what I call a blankist: an artist who defines himself by his absences. It’s a stimulating strategy, but a dangerous one. Because, on those occasions when it works best, lots of people won’t even know you’re employing it. For instance, I guarantee that some readers will not be reading this article now, because they glanced at this page, imagined they saw Andy Warhol on it and thought to themselves: oh, no, not another piece about Warhol. Being sneaky and circular is a lousy way to get noticed.
It’s no surprise, then, that Turk seems to have been left behind by the rest of his pack. He’s the same Brit Art vintage as Hirst and Emin, Lucas and the Chapmans, but he doesn’t get talked about nearly as often by nearly as many. Anyway, the consistently stimulating Riflemaker gallery, in a diddy Georgian house in Soho, is the surprising location for a remarkably confusing roomful of Turk’s self-portraits as Warhol, entitled, rather cutely, Me as Him.
The paintings feel like Warhol’s, look like Warhol’s, but aren’t Warhol’s. We’re witnessing another of Turk’s tests of what is real and what isn’t. And this is certainly an investigation of identity. But what else is going on? The key detail is surely the camouflage. First Warhol smeared his identity in it; now Turk has, too. Camouflage was invented to hide things, yet in this instance it seems, perversely, to bring them to your attention. One of Turk’s paintings is lurid blue; another is vivid red. And, with its floor-to-ceiling wooden panelling and topsy-turvy ye olde Georgian spaces, this unlikely venue pours petrol on a sense of disjunction that brought to my mind the advice given to Alice in one of Warhol’s favourite books: “Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
I remember when Warhol first showed the self-portraits on which Turk’s versions are based. They were his last, completed a few months before his death, and their unveiling at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1986 was accompanied by a grotesque private view, at which Warhol was ushered behind a glass table to keep him away from the crowd. But the crowd kept pressing forward, until the table shattered into a thousand pieces. Warhol never moved. He just stood there, letting it happen. It was spooky. The game he was playing was the typical blankist’s game. By pretending he wasn’t there, by not responding, he allowed himself to be defined by everyone else’s responses to him.
In his original self-portraits, the crudely inked camouflage seemed to add a note of sadness to Warhol’s face. It struck me in the same way badly applied lipstick strikes you on an old woman’s face: something that is supposed to hide the decrepitude ends up bringing it to your attention. How old and worn-out Warhol looked in his snazzy dazzle camouflage.
Turk is piping a different tune. His concern is not to define himself by other people’s presence, or to look old and sad, but to comment on the artificial make-up of celebrity. By assuming Warhol’s identity so neatly, right down to the fright wig, he is continuing his investigation into the synthetic nature of fame. What matters here is not Warhol’s sadness but his recognisability. Even behind the camouflage, he’s unmistakable. Except, of course, it isn’t him.
I don’t generally like this type of perceptual game, but with Turk I make an exception. He’s witty, elusive, provocative and valuable. And the largeness of his brain is made vivid when you compare his ambition with that of Mel Ramos, the eminently notorious and utterly questionable pop artist who has also surfaced, most surprisingly, in the West End. In the 1960s, Ramos was pop art’s Mr Pin-up. At exactly the same time that Warhol was cleverly singling out Marilyn and Elvis for pop-art attention, Ramos was crudely mining the same fan-mag sources to bring us sexy nudes entwined around toothpaste tubes and naked B-movie stars draped along giant cigars. It was perhaps the most obvious pop art anyone ever made. Girls and goodies. Full stop.
Where most pop artists were questioning the consumer dream on at least one of their many levels, Ramos only ever had the one level, and no questioning went on on it. So obviously trashy and objectionable was his output that he’s never, to my knowledge, had a show in London before. So there are worthwhile historic reasons for going down to ogle the great ogler. Who says superficiality cannot have heights?