Art Special: Cause for thought

    According to a few early mutterings, the 2010 Turner Prize is not revolutionary enough. The critic for the London Evening Standard is of the opinion that “none of the artists are [sic] doing anything particularly surprising or fresh”, as a result of which he is “not sure the prize is performing its proper function”. Oh, dear. When even art critics start assuming that the Turner’s task is to confront us with artistic novelties, we really are in cultural doo-doo. How sad, and perhaps even tragic, that the hunger for gimmickry and shock that has characterised the media’s responses to the Turner has successfully perverted the tastes and hopes of those who should know better.

    Expecting the Turner to be revolutionary every time, to shock the Calvins off us year in, year out, is a recipe for rubbish and not for true cultural achievement. Those of you who are not accident-chasers can actually rejoice in the fact that the 2010 Turner has an air of maturity about it: that it contains quiet art of great poetic beauty; that everyone here, even the dreaded film collective, knows what they are doing; that we are admiring Scholes and Giggs, rather than Walcott and Lennon.

    The best, not the worst, thing about the 2010 Turner prize is that nobody here is playing that awful game of look-at-me-I’m-shocking. The display begins in a thoughtful vein with the paintings of Dexter Dalwood, who has been around the block a few times, and whose art I first encountered at the old Saatchi Gallery in the 1990s. In those days, Dalwood was not as fluent or profound a painter as he is today. Full marks to the Turner for spotting a meaningful step up in quality.

    Dalwood is a fantasist. His default picture will show an ambiguous and mysterious interior, to which he has added a resonant title plucked out of contemporary history or off the top shelf of modern pop culture. In the past, he has imagined for us The Room in Which Sharon Tate Was Murdered. My favourite imaginary location of his was The Laboratoire Garnier. Haven’t you always wanted to know what that looked like?

    None of Dalwood’s painted spaces is based on reality. None has been researched or googled. All are entirely creations of the artist’s imagination. Thus, in this display, a lonely tree silhouetted against a throbbing moon on a blue and twilit night is entitled Death of David Kelly, while a field filled with whirling pop abstractions is identified as Greenham Common.

    When you first encounter these insidiously clever paintings, you assume you are flicking through a copy of Interiors, but actually you are reading The New Statesman. Underlying Dalwood’s choices is an Orwellian morality that accuses the modern world of trashiness, corruption and the selling of snake oils. Recent pictures see him tackling weightier literary subjects: Herman Melville, Burroughs in Tangier. The resulting “literary” interiors are pictorial evocations of great authorial minds, embodied in the imaginary space Dalwood has created for them. You are where you live, as it were.

    Next up is one of those typically glum and portentous video installations that the Turner regularly celebrates and the rest of us regularly avoid. The Otolith Group was founded in 2001, so it too has plenty of past. For this year’s shortlist, the partnership has, alas, created a large installation bringing together “different aspects of its practice”. There’s a film based on an unrealised screenplay by Satyajit Ray, about an Indian boy who meets an alien in Bengal (can’t imagine why that idea was never realised). And a nocturnal reworking on 13 television screens of a 13-part television series about the philosophical mindset of the ancient Greeks. Ouch.

    Few of life’s creative endeavours are quite as soul-crushingly tedious as an afternoon of shuddery cinematic waffling created by a gang of pretentious film-makers determined to make you sit in the dark for hours. Bad video art is never concise. Never happy. Never unpretentious or nimble. And it always goes on too long. The Otolith Group are guilty of all the above and extra-guilty of possibly the worst crime an artist can commit: confusing piety with seriousness.

    So that’s this year’s dud. From here on, the offerings get better and better. Angela de la Cruz is a refined and delightful artist whose work manages to be simultaneously minimalist and full of poetic resonances. Stepping into her calm, cool, light-filled Laboratoire Garnier of a space, having survived the cinematic waterboarding of the Otolith Group, is like stepping out of Vauxhall Tube into a cool spring morning in Switzerland. Phew.

    De la Cruz is not quite a painter and not quite a sculptor but, instead, an intriguing hybrid of the two. The most immediately striking of the mysterious coloured shapes she creates, and either sticks to the walls or spreads across the floor, is a large yellow wall hanging with something of the crucifixion about it. It began life as a conventional yellow canvas, painted in the strict minimalist manner of Joseph Albers, with a dark yellow square on a brighter yellow background. The yellow canvas then had its stretcher taken out, so that the whole painting slumped forward and down, as a human figure might on a cross. Thus, minimal abstraction is touting for tenderness — has that ever happened before? Although de la Cruz’s display is immediately impressive as a cool and refined experience, what lifts it out of the pack is the hefty enlargement of meaning and mood that you get when abstraction begins behaving in such poignant human ways.

    I was not expecting much from Susan Phillipsz, because the description of her work — an empty room filled only with the sound of the artist singing Scottish folk songs — did not bode well. You may remember that one of the worst-ever Turner offerings, by Martin Creed in 2001, consisted of an empty room in which the light bulb went on and off.

    Happily, Phillipsz is no Creed. Her singing turns out to be tuneful and atmospheric, and her arrangement for three voices of a particularly haunting Scottish ballad, coming at you from three angles at once, successfully floods the empty gallery with a tangible and sizeable sense of loss. Phillipsz or De La Cruz to win.

    You may have noticed — I hope you noticed! — that the gremlins attacked my Gauguin review last week and changed one of its key sentences. When the piece left my typewriter, it insisted that Gauguin “was motivated by the urge to create myths and not, as with most of his great impressionist contemporaries, by the need to paint things as they were”.

    However, the gremlins disagreed and changed it round so that their Gauguin was now “motivated not by the urge to create myths, as with most of his great impressionist contemporaries, but by the need to paint things as they were”. Which is the opposite view to mine. The gremlins are wrong.