Gavin Turk is infamous for being one of the Brat Pack of Young British Artists. It’s no surprise that his first major solo show in more than a decade is wonderfully anarchic.
The maverick artist’s back catalogue fills Damien Hirst’s splendid, new London art palace hidden away in the back streets of Lambeth.
I love the show’s great title- ‘Who, What, When, Where and How and Why’ It suggests we’re in for a challenging ride – and you won’t be disappointed.
Gavin Turk has been no stranger to controversy over the last 25 years. It’s what I love most about his art. It is consistently challenging and rebellious.
From his iconic self-portraits as Sid Vicious to his musings on advertising, identity and celebrity culture, Turk’s work provides a very modern take on Pop Art.
Take ‘Unoriginal Signature’, a large sculpture, which fills a whole wall of the opening gallery of the show.
From a distance it looks like a vibrant metal streak interspersed with large blobs of blue matter. Move closer and you’ll see that the blue objects are actually made from sponge.
Step back and stand at the right angle and you’ll discover that this is the artist’s signature spelled out in Yves Klein blue. It’s a clever visual trick which uses a phenomenon called anamorphosis.
Anamorphosis is a bit like troupe l’oeil, and requires the viewer to occupy a specific vantage point to grasp the image. It’s easy to miss the meaning of the work if you stroll casually by.
Another of Turk’s playful images, ‘Identity Crisis’, takes the form of a fake Hello! magazine cover featuring the artist and his family “relaxing at home”.
This clever parody of advertising and celebrity culture was ahead of its time when first conceived in 1994 for Charles Saatchi’s Young British Artists show.
Today it’s more relevant than ever as our obsession with celebrity and gossip has mushroomed out of all proportions.
Eggs – the birth of ideas
Turk’s obsession with eggs can be seen in many of his works. Eggs are perfectly shaped forms which represent birth and the genesis of ideas.
‘Dopple Egg’ features two duck eggs on a glass shelf which owes more than a debt to the Surrealists.
Turk channels the 20th Century Belgian artist Rene Magritte in the painting ‘Godot’, a self-portrait in which a large egg replaces his own head.
Nearby in a glass case, ‘Pipe’ purports to be a smoking pipe which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a stick of liquorice. Again, it’s inspired by the Surrealists – a clever joke about what is and what isn’t authentic.
One of Turk’s infamous works is ‘Cave’, an installation which replicates the Blue Heritage plaques which are dotted around London commemorating famous people.
Turk exhibited this witty ceramic tile in his 1991 Royal College of Art degree show where it was presented high on a wall in an empty room. It didn’t go down well with his tutors who rejected his MA qualification. More fool them!
Here it is recreated in a similar empty gallery. If you’re puzzled by the strange title, it comes from Plato’s allegorical story about perception and reality. It’s a thought-provoking piece about an artist’s legacy… with a nod to the places where art is created.
Just when you think that you’re starting to understand Gavin Turk’s work, he throws you another conceptual conundrum.
One large gallery is filled with a series of works which at first glance look like they’re by Jackson Pollock and Robert Morris. I have to admit that I did a double-take when I saw the Pollock lookalikes. They are deadringers for the real thing.
By moving closer or further away, you’ll see that these paintings are actually made up of hundreds of Gavin Turk’s signatures. By presenting them in the style of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, we are forced to think about their identity and authorship.
One of the works has the magnificent title of ‘Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy’. Another is entitled ‘The Nubians of Plutonia’ – and I’m sure Pollock would have seen the joke.
Nothing is ever quite what it seems with Turk, as you’ll discover with his large installation called ‘Robert Morris Untitled’.
This is strangely disconcerting because it looks exactly like the original except that Turk has tarnished the surfaces so they look corroded and tainted. This installation plays with notions of what is real and what is a facsimile.
Pop Art Now
Gavin Turk’s obsession with modern art movements keeps recurring throughout the show. Upstairs there’s a clever play on Pop Art with a pastiche of Andy Warhol’s iconic images of Elvis which are reinvented by Turk as self-portraits.
The twist in the tail is that Turk is depicted as Sid Vicious, the punk idol, who has transmuted into an Elvis style figure.
If this isn’t confusing enough, the background ‘wallpaper’ is another pastiche of Warhol, featuring ruby-red Pop Art lips. It’s an intriguing collision of Contemporary and Pop Art with its screenprints in duplicate and triplicate.
The cliched image becomes strange and mashed up. It’s a room guaranteed to mess with your mind.. and play with your knowledge of art history. The works are fun and clever.
But the best is yet to come…. my favourite gallery is the ‘self portraits room’ which sees Turk firing on all cylinders.
Portrait of the Artist
Self-portraits have been the staple of artists since Rembrandt and the Renaissance painters, but Gavin Turk reinvents the genre with a knowing post-modern twist.
There’s always something else going on with his take on the humble ‘selfie’.
Turk adopts a series of disguises from salty sea sailor and Queen’s Guard to iconic punk icon, Sid Vicious. It’s a bit like Madame Tussauds’ Waxworks with a giant dollop of irony and anarchy.
‘Somebody’s Son’ is a waxwork of Gavin Turk dressed as a Queen’s guard in his sentry box, wearing a huge bearskin and carrying a deadly machine gun. His face peeks out below the giant hat as if to say, “Don’t I look preposterous and absurd?”.
Turk has twisted this consumer-friendly tourist image of this London icon into something perplexing. The figure is a highly trained soldier who exists in a tourist bubble, like a figure on a souvenir postcard.
But the irony is that the guard on duty escapes the horrors of war. He looks like a military waxwork or mannequin. He couldn’t be further from the battle field.
Nearby there’s another puzzling piece featuring the artist, looking dishevelled and uneasy on his feet. It’s called ‘The Last Bum’.
This homeless vagrant comes from the edge of society but it’s hard to know if were supposed to feel compassion or revulsion at this grubby figure.
Not far away there is a scruffy sleeping bag cast aside on the gallery floor. Once again, Turk plays with our attitudes and emotions about homelessness and identity.
It’s a game he’s played before. Turk dressed as the very same tramp at the opening of the notorious Sensation Art Show. His bum becomes a kind of waste product at an art establishment event – a red rag to the art world.
My favourite Turk self-portrait is ‘Self-Portrait (Fountain)’ which features a bronze man, modelled on the artist, who holds a hose pipe above his head.
The pipe dribbles out water and steam at regular intervals, suggesting the heat of creation or perhaps something more sinister?
Clever arty types will recognise that it’s a nod to an Arte Povera work by the artist Alighiero Boetti.
I was particularly perturbed by another work called ‘Ariadne’, a bronze sculpture painted to look like a crude white polystyrene version of the Greek goddess.
This work has definite hints of the Surrealist painter, de Chirico, and classical masterpieces from the world’s famous galleries.
But the materials she’s made from suggest an irreverent 21st Century vision of the goddess. She has a punky feel – more Polystryene from X-Ray Spex than Persephone.
The Art of Rubbish
“We are defined by what we throw away and conversely we are deconstructed by what we choose to display in our hallowed museum halls…” – Gavin Turk.
The finale of the show is the most shocking, a gallery full of rubbish which Turk has disassembled and strewn – artfully – across the gallery floor.
‘Pimp’ is a shiny, highly lacquered black skip which lies empty. Next to it there are assorted piles of trash including a bulging black bin bag which is actually made of painted bronze.
The gallery staff remind each visitor not to tread on the art works. It’s a reasonable request given that many of the smaller pieces in this rubbish-themed room are tiny!
The whole gallery provides a running commentary on consumerism and our attitude to rubbish. The fact that we have to stop and forensically examine the smaller pieces of debris on the ground at close quarters reinforces the artist’s point.
Turk’s skillful manipulation of materials is intriguing. It’s as if Michelangelo had crafted the exquisitely cast bronze rubbish bags, which adds another element of depth to these intriguing installations.
There are discarded rubber tyres, brown cardboard boxes, plastic cups and takeaway food containers… plus piles of black bin bags.
It’s almost like we’re walking through an archaeological dig or fly-tipping site as we discover fragments of our throwaway society.
What is the meaning and value of these dumped objects? We are left to ponder this question as we exit the exhibition.
Who, What and Why?
Turk has spent his career exploring notions of authorship, identity and value.
Many of his works remind us of the avant-garde artists who he’s been influenced by – Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Rene Magritte.
But it is Turk’s own personality and vision that comes through strongly in this show.
He’s a creative whirlwind, using a whole raft of materials from oil on canvas to ready-made objects and sculptures crafted in everything from bronze, wood and glass to polystyrene, steel and stones.
There’s even a selection of waxworks to rival Madam Tussaud’s.
Turk is an iconoclast who isn’t afraid to use playful references to historic art movements and other painters to make his own personal statement.
His self-portrait as an old, bearded sailor comes to life by animatronic magic to swagger forth and laugh at us. It’s an amusement arcade character come to life.
The strange sailor is a vagrant of the high seas trapped in a glass case.
The artist’s silkscreen portraits of himself as the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious also suggest rebellion and anarchy.
Surrounded by the Sid Vicious works, I couldn’t help but think of the punk icon singing “My Way” in his crazy cover of Frank Sinatra’s classic song.
Like Sid Vicious, Gavin Turk always does things ‘his way’, cocking a snoop to the establishment. It’s what I love about his art.
One of the star installations is ‘En Plein Air’ which features an empty Perrier bottle rotating endlessly on a table top. Round and round it goes in perpetual motion…
Turk’s works deal with authorship, authenticity and identity.
His installations and sculptures often focus on the anti-hero, the recycling of art history, waste and refuse… and these themes are seen in abundance in this show.
Is Turk a clever trickster? Well, yes he is, but there is always something deeper. Something absurd, something wonderfully clever and playful.
Turk’s art might sound pretentious but, in reality, his art is highly accessible – and very witty. The excellent exhibition brochure will also guide you through the deeper meaning of his work.
This is one hell of a show that is well worth the trip to deepest Lambeth in one of London’s more interesting neighbourhoods. Don’t miss the chaos!
Tammy’s Guide – Newport Street Gallery – London
The Gavin Turk Show – Who, What, When, Where, How and Why – is at London’s Newport Street Gallery until 19 March 2017. It’s open daily 10:00-18:00 except Mondays. Admission is free.
Don’t miss the great gallery shop along Newport Street which has some fabulous prints and books featuring the work of Gavin Turk and Damien Hirst.
Newport Street Gallery is the realisation of Hirst’s long-term ambition to share his collection of contemporary art with the public. The gallery is a great building and art work in its own right. It was recently shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize architecture awards.
The nearest Tube stations to the Newport Street Gallery are Lambeth North and Vauxhall. Buses stop on nearby Kennington Road from Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus.