Gavin Turk: Who What When Where How & Why

Art Free
4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s hard to see beyond the shtick. Gavin Turk’s shtick especially. He’s the guy whose degree show was just a blue plaque with his name on it (he failed), the guy who thinks rubbish bags are art, the guy who reckons his signature is a masterpiece in itself, the guy who put himself on the cover of ‘Hello!’ magazine. But all those headlines obscure the truth that beyond the shtick, schlock and schmaltz, Turk is a quiet, clever, passionate and maybe even – whisper it – important artist. 

Fellow YBA and shtick master Damien Hirst has been collecting Turk’s work for years, and this mini-retrospective is pulled entirely from his own collection and shown in his natty Vauxhall gallery space. 

The show opens with Turk’s signature. It’s carved into thick card, laid out as a blueprint for a country garden, and scrawled across the wall. It’s even splattered across a whole room of canvasses as he does a little turn as Jackson Pollock. 

Then he’s plonked himself on the cover of ‘Hello!’. Never mind that it’s handmade, out of focus and that he’d done naff all to warrant a magazine cover at this point in his career – Turk was myth-building.

The massive central space in the gallery is given to ‘Cave’, the notorious blue plaque. It’s a bold, obscene, ridiculous, funny waste of space that totally undermines what a gallery’s meant to be used for.

Upstairs, Turk casts himself as Sid Vicious in Warhol-esque paintings, or as statues of sailors, tramps and horseguards. There’s a huge black skip surrounded by Styrofoam cups, chip forks, full bags of rubbish, grotty abandoned sleeping bags – except they aren’t trash, they’re carefully painted bronze. 

But Turk doesn’t come across as cynical, he doesn’t seem like he’s trying to mock or undermine the ideas he’s exploring; he’s just genuinely and honestly trying to understand them. He’s asking what makes art valuable; what differentiates good from bad; what makes someone deserving of a blue plaque; why someone might be willing to pay millions for a Warhol. The whole show is a question mark. It’s Turk saying ‘if him, why not me?’. He’s asking why a rubbish bag is rubbish, but a rubbish bag in a gallery is conceptual art. That’s the same question we all want to ask.

The value in Turk’s art doesn’t come from its aesthetic or sculptural beauty, it comes from questioning what and why that beauty is. Turk makes work with heart, honesty and openness, even when it’s a bronze bin bag or a massive skip. Modern art can be rubbish, but sometimes that rubbish is great.


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