The Pitfalls of Safe Choice

The shortlist for the 2011 Turner Prize has been announced, and one is left with a vague feeling of expectations dashed – or rather, dulled into indifference, which is considerably more alarming. Sculptor Martin Boyce, video artist Hilary Lloyd, painter George Shaw and installation artist Karla Black will be considered for the £25,000 prize at Baltic, Gateshead. While moving away from its usual London-centric location has many nodding appreciatively on the broadening of British art, the entries unfortunately seem to have left behind any vibrancy, innovation or aesthetics at the capital too.

Looking at the selection, there is little respite for the eye; we move from George Shaw’s bleak and unremarkable enamel paintings of the concrete sheds of his childhood Coventry council estate to Hilary Lloyd’s projection screens flashing gritty half-shots of cranes, futilely searching for something that grabs us. Indeed, in Lloyd’s creations, set up in a clinical environment with all their wires and screens, the only artistry seems to be more or less that which might go into decorating a technologically forward, minimalist apartment. Shaw’s pieces, on the other hand, do evidently demand artistic skill; whether the subject matter is, kindly put, “refreshingly honest”, or a mild fascination with dilapidated tarmac, is less evident.

Although Martin Boyce’s ‘A Library of Leaves’ has a harsh, masculine aesthetic to it, it is neither striking nor unlike anything the world of contemporary sculpture hasn’t seen before. Among such competition, it comes as little surprise that Karla Black’s suspended paper and plastic installations are a favourite to win this year. At best, they form a pale, ethereal presence of interesting organic materials – but are we expected to be blown away by the so-called “vulnerable beauty” of her precariously-perched plastic bag? It is not the highly concept- rather than skill-based nature of these entries that undermine them, but their failure to evoke any kind of strong response. “Humble” or “grounded” art is all well and good – yet surely, when it comes to the pioneers of any field of work, a mixture of risk-taking and skillful originality are the qualities one would rather find (and fund)?

One would be hard-pressed to harness humility into a driving creative force

Humility and passivity in an artwork are completely valid intentions; but one would be hard-pressed to harness them into a driving creative force that cuts a new path for contemporary British art to follow. Prizes like the Turner have started to get increasingly repetitive in their choices. Many unremarkable, unintelligible and unenduring pieces like this year’s ones obscure their lack of verve behind simplistic concepts cloaked in a feigned significance.

There is much art out there of a similarly conceptual nature which nonetheless has immediate force and novelty, without all that mystification to compensate for their technical simplicity. American installation artist Anthony McCall, for instance, sculpts with light by projecting it onto the floor, creating simple but visually haunting conical ‘tents’ of light one can walk through. Earlier this year, Brazilian filmmakers Hélio Oiticica and Neville D’Almeida unveiled a psychedelically lit swimming pool as part of a literally immersive series of works. There is nothing about these innovative pieces that contemporary British art cannot match; perhaps prize-giving bodies would do well to step out of their own comfort zones before trying to make any value judgments.

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