Ah, Gavin Turk… A member of the era-defining YBAs whose work, at times, could so easily pass for rubbish that you have to check with the gallery assistants whether that crumpled beer can by your foot is part of the exhibits.
And yes, it is.
And now Gavin Turk has his first major UK exhibition for fifteen years, courtesy of his fellow YBA, Damien Hirst, who – it turns out – acquired a large number of Turk’s works over the years. Hirst uses his Newport Street Gallery (which recently won the RIBA Stirling Prize btw) to put on shows from his vast private collection, so here, in this new exhibition titled, Who What When Where How and Why, we get to see over seventy artworks from across span Turk’s career.
Your first take could easily be, Christ, this guy is arrogant. The first gallery alone sees Turk’s own signature marked up on the walls in metre-high stencilling, finished off with blotches of Yves Klein blue. And on the wall opposite, a large A1 sheet of paper which is simply his signature elegantly written smack bang in the middle of the page.
And so on to the next gallery. Its vast white walls utterly bare and then you spot it, up above you, Turk’s notorious mocked-up commemorative blue plaque – you know, the ones they put on sides of houses where long-dead authors or philosophers used to live. Only this plaque is in Turk’s own name.
This piece was, famously, Turk’s own and only submission to his 1991 graduation show from the Royal College of Art. He exhibited the plaque, much like here, in an otherwise empty studio. And his tutors promptly flunked him.
But this is not what it seems – Turk isn’t fanning the flames of his own ego here. (well, he might be – he is an artist after all). No, instead Turk’s work explores identity and value – why do we put so much value on the work of prized artists? What is it that creates that value? Where does that value come from – who decides it? Is it group think? Is it something intrinsic? And therefore what is it that turns a nobody artist into somebody?
And that split, that division, between the haves and have-nots – in society and in artistic terms – are themes that Turk returns to again and again.
Turk immerses himself into the works of Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. He recreates (remarkably well) the instantly familiar drip-drip paintings of the former – complete with recreated Gavin Turk-versions of the famous black and white shots of Pollock at work.
And then with Warhol, the Gallery injects a shot of vivid colour into the exhibition with a gallery whose walls are covered in lurid yellow with a pattern of iconic red lips repeated ad infinitum, until the desirable almost becomes bland. And Turk takes Warhol’s famous silkscreen images of Elvis, only using himself dressed up as Elvis instead, and mimicking Warhol’s touch, repeats this commodification of an image across all the canvases – but now does he turn a nobody into a somebody?
And this – well, is it homage, is it mimicry? – but it’s set off against the next few galleries where dirty sleeping bags, empty polystyrene fish and chips boxes, and rubbish bags lie scattered across the floors. Signs of our own lives – probably the only signs of our existence. We aren’t celebrities, we aren’t Elvis or iconic artists with our own photo shoots in LIFE magazine. Has Turk taken the token discarded items of our lives and made them worthy of attention to?
There are a couple of pieces in this show that do not necessarily hit the high points – I wasn’t crazy about Ariadne, for example, a large bronze that reimagines the classical female nude – but this show asks lots of great questions.
Newport Street Gallery, London, to March 19, 2017
Lead image: Pop by Gavin Turk © Gavin Turk
All installation images by me.