It’s been 25 years since ‘Sensation’, the 1997 landmark Royal Academy show in London that rattled the very fabric of art as we knew it. Everything was controversial, everything stirred the senses, and nothing, in British art at least, has been the same since.
One artist in the nucleus of this melting pot was Gavin Turk, a key protagonist of the YBAs (Young British Artists). Turk’s subversive visual identity has long been defined by ‘quoting’ ingredients from other artists or sources and fusing them with his own. The resulting recipe is a provocative blend that questions core notions of authorship and value. ‘My art is always other people's art,’ he says. ‘But I'd also say that the inevitability of contemporary art is that it's always a self-portrait as well.’
Among his most recognisable hits are Pop (1993), a waxwork figure of Turk as Sid Vicious posing as Andy Warhol's Elvis Presley, which appeared as one of the headline works in ‘Sensation’; Pile (2004), a hyperreal ensemble of bronze-cast bin bags; and more recently, a curious homage to Piero Manzoni in Artist’s Piss (2021), a series of aluminium cans filled with, well, the title covers that.
On the face of it, ‘Kerze’, at London’s Ben Brown Fine Arts, seems devoid of the electric-shock factor for which Turk is known. ‘Normally my works are humorous’, he says, walking me around the exhibition in November. ‘I had an idea that there might be some humour in the unexpectedness of this as a show by me. It makes you laugh because it's a bit off-key.’ In that sense, it is very Turk indeed; but we must look harder, and deeper. He is, after all, an artist for which we’re conditioned to expect the unexpected.
Turk has transformed the gallery into something akin to a chapel. Eleven canvases of meticulously painted candles (some solitary, some paired or in threes) are set against eerie, hazily-lit modernist backgrounds. Focus on one painting, and another in your peripheral vision appears to billow in the gallery’s slow wind.
The London art exhibition is something of a quote within a quote. Turk first came across Kerze (Candle), a 1983 painting by Gerhard Richter, on the cover of Sonic Youth’s 1988 album, Daydream Nation. And it’s been lodged in his subconscious ever since. ‘I think I was a bit of a daydreamer, and that's probably why I ended up being an artist,’ Turk reflects. ‘At the time, there was still energy between the image and the music. It was still significant to be able to have the music and a picture to look at.’
‘I conceived of them quite conceptually, like a sculpture,' he says ‘It’s about paring it down and really going for the minimal thing and just seeing how that feels or how it works.’
There is one obvious distinction between the two artists’ take on ‘Kerze’: Richter’s candle is lit, Turk’s are extinguished. While Turk describes Richter’s work as having ‘the energy of now’, his own paintings suggest the immediate aftermath of human presence, as the candle breathing the death rattle of its combustion.
A candle, in the 21st century, is a relatively superfluous addition to daily life, symbolising occasion, sacredness, mourning and celebration. Turk’s paintings seem to dwell on the afterthought, each with a lingering question mark.
Turk has often mined from the toolbox of Surrealism, his work featuring eggs, pipes, doors, windows, candles, and smoke. ‘I keep talking about [the candles] as metaphysical symbols. ‘They appear and reappear in Surrealism. They're almost like a clock, then they disappear into the air like a ghost,’ he says. Surrealism yes, but also antiquity; the extinguished candle, after all, is a well-oiled memento mori.
Gavin Turk’s ‘Kerze’ is a show of many sensations. There’s a lure of familiarity, dashed by a simple yet fundamental intervention; melancholy and nostalgia for moments just passed; a daydream floats above a hyperreality, and a puff of subtle, but characteristically subversive humour.
Gavin Turk, ‘Kerze’, until 14 January 2023, Ben Brown FIne Arts, London. benbrownfinearts.com (opens in new tab)
Harriet Lloyd-Smith is the Arts Editor of Wallpaper*, responsible for the art pages across digital and print, including profiles, exhibition reviews, and contemporary art collaborations. She started at Wallpaper* in 2017 and has written for leading contemporary art publications, auction houses and arts charities, and lectured on review writing and art journalism. When she’s not writing about art, she’s making her own.
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