The film-maker and the installation artist, the sculptor and the painter. Two boys, two girls. Two lurid, loud galleries, bursting with cleverly orchestrated way-we-live-now panoramas; two gracefully laid out rooms of serious, well-crafted work, intelligently aware of past and present. The good news is that the 2006 Turner Prize exhibition is the strongest in years: diverse, visually compelling, well-curated, reflecting British art and society today. No emperor’s new clothes: all the artists have made, felt and thought their work, and have something to say.
The bad news is that two of the four are also contemporary clichés whose art is classic Tate territory: one-idea, one-dimensional work that is briefly arresting and quickly looks banal.
As far as the show goes, this doesn’t matter, because the Turner is all about spectacle and exhilarating chaos, the variety and contrasts that open minds and urge debate. But in terms of Tate’s manufacturing of reputations and push towards conceptualism at any cost, it does matter: the gap between the original artists here – and one is truly thrilling – and the others highlights how easy Tate finds it annually to substitute provocation for brilliance.
The biggest gulf between grand appearance and empty content is in the first room, where Mark Titchner’s dizzying kinetic sculpture spins alongside a gaudy, computer-designed poster and a set of wooden mock-machines and tree-like contraptions inscribed with socialist slogans such as “Pioneers! Out of darkness into light!”. It’s stylish, striking, absurdist and quite vacuous.
Apart from his nod at the digital age, Titchner’s tricks of perception are familiar. The whirling black-and-white discs of “Ergo Ergot” recall Marcel Duchamp’s rotoreliefs; the title conflates philosophy and pop, Descartes (cogito, ergo sum) with ergot, a hallucinogenic mushroom. Predicated on the joke that if viewers believe his institutional-looking billboard proclamation (“Tiny Masters of the World Come Out”), their faith will make the machines work, “How To Change Behaviour” parodies technological and socialist progress. The mismatch between slogans and form recalls Grayson Perry, and the grandiose scale makes the game sillier if more cheerful.
The film-maker Phil Collins occupies the same populist, affirmative, interactive ground and, like Titchner’s, his pair of installations – an eight-hour video called “The return of the real”, and a staffed, working company office called “Shady Lane Productions” turn both on the Turner’s fairground ritual and on differences between reality and perception, at a time when life and art look increasingly inseparable.
At stake here is reality television, exemplified by the extravert victims who tell their tragic stories on screen to a gawping audience of millions. Are their lives further ruined in the pro-cess? Do we care? “The return of the real” plays out with extreme tedium such scenarios as enacted in Turkey – Collins’ piece was commissioned for last year’s Istanbul Biennial, but here the Turkish setting enhances our sense of false intimacy with distant people. Next door to the showing, “Shady Lane Productions” invites regretful participants of reality television to contact them on site at their office, thus absurdly re-enacting Warhol’s famous-for-15-minutes scenario all over again.
If Titchner offers – literally – spin rather than content, Collins is still more the quintessential Blairite artist: worthy, upbeat, sometimes sentimental; expensive to run but democratically accessible; endlessly travelling to trouble spots – earlier films included dance marathons in Palestine and Bogotá – but coming home unaltered; inevitably in collusion with the culture he appears to critique. Now is a good time to show both, but to make either one a winner would be a gesture of faithlessness in art’s independence and ability to stand against the current.
The bookies’ favourite, Tomma Abts, a German painter of quiet, finely calibrated abstract canvases in Identikit small formats, by contrast borrows nothing from consumer sources and goes utterly against the contemporary grain. Yet she is a very 21st-century artist. Layering, masking, burying, over-painting, she builds up acrylic and oil paint into a highly wrought picture plane where space seems to unfold and be held back simultaneously. Her diagonals, rhomboids, circles, incongruous perspectives and occasional floating forms do not quite make geometric or biomorphic abstractions – or chromatic fantasies, for Abt’s palette of sickly greens, dull browns, muted oranges and yellows is as desolate and queasy as any in German art of the past half-century. Her room of 11 paintings has an eerie, silent quality that oddly recalls the German narrative tradition – the menace of Grimms’ tales as much as Joseph Beuys.
Abts’ ambivalence is to suggest this while proclaiming psychological anonymity, rebutting in paint as defiantly as Titchner or Collins the modernist, elitist assumption of creativity as exteriorisation of personality. Her titles – “Zaarke”, “Epko”, Heeso” – are taken randomly from a dictionary of first names, and assert, too, alienation, endgame, meaninglessness. Abts is talented, but stay with her long and the effect is numbing; these paintings from 2000 indicate that, although she works slowly – just two canvases date from this year – she risks both dullness in repetition and being strangled by formal considerations.
That leaves Rebecca Warren, fabulously inventive sculptor of the female body and the only artist here who is triumphantly in control of form while never letting it stand in the way of an exuberant, sensuous materiality. Warren is known for her comical, roughly sculpted, unfired clay figures, mostly of sexy women, which subvert the (male) sculptural tradition, referencing Degas, Boccioni and slapstick comedy. “Loulou”, a mass of body parts – flailing limbs, buttocks, nipples – in reinforced clay and acrylic paint, and two works called “The Garden of my Spouse”, bulbous clumps on the scale of portrait busts from which burst flower-like ear, breast, snout, phallus, are superb examples made this year.
But a greater excitement is a series of tall, bumpy, elongated and wildly distorted figures, bashed, misshapen, recast and sometimes painted in patches, the scratchy colour giving a new lustre even as the paint undercuts our smooth, classical expectation of the material. They deliberately recall the fragility and nervous elegance of Giacometti while referencing visual sources high and low – from the depiction of the female body in advertising and women’s magazines to the crisis of figurative art.
I think gender is an issue here. Warren is not a purely feminist artist – she is much too subtle and interesting for that – but, like the British painter Cecily Brown, who also depicts sexy women in images drawn from pornography, popular culture and art history, she is liberated by her sex to reference, with a twist, white male artists from high modernism, such as Picasso and de Kooning, who still have resonance but from whom many male artists shy away. With this historical conviction behind her, Warren brilliantly combines formal virtuosity with cartoon fantasies, something of the aggression and humour of Sarah Lucas, a grotesquerie going back to expressionism, and a pitch-perfect sensitivity to the issues of flesh, fat and femininity. As with any good artist, her roots in the past are visible – but her moment is now, and she should win the 2006 prize.
Turner Prize, Tate Britain, London SW1, to January 14, tel +44 020 7887 8000. Sponsored by Gordon’s gin