A turn for the better

If George Shaw does not win this year’s Turner Prize, an opportunity will be squandered – to put the award, long mocked as trite and irrelevant, back on the serious visual arts map. A stimulating Turner Prize exhibition opened this week at Baltic, Gateshead – the first time the show has been held outside a Tate venue. Thoughtful installations, an intelligently developed theme, smart catalogue essays, are a breath of fresh air after the mediocrity marking the prize in the past decade.

Best of all, the shortlist includes in Shaw an artist who has something to say, says it sparsely in the most appropriate medium, speaks in an original, democratic language to a potentially wide audience, and makes work resonant with Britain now. The only other such artists on recent Turner shortlists have been Grayson Perry in 2003 and Mark Wallinger in 2007.

On the face of it, Shaw, nominated for a spring show at Baltic, looks more conservative than these – a representational painter of modestly scaled, unpeopled, derelict landscapes such as the closed pub circled by barriers and litter in “The Age of Bull-shit”. Invariably, these depict the environs of Tile Hill, the housing estate on the edge of Coventry where Shaw, born in 1966, grew up.

But Tile Hill is timeless – a dystopian anyplace and therefore, with its blackened burnt copse (“The Devil Made Me Do It”), boarded shacks (“Shut Up”) and rubbish tips (“The Same Old Crap”) – all works created in the past few months – a compelling psychogeographical evocation of this summer’s UK riots. Although Shaw’s meditation on memory and time is individual, the personal here meets the political.

Derived from photographs but with disconcerting erasures and alterations – odd angles, an eerie emptiness, frozen skies – the eight paintings here are accomplished, wry, ambivalent. The russet leaves and fading light in “Landscape with Dog Shit Bin”, owned by Damien Hirst, and the lattice of bare trees looming over the garages in “The Resurface” are almost lyrical. But, as in all Shaw’s work, they bear the deadpan, downbeat sheen of thinly applied Humbrol enamel. The paint used by amateur modelmakers, this suggests lonely Airfix teenage hours, fixing Shaw as chronicler of solitary adolescent mental landscapes.

Service Brown and American Olive Drab are typical colours – Shaw calls them “humble paints” for “bits of radiator that you’ve missed”, whereas oil paint is for “flesh and life and death and skulls and Jesus”. Nevertheless, a receding wasteland behind a locked gate is called “The Assumption”. The catalogue mentions Philip Larkin, TS Eliot; I recalled the malfunctioning suburbia of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – although Shaw sits comfortably too in a lineage from Stanley Spencer to David Hockney.

Martin Boyce’s ‘Do Words Have Voices’ (2011)

Contemporary reinvention of landscape is a recurring theme this year. Shaw’s modern decay is marvellously echoed in the poetic installation by Martin Boyce, born in 1967 and nominated for a Zurich exhibition that in turn built on his 2009 Venice Biennale show (he represented Scotland), an elegiac recreation in the Palazzo Pisani of a ruined garden composed of fragmented sculptural pastiches.

As a sculptor/archaeologist of modernism, Boyce is obsessed with a single work – the cubist, concrete, stripped-down trees designed by Joël and Jan Martel in Paris in 1925. Aspects of these trees appear everywhere in his oeuvre, building tensions between nature and architecture. His room in Gateshead is beautiful and witty: taking Baltic’s towering white columns as a focus, he subtly illuminates them from a ceiling installation of geometric leaf-shaped white forms called “Beyond the Repetition of High Windows, Intersecting Flight Paths and Opinions (A Silent Storm is Painted on the Air)”, while casting the rest of the room in shadow.

Angular, paraffin-coated crepe leaves resembling fragile paper planes coat the floor, suggesting a man-made forest. A jesmonite and steel word painting against a silvery ground, spilling jagged letters to spell out “Petrified Songs” adds a melancholy, fairy-tale note, while a sharp-edged fluorescent-lit steel table, “Do Words Have Voices”, modelled on one by Jean Prouvé, is flagrantly, deliberately incongruous – challenging our suspension of disbelief in Boyce’s twilit wood.

If Shaw is not quite the straightforward realist he seems, Boyce is a romantic in modernist clothing. Hilary Lloyd, too, is a shape-shifter. A film-maker with a pre-dominantly sculptural sensibility and architectural interests, she creates multimedia installations drawing attention to the object-like nature of the projectors, monitors, DVD players, screens, that are tools of her trade, and which she positions to obstruct engagement with her moving images other than as highly artificial constructs.

Lloyd, born 1964 and nominated for a solo show at Raven Row, has the tail-chasing dryness of thought that makes excruciatingly dull art. At Baltic, steel poles suspended from the ceiling or supporting screens at disconcertingly different heights divide her room and create a hard, macho aesthetic for an installation in broad daylight of four monochrome, seemingly never-ending films: “Moon”, a collage of changing discs in square boxes, “Tower Block”, depicting shards of a building, and “Shirt” and “Floor”, which linger on the surfaces of prosaic objects to the point of abstraction. This gallery has giant panoramic windows overlooking the river Tyne, before whose life and bustle Lloyd’s retro minimalist austerity pales into insignificance.

I would love to like the work of the youngest contestant, 38-year-old Karla Black, more than I do. “Doesn’t Care in Words” is an immersive sculptural landscape in pastel colours, referencing hills and caverns, dotted with the hanging cellophane bows and crinkled, twisting painted parcels for which Black has become beloved, and smelling like a cosmetics store because her materials include bath bombs, Vaseline, moisturising cream and spray deodorant as well as paint, sugar paper and chalk. A flimsy polythene and thread curtain coated in powder paint, “More of the Day”, completes the installation, which is abundant, chaotic, joyful, sensuous and quite vacuous. Form and formlessness, materiality and transience, parodies of or homages to painting versus sculpture, quaint pink girliness set against abstract expressionist slathering of paint – the ideas are there but the work is too light and easy to uphold them.

Black, a distinctive presence at Frieze last week and in the British Art Show, represents Scotland at this year’s Venice Biennale – Tate bought a large work – and is the flavour of 2011. She is the antithesis of the other shortlisted artists’ sobriety, but like them she plays out the collapsed media hierarchies of the early 21st century with a flair unburdened by the weight of the history she references.

This is a spirited, lively show where new art feels new: the Turner Prize in its regional manifestation (it goes to Belfast in 2013) looks set to survive another decade.

Turner Prize, Baltic, Gateshead, UK to January 8. www.balticmill.com

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