Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art
North East England

2011 was a big year for the Turner Prize. For the first time ever, the exhibition was held outside of a Tate gallery and traveled north to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. The Turner Prize, as we all know, is a prestigious award and is recognized for undoubtably playing a significant role in provoking debate and discussion about visual art, in particular that of British contemporary art, by elevating and celebrating cutting edge work.

The shortlisted artists in 2011 were George Shaw, Karla Black, Hilary Lloyd and Martin Boyce, a painter, a sculptor, video artist and installation artist. Baltic’s chief curator Laurence Sillars praised the shortlisted artists as “thinkers, makers and doers”, who, while covering a broad range of artistic genres, “share an attention to detail that is really important to them”. In viewing this amalgamation of work back in November 2011, what I could not escape was the overriding question of who to reject as a potential and deserved winner. This year was difficult, some work is intelligent, some ephemeral, others some may argue, already out of date.

The highlight of the show for me was Martin Boyce’s contemplative, modernist-inspired environments, however with a variety of outstanding exhibitions across the globe in the preceding twelve months to the shortlisting, I had a sneaky feeling Karla Black’s innovation of sculpture had it in the bag.

On 5th December 2011, Martin Boyce was announced as the winner of the £25,000 prize. Boyce, 44, is the third Turner-Prize winner in succession either from, or educated in Glasgow, a fact that confirms the now indelible importance of the city to Britain’s art world, and of course also on the shortlist was another Glasgow School of Art graduate, sculptor Karla Black. Despite Boyce’s victory all the work presented in the Baltic were deserved winners.

George Shaw’s sombre, and it must be said, slightly depressing paintings hold a similar nostalgia to Boyce’s work. His paintings depict the landscapes and cityscapes of his childhood, mainly the council estate on the outskirts of Coventry where he grew up. The grungy settings are the opposite of picturesque. Everything appears dull, unloved, unexciting, boarded up, derelict and it is surely, some may say, a true critique of England that people do not see, ignore or easily forget about. These scenes are painted with humbrol enamel – the paint which children use to paint their airfix planes supplying an irony of shine and gloss to the image. Despite the overwhelming grey mood, Shaw utilises his undoubtedly enormous technical ability to record the mundane, the ultra-realist and make it somewhat beautiful.

Karla Black’s work which involves cosmetics, nail varnish, eyeshadow and bath bombs are deployed on a large scale in installations that look more sculptural than painterly. Having seen Black’s work three times now over the past two years – once at the Saatchi Gallery in London, representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale and here at the Baltic, I find it difficult to say why she is such a great artist and why her work is in galleries all over the world, saying this however her work is oddly cutting edge. The Turner installation space works with colour and texture and cheap domestic materials and objects. Here, as at the Venice Biennale, Black sets up a sense of the familiar unknown. What I find interesting is the works ephemeral nature, it is ever changing, constantly decaying. The space is filled with a sculptural construction of creased paper, cellophane, pastel soap, face powder, chalk, bath bombs and cello-tape. These things are gentle and fragile and disperse that smell of cleanliness, like bath bombs do. What Black makes of them is monumental, unusual, delicate but they definitely are dominant in that space. The construction of work, pastel colours, everyday materials transform into sculpture like I have never seen before. Her work may have integrity, an innovative nature, a cutting edge appeal and a knowledge of material but the materiality restrains a particular sleek aesthetic in which Boyce’s work succeeds.

Hilary Lloyd’s video works draw attention to unnoticed details of everyday life. Her non-edited, repetitive films have a collage like aesthetic and are often split into many sections like a video puzzle. The monitors and projectors used to display the work are hung from ceilings or embedded into the floor defining a sculptural space within themselves. The work offers movement, composition and the idea of the viewer being challenged by our typical viewing conventions. Then the realization, the clarity of the everyday image we all experience intersubjectively with, the moon, clothes, the body and even tower blocks are depicted in her videos. Her work forces us to realize the physical act of looking, and though is familiar and aesthetically well installed there is sadly something missing for me.

At last, the winner Martin Boyce. Like Lloyd’s, Boyce’s installation is both in the room and of it. His work explores design, architecture, memory, language and décor. When entering the space we see a suspended grid of geometric ceiling made up of white shapes, firstly thought made of paper but then noted made of steel. Scattered were what looked like hand cut, shaped leaves on the floor made from crepe paper gathered and dispersed in corners around the gallery space. Noticed were also ventilation grills in which shapes and décor from 1920′s modernist sculpture became apparent, a steel litter bin which has a slightly distorted shape, and a large wooden school table in which these geometric shapes have been carved. The relationships here between inside and outside and functional and decorative become paramount. Martin Boyce’s work shows intelligence, creates an atmospheric environment and as he describes it a ‘peculiar landscape’, it is utopian modernism with a twist. So should Martin Boyce have won? I think so.