The Gavin Turk retrospective at Newport Street Gallery asks all the fundamental questions about modern art. Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? They are all covered in the show’s title, however, I personally don’t think that either Turk or his audience has found the answers just yet.
Turk’s oeuvre is an explorative one. References to some of the world’s most well known modern artists are overflowing within the artists work. Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Rene Magritte, the list goes on. While it is argued that by citing these artists Turk investigates just what made their work so groundbreaking, to me, on first impressions at least, it seems like he has been copying them. In one gallery, Turk has adorned the walls in repeated silkscreen prints in bright colours reminiscent of Warhol. Instead of Marilyn Monroe’s lips, he has used his own, curled up in a Sid Vicious snarl. Turk has even mimicked Warhol’s car crash images and pasted them on top of his screen print wallpaper.
The Sid Vicious lips are echoed in another gallery in which Turk has installed a waxwork of himself in the guise of Vicious for Pop, 1993, posed in the same stance of the renowned Warhol 1963 image of Elvis Presley shooting a gun. In this room are another three waxworks of the artist in multiple costumes, one of which is a sailor and another, a tramp. The inclusion of the tramp is carried through to the final room where the space has been filled with bronze bin bags. This at least sees Turk go a little further than mere imitation. Here he questions what it means for an object to be called art. In an expansion of Duchamp’s infamous Fountain where a urinal found its place in a gallery, Turk proposes to his audience that this trash is artistic. He goes a step further by casting them out of bronze, a medium that has long been used by artists throughout history.
In his room of rubbish there is one piece that consists of a crumpled up can of diet coke upon which Turk has signed his name. This is another motif that would denote that this piece of litter is an artwork with the inclusion of the artist’s signature. It is noteworthy that Turk’s show ends on this object as one of the first galleries opens with framed pieces of paper on which he has scrawled his name.
Turk’s garbage is interesting. The artist recycles art history. At one point he recreates Jackson Pollock’s famed drip paintings. He has even had black and white photographs of himself taken making the works that echo those snapped of Pollock in 1950 by Hans Namuth. The artist has also imposed himself in a recreation of Jaques-Louis David’s Death of Marat. This particular work stands out from the rest, not because it is visually memorable, but because it is the only nod to an art historical work that may not be classed as ‘modern.’ Perhaps by inserting himself into this well-known painting, Turk has attempted to cement his own place within art history.
Reading about the Turk retrospective is probably a little more interesting than viewing it. While the conceptual aspects of the work are intriguing, in person the pieces tend to fall a little flat. They come across as gimmicks and cheap imitations. Even the artwork that first brought Turk into the public eye has a tongue-in-cheek feel to it. Displayed on the ground floor a blue heritage plaque reads ‘Borough of Kensington, GAVIN TURK, Sculptor, worked here, 1989-1991.’ The piece seems like another attempt to mark a name in the history books. Turk’s plaque was first displayed at the 1991 MA show at the Royal College of Art and made headlines when the college refused to give the artist his degree. The exhibition was also the first time that Damien Hirst – artist and owner of Newport Street Gallery – saw Turk’s work. Hirst has been collecting Turk’s art since 1998 and the pair both has a long association with Jay Jopling’s White Cube gallery.
While I wasn’t blown away by the exhibition, I wouldn’t disregard the show. Spanning 26 years and 70 works it is the first retrospective of Gavin Turk’s career in over a decade. Moreover, it is worth a trip to Lambeth, if even just to see the stunning gallery space by Caruso St John Architects, which won the RIBA Sterling Prize for Building of the Year in 2016.
Gavin Turk: Who What When Where How and Why is on display at Newport Street Gallery until 19 March