Turner Prize Entry: Richard Wright

In art|BOOK on November 17, 2009 at 1:14 am

By Julie Scrase

It takes a mere fleeting glance at the comments scrawled by visitors as one leaves the exhibition to see that, were it up to the public vote, Richard Wright would win. Hands down.

‘A fresco painter interested in formal beauty’ is how Wright has been benevolently described. Such a label misleadingly suggests a naivety or simplicity which I think can no longer exist in the evermore intellectualised realm of ‘high-art’. If one paints frescos in 2009, and is consequently nominated for the Turner Prize, we can be quite sure that one does so as a commentary upon or allusion to the vast history of fresco painting through the ages. Or, as is particularly the case for Wright, we are aware that it functions as a provocation of architectural surfaces, as a fresh revelation of internal spaces and as a comment on temporality. If one is interested in formal beauty it s not an innate delight in the oh-so mysteriously, divinely occurring golden-ratios. It is a canny questioning of the meaning of beauty, the decorative –and hence typography & tattoo etc- in contemporary culture with, once again, more than a hint of academic allusion to art’s history. In short, Wright is of the post-modern breed: making art about art -resulting in a ‘hybrid graphic Esperanto’.

The big feature of his Turner Prize exhibition piece is a baroque-style painting in gold leaf which sprawls in geometric progressions and repetitions across an entire wall of the gallery. The use of gold leaf is both visually impressive and metaphorically loaded. Gold is a compound whose symbolic meaning is made of deity, glamour, wealth, politics, geography, exploitation and veneration. It takes us delving underground and ascending to heavenly heights and it is the common currency which carries us through the ‘civilized’ terrain in-between: from church to catwalk to commerce. It seems that art and gold have lived parallel if not intertwined, lives.

On close inspection one sees (as is typical of, indeed fundamental to, Wright’s paintings) no attempt to smooth over the imperfections of the wall’s surface, not even electrical sockets or switches. In this sense he is not a ‘white-cube’ artist, every work of his is essentially site-specific and refers not only to itself but to its context – because the two entities cannot be separated. Site-specific work can be problematic as it may too easily be made crass by literal, theatrical or laboured metaphorical envelopment or enrobement of context. However Wright’s subtle method incorporates its context with remarkably elegant fluidity. Furthermore if one feels that the baroque swirls and use of gold-leaf are out-modedly grandiose, the bleakly temporary nature of the work (which a few licks of paint down the line will be gone forever) functions as a slickly sombre and modern counterbalance.

All very nice, but what’s the art world’s most publicised prize without a spot of controversy? And this time it does come down to something as apparently innocent as a few rust-red spots above a doorway at the opposite end of the room to his larger wall painting. It just so happens that it entirely diverts the eye from what woud be a well framed view of Lucy Skaers’ installation. This is intelligent one-upmanship at its coolest. But, being a late addition to the show, it has an undoubtedly sneaky feel to it that is at once nasty and delicious in its witty competativeness. It is an effortless exploitation of context par excellence!

Finally, as for the many Wright-supporters out there…I wonder which of those erudite nuances lilting through his ‘graphic esporanto’ inspired them most? Or perhaps they were simply relieved by a pretty picture at last, enjoying that formal beauty of a good ol’fashioned fresco which asks no questons, tells no lies.

  1. Congratulations, – he was faster!!
    During the last months I was working on my new frescoes, making studies of ornaments and samples of new swinging baroque frescoes. And just by starting to paint first big new frescoes, today,I find THAT in my newspaper! The perfect painting the way I wanted go to! So after that I’ll have the problem that everybody will think I’d copied….
    Sus Grubenmann,

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