The double-height room in Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery – recently home to Jeff Koons’ giant Balloon Dog – lies empty save for an English Heritage blue plaque reading “Gavin Turk worked here, 1989-1991”.
This is the piece, entitled Cave, that infamously caused his tutors at the Royal College of Art to refuse to present his degree.It perfectly encapsulates both the defining theme behind Turk’s body of work – issues of authenticity and identity – and his outrageous ballsiness.
Turk was one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) who caused uproar amongst the arts establishment with their 1997 show, Sensation at the Royal Academy, which also launched the careers of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
But what emerges from this show – effectively as a retrospective, featuring almost 100 works owned by Hirst – is a consistency of focus that elevates Turk beyond the slightly derogatory YBA label.
The famous “Pop” sculpture, in which a waxwork Turk plays Sid Vicious from his sneering My Way video, stands amidst other hyper-realistic mannequins, variously depicting the artist as a hobo, a Beefeater, and a seaside automaton.
These pieces are the more popular – and populist – elements in a show that displays a surprisingly academic referencing of art historical precedents; nearby is Turk in a recreation of the famous Death of Marat painting by Jacques-Louis David.
His cracked paving stones, meanwhile, are a deliberately crappy version of Carl Andre’s iconic bricks sculpture, and downstairs is his “Unoriginal Signature”, a giant constellation stretched and angled to the precise degree of the anamorphic skull in Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors of 1533. Indeed, some references are so obscure the captions become very welcome.
Turk’s celebrated trompe l’oeil bronzes fill the final room; these are hyper-realistic sculptures of discarded fag butts, garbage bags and debris. The trick is excellent, but a singular one employed ad infinitum.
When viewed in unison, these works hammer home a richness and art historical self-awareness that Turk is rarely given credit for. Certainly, there is a YBA-like two-fingers-up humour running throughout, but it would be nothing were it not for the seriousness of his intentions and the meticulousness of the execution.