2017’s Turner Prize hit Hull, in the kind of City of Culture-linked synergy that should give a strong boost to the post-‘is it art?’ conversation the Prize craves. But can any selection ever be impressive enough to escape three decades of that perception?

Leaving this year’s Turner Prize, and the wonderfully well-used space it dominates on the ground floor of Hull’s Ferens Art Gallery, I heard that customary mantra, or the start of it: “Like with any Turner Prize, some questionable…” Hmm. Displays? Floor panels? Light switches? Anywhere else it might be anything. But as the voice trailed off it was undoubtedly “choices” that was lost on the pavement of Carr Lane. A different venue, another year, the same challenge.

34 years on, a significant part of the Turner Prize’s identity, and one it shows no sign of growing out of, is its inability to a seize universal goodwill from its patrons. This year’s complementary newspaper ‘The Ferens Echo’ may lead with, “Have a completely fresh conversation about art”, but people will always get stuck up on, well, taste. No matter how thought-provoking it can be from year to year, that’s totally different from fulfilling and celebrating that central, core concept of finding and celebrating the most innovative artist born, living or working in Britain.  There’s hope in the curator’s introduction that the Prize’s profile has risen over three decades to deepen the conversation beyond “is it art?” but I think it’s too broad a question to ever leave. And it’s in that context that selections of varying, range, scope and quality must be judged. Every year. 

It may be inherently tricky when tackling four artists across multi-media, but it goes some way to explain its embrace of social media. The Turner Prize launched too early in that respect. But now the internet’s dained to catch up. Pointers tagged #TurnerPrizeQuestions posed a series of enquiries that encouraged sharing far and wide. It’s a core component of Hull’s City of Culture status this year, part of the Prize’s welcome and ongoing mission to take alternate years away from its established gallery space in Pimlico. Those questions hung between the prize and its current gallery, (What does the Turner Prize achieve? Must the gallery stay free to enter?”), generally letting the work speak for itself. And of course, the links between the artists that are there as much as they aren’t. This year’s Prize had a need to keep an eye on the past, present and future to reflect its host nation.

A large panel in the Prize’s central hub highlights the innovation inspired by that name it honours. As it says, Turner: innovative in his lifetime and subsequently regarded as one of Britain’s greatest artists.  While many great names have claimed the Turner Prize since 1984, Jeremy Deller, Grayson Perry, Chris Ofili and Antony Gormley to name four, there are few visiting the exhibition who come expecting to remember a name for the future. It’s that kind of contrary. And this year served up an interesting mix. With conversation and snapping encouraged, no surprise that this is one of the loudest art galleries you’ll find, and that’s no bad thing.

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I walked straight ahead from the hub to the large, attractive paintings of Harvin Anderson, Fusing abstraction and representation, the wide room housed two bodies of work. His expansive studies looping into final pieces, like portraits of landscapes, built from transparent studies. And intermingled with it his barbershop series, stretching from stark evocations of civil rights to minimalist studies of the shop space that brings space to time. Their mixing is a broad brushstroke representation of the “push and pull” essential to Aderson’s work, although it remains far more sophisticated in the paintings themselves.

Alongside, a real and instant beauty emerges the thoughtfulness of Anderson’s lush abstraction of nature, and much more, in giant canvasses that interpret the flora outside his Soho studio, as well as reminiscences from Jamaica and his childhood town of Birmingham. Studies reveal the transparent sheets and grid structure he uses to reposition elements for his final pieces, and uncover that vision he really wants to see. And they’re beautiful, no doubt about it. There’s a huge amount to see from what first appears to be an abstract life study, or darting your eyes away too soon keeps their power raw as it is soft.

New pieces Ascension and particularly the magnificent Greensleeves have an ethereal quality, with hints of myth-building and a distinct sense of time. The corner of the space, where the tropicality of Last House sits between Greensleeves and one of the minimalist Peter Barbershop pieces makes for an unintended and stunning triptych.

 

Recalling some early, and late, Hockney, in use of colour and geometry, it’s as fascinating how the abstraction elevates the floral work as tracking the removal and absence of elements in his Peter  series. The most outwardly politic part of the room where traditional headshots of hairstyles are painted out or replaced with icons of the civil rights movement.

While the central figures remain late into the run of barbershop pieces, the mirrors and posters in front of them are replaced or removed until we’re left with the stroking blue bounding walls alone. Those walls provide the blunt challenge of perspective, while other parts of the series break down important if slight infrastructure in a subtler way: the central seat columns that connect, the left side of a shadow. In the trailing legs of his subjects Anderson conjures a highly enviable watercolour quality from the oil. Stunningly, beautiful, and of great appeal to my painterly heart. But really it’s the methodical grid and cycle between the end of each painting and the start of the next that’s most stunning. This is the kind of rugged innate concept in the painterly tradition the Turner Prize was built to thrive on. 

The politics didn’t stop in that room, in a necessarily charged year, there’s a stark contrast in Andrea Buttner‘s space…

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It’s a close call, but Buttner’s addition is the most multimedia, and the exhibit most overtly playing with time and space. It’s traditional and modern, from imagery to method. History is carried through to modern capitalist symbols stretching thoughts as much as the audience is made to move forward and back, or stoop through the vertical, to appreciate the pieces, sometimes much like the position of her recurring beggar motif. The only artist to take two rooms (excusing Nashashibi’s cinemas), Buttner’s art is confrontational and dazzlingly varied, some are lurid and others simply beguiling. Again there are two broad strokes of work, all filtered through crafted histories and references to provenance and her “line of artistic ancestors”. The table of collated historic works relating to beggars pushes that provenance to the fore using an original catalogue format. It’s catching, but not as much as the long line of her woodcut beggar series, dominating a wall and elsewhere separated; whittled down to a geometrical shape.

Alongside, that woodcut line a high-visibility coated wall is one of her works, framing three works shuffled to the far right, next to an affecting, rather hideous triptych “Duck and Daisy”. These guide through to the physical, townhall rows of exploration of the human condition. That travelling exhibit, formed around the text of Simone Weil, presents a loaned piece as extension and balancing point to her own, wisely placed across from that final, simple geometric woodcut.

 

There’s a huge amount here, esoteric, but cumulative. the opening line of exploring the ethic along with the aesthetic is exactly right. for much of the dualism pieces that spell out their own name and intention demonstrate the strong, determined line of literalism. It necessary for the works’ cohesion and power.  But also, with those trademark painted walls and makeshift bench, the rooms that would easily coax you into sitting on or leaning against an artwork without realising. It’s a lot, and perhaps a little too strong for the Turner Prize, who’d have thought? Next came the similarly history-led and combative Lubiana Himid.

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Himid’s is such a balanced exhibit, it momentarily shuts the conversation down. The confrontation of the repurposed ceramics on one side, intricate, fragile but also jarring. Across the space, the line of repurposed newspapers, the most overtly politic part of a Prize riddled with it. These are Humid’s previous exhibitions vying for attention. Her earliest work from the late ’80s took black people within historical painting as its springboard, and here are two multi-layered developments, one on ceramic, the other on media, both from 2007 onwards. The third wall has the stagey, perhaps even pantomimey cut-outs as part of the modernist The Fashionable Marriage – until you take a closer look. And opposite, on the fourth wall in solitude, in stark relief, the single portrait of the literal, time-stopping rendition of a slaveship. Surreal, interpretive, instant, modern, timely. Le Rodeur: The Exchange, from 2016, is the work most likely to stay with you most when you leave.

It’s quite an astounding range in a compact display that knows how to play to Humid’s strengths. Collective association is irresistible, especially when this well staged. 

Rosalind Nashashibi’s Turner Prize video. See the original and the other short-listed artists here.

Moving through to a dark hexagon, two films from the Prize’s youngest artist, Rosalind Nashashibi. Hugely political once again, the introductory notes makes clear the danger and prescience of these films; particularly the account of Nashashibi suspending production on the Gaza strip under bombardment in 2014. On screen, incidental details blend in to form lived, compelling and real narrative. It’s a wonderful technique, her own style of foreshadowing jump cut that makes multiple styles work for the subject. The framing of motion art in between, the framing jumping slightly between different shots or recurring out of sequence. It encourages your mind to wander, then leaves you in no doubt that you’ve missed something as slight as it is hugely relevant.

Nashashibi is a collaborator, a painter, a sculptor and a printer. Her works explore the domestic and the state, mixing astute observation and lyrical montage. She finds places distinct and in possession of their own quality, within other larger geographies, concerns, or concepts. In doing so, she showcases the unnoticed and the overlooked. Perhaps the artist who’s most explored the essence of what it means to be an artist through other works, the powerful resonance of her work is certain to grow. And that’s as much about her treatment as the subject matter. 

While my painterly side is always drawn to the expansive expression exemplified by Harvin Anderson’s work, I agreed with the award of this year’s Prize to Lubaina Humid. The sheer weight and the balance of her exhibit stands at the head of a generally well-structured exhibition, quietly exuding a raw and challenging power. Her emergence ahead of three thought-provoking artists on the back of that compact representation of a sheer wealth of work is striking.

I entered that exhibit in a mixed crowd, each person already preparing their exhibition takes for the exit, only to meet a notable change of atmosphere. that’s not as frequent as it should be in The Turner Prize. The quiet brilliance of Nashashibi’s film screenings notwithstanding, the challenging reach of Buttner’s multimedia sat alongside, the personal and vibrant journey of Anderson a counterpoint: The power of the politics, perfectly tied to an unexpected, original and repurposed core of creativity meant Humid had it.

It’s not just chalk and cheese in the Ferens. The painterly to filmic, the ceramic to textile. Politics has never been a stranger to the Turner Prize, it can’t be. But this year it’s acute in a diverse field. It’s not the loudest Prize, but it’s one of the most regional and international. there are jaw-dropping moments, but mainly a quiet and powerful quality that stays with you –  proving the Prize’s relevance for another year, if never quite answering that central question.

Still, when the guide closes with the line, “Whatever you think about Turner Prize 2017, you’re right” it seems like a Prize far more comfortable with itself than many people think.

The Turner Prize 2017 runs at Ferens Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Square, Hull, until 7 January 2018.

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