Meet the Turner Contenders

It’s a long way from J. M. W. Turner, the English Romantic landscape painter of the 18th and 19th centuries, to this year’s four shortlisted artists for Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize, three of whom are women, only one of whom is English, and none of whom paint landscapes — or much of anything at all. Perhaps the only thing the four — Mark Leckey, Runa Islam, Goshka Macuga, and Cathy Wilkes — have in common with Turner is a bit of controversiality. Just as the influential painter had his fair share of both admirers and detractors in his day, the selection of the annual Turner shortlist always seems to stir up strong opinions and incite criticism of some kind.

The Turner Prize itself, which awards a British artist (the definition is loose — not necessarily Britain-born, but Britain-based) under 50 for an “outstanding” exhibition or show of work in the previous year, has an equally up-and-down history, kicking off in 1984 when it honored a British artist, Malcolm Morley, who had been living in the United States since 1958 and didn’t even bother to cross the Atlantic to accept his award. From then on, things remained rocky for a number of years, as organizers attempted to streamline the prize and changed the criteria for winners every year, most significantly dropping the shortlist idea in 1988 only to reinstate it in 1991. In 1990, the sponsor, Wall Street investment banking firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, declared bankruptcy, and the prize was canceled.

The prize bounced back in 1991, however, and has been on the up-and-up ever since. These days, even though some critics love to hate it, the Turner has become one of the most prestigious prizes in Europe, and its shortlisted artists tend to be the crème de la crème of British contemporary art. Last year’s exhibition at Tate Britain, “Turner Prize: A Retrospective, 1984–2006” solidified that reputation, as any show with work by Anish Kapoor, Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George, and Grayson Perry is bound to do.

This year’s shortlisted artists hail from England, Bangladesh, Poland, and Ireland. They work in a variety of media — film, sculpture, installation — and make art from cartoon characters, mannequins, and pre-existing artworks, among other materials. Notably, three of the four are women, the same number of women who have won the prize in its entire 23-year history.

Here, a brief introduction to the contenders:

Mark Leckey is a British artist who works predominantly in video. In 1990 he showed alongside Damien Hirst in the Arts Council Englands annual “New Contemporaries” exhibition, which gives recent art-school graduates a chance to show their work in a professional gallery setting, but after that, he largely disappeared from the contemporary scene. In 1999, he resurfaced with the video Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a compilation of found footage that follows the rise of British dance subcultures. Leckey is fascinated by pop culture both British and otherwise and admits to a “slight obsession” with Felix the Cat.

Bangladesh-born, London-based Runa Islam makes film and video installations that the Turner judges call “at once analytical and emotionally charged, formal and socially relevant.” In her early works, she re-created famous scenes from avant-garde films, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinders Martha (1973). More recently she’s focused on simple actions such as, in Dead Time (2000), a woman spinning a ring, or, in Be The First To See What You See As You See It (2004), a woman pushing objects in a gallery of a fine china off their stands. Islam has participated in the 2003 Istanbul Biennial and the 2005 Venice Biennale.

Cathy Wilkes, who was born in Belfast and works in Glasgow, was one of the first artists in Scotland to open up her apartment as a gallery, and she helped found the Glasgow Women’s Library in 1988. Her strange, surreal sculptures and installations often use mannequins as well as everyday items such TVs and strollers to explores issues of modern-day femininity and sexuality. In We Are Pro-Choice (2008), a mannequin sits on a toilet seat with a bowl of dried porridge at her feet, referring to Walter Fickerts 1927 painting Lazarus Breaks His Fast.

Poland-born, London-based Goshka Macuga had her first major solo show in 2004 at London’s Gasworks gallery. Macuga creates installations that often arrange a variety of objects — souvenirs, books, archival materials, artworks (her own and other artists’) — together, questioning the roles of the curator, archivist, artist, and collector and earning the label “cultural archaeology.” For her exhibition “The Sleep of Ulro” at the A Foundation of Liverpool’s Greenland Street arts center, she created a comprehensive installation based on set designs for the Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).

Selections of all of the artists’ work will be on view in an exhibition at Tate Britain from September 30, 2008, through Jaunary 19, 2009, and the winner, who will receive £25,000 pounds — the three remaining artists receive £5,000 each — will be announced on December 1.

Click on the photo gallery above to see work from each of this year’s shortlisted artists.