The creator of a subtle and unashamedly beautiful fresco in gold leaf has been named the winner of this year’s most prestigious UK art prize. Glasgow-based Richard Wright, 49, used the age-old, painstaking techniques of the old masters to make his glistening wall painting for the Turner prize exhibition at Tate Britain in London. And yet when the show closes on 3 January 2010, it will simply be painted over in white emulsion and lost for ever.
Wright was, until the early 1990s, a figurative painter on canvas. He has since transformed his practice and started creating abstract images on walls. He might be seen as the opposite to the kind of Turner prize contender who captured headlines and provoked controversies at the peak of the Young British Artists boom.
By their very nature, his works – which cannot be transported, bought or sold, and which always have a temporary life – exist outside the art market. “The most important thing is that the paintings are painted over,” he has said.
The paintings are also made with a high degree of craftsmanship and skill – qualities, rightly or wrongly, often seen as lacking in Turner prize nominees by the award’s critics. Wright’s work for this year’s exhibition drew on traditional fresco techniques: creating a cartoon, tracing it on the wall, painting over it in glue and then gilding it.
The Turner prize judges “admired the profound originality and beauty of Wright’s work”. His artworks, which are often determinedly unspectacular, quiet in their mood and lack titles, are created specifically for a particular architectural environment. For the piece he created for the Turner prize exhibition, he was inspired by memories of traveling down from Scotland to London to visit the then Tate Gallery on the overnight bus; one night to get to London, a day in the gallery looking at a single work, and the night to get back.
Seen from a distance, Wright’s golden fresco is an abstract confection. It’s an enormous, complex, symmetrical shape that might remind one of a Rorschach inkblot, but close up you can make out shapes that suggests sunbursts or clouds, recalling the landscapes by Turner or watercolours by Blake that can be seen elsewhere in the gallery.
At 49, this was Wright’s last chance to win the Turner prize, for which only artists under 50 are eligible. Born in London in 1960, he studied at the Edinburgh College of Art and, in the 1990s, at Glasgow School of Art. He was nominated for the award following exhibition at the 55th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, and the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh. In 2007, he created a work for the Edinburgh international festival in an empty Georgian house in the city’s New Town, in which repeated dots set in sweeping curves were made on walls and ceilings.
He has said: “In the end, the position of the work could be half of the work for me. In the first instance, the work has the possibility to effect or change the way you are drawn through the space. It therefore has the potential to reveal the space in a new aspect.”
Wright, was awarded the £25,000 prize tonight, at a ceremony at Tate Britain by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. He beat three other shortlisted artists: Enrico David, fellow Glaswegian Lucy Skaer, and Roger Hiorns. Each of the runners up receives £5,000.
Lucy Skaer’s work shows in a room leading off from the wall painted by Wright. She shows sculptures made from compressed coal dust inspired by Constantin Brâncusi, as well as a work called Leviathan Edge, the skull of a sperm whale, barely visible behind a screen.
Roger Hiorns, who recently covered a London flat in copper sulphate solution so that every surface – including taps and lights – grew a crust of bright blue crystals, has shown a sculpture consisting of the metal dust from an atomised passenger jet engine. And Enrico David created a tragi-comic stage-set of an installation, featuring giant eggmen, the face of Kenneth Williams, and a builder baring his backside.
The judges for this year’s prize were Charles Esche, director of the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; broadcaster Mariella Frostrup; Andrea Schlieker, the director of the Folkestone Triennial; and Jonathan Jones, a Guardian art critic. The chair of the judges was Stephen Deuchar, who steps down as director of Tate Britain later this month.