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Transient beauty, not controversy, turns judges’ heads

The creator of a subtle and unashamedly beautiful fresco in gold leaf has been named this year’s winner of Britain’s most prestigious art prize.

Glasgow-based Richard Wright (49) used the 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 January 3, 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,” Wright has said.

The paintings are also made with a high degree of craftsmanship and skill — qualities, rightly or wrongly, often seen as lacking among 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 to 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 travelling from Glasgow to London to visit the then Tate Gallery on the overnight bus; one night to get to London, a day at the gallery looking at a single work, and a 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 suggest 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 an 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 (about R306 284) prize 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 received £5 000.

Skaer’s work shows in a room leading off from the wall painted by Wright. It includes sculptures made from compressed coal dust inspired by Constantin Brancusi, as well as a work called Leviathan Edge, the skull of a sperm whale, barely visible behind a screen.

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 David created a tragicomic stage set of an installation, featuring giant egg men, the face of the actor Kenneth Williams and a builder baring his backside.

The judges for this year’s prize were Charles Esche, the 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 was Stephen Deuchar, who will soon step down as director of Tate Britain later this month. — © Guardian News & Media 2009

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