ART is widely understood as a commodity, as something to covet and to buy, which perhaps explains why George Shaw’s Turner Prize-shortlisted work seems to have struck a chord with many visitors to Baltic.
Shaw specialises in paintings and rectangular ones at that. They show, in near photographic detail, places we might recognise. You can imagine one of them on your wall at home.
But thousands did not queue across the Millennium Bridge to see pictures on walls. The extraordinary pulling power of the Turner Prize is not because it has traditionally played safe.
Karla Black’s quarter of Baltic’s Turner Prize exhibition is more like it. Here’s art that confounds all commonly held definitions. At first glance – and even second and third – it’s all over the place. Where’s the method, the plan?
The Scottish artist, looking a little frazzled at the press preview, seems to be in two minds about being shortlisted for a competition that attracts such wide interest and not a little flak.
“I think it is exciting, in terms of: ‘Yes, that’s great; it’s really nice to have that recognition’. But on the other hand you don’t want to build it up to more than it is.
“I suppose I don’t want to get too nervous. There’s such a lot going on at the moment and we’re all trying to make exhibitions. So this is not the most important thing in the world.”
Unlike the more defined and clinical work of her fellow contenders, Black’s has an apparent randomness to it which might be deceptive. It’s big sheets of paper, torn and daubed and suspended from the ceiling. It’s also sheets of paint-splattered cellophane and pastel-coloured powders scattered liberally across the floor.
Like Marcel Duchamp with his Fountain – actually, a urinal – nearly 100 years ago (yes, shockable art is nothing new), Black seems to have turned to the bathroom for her materials.
Her powders are not paint but crushed bath cubes and the like.
Mention the disparity between her art and a painting on a wall or a bronze on a plinth and she says: “To me, it’s not very different.
“I think a painting on a wall or a bronze sculpture, whatever, are just the physical culmination of a creative process.
“Sometimes how an artist is differentiated from others is just about where you stop within that process.”
Black explains that she gives just as much thought to her materials, and to how she uses those materials, as any artist whose work might fall within more conventional boundaries.
But she adds that she is just as conscious, when making her art, of the demands of the space she is working in.
“You have to have somewhere to start from and I usually start with colour and material, deciding: yes, I’d like to use those colours and I’d like those materials.”
As for the latter, she says she doesn’t feel the need to limit herself to the art shop’s wares. Between powder paint and powdered toiletries, she says, there is little difference.
“They are all just part of the material world. Chalk, whatever you are using it for, is just crushed up little sea creatures so I don’t really make that differentiation between things.”
Once equipped with her materials in her allotted space, it seems the creative process can take some unexpected turns – but that’s not so surprising.
Many a happy accident has steered a conventional portrait or landscape painter to a successful conclusion.
Similarly for Karla Black, sometimes the behaviour of her materials can dictate the direction in which she will go. And you can see that a large and seemingly unwieldy sheet of sugar paper might sometimes take the upper hand.
But ultimately the artist is in charge.
What we see at Baltic, while easily dismissed at first glance as a mess, is the product of a highly trained, creative mind – and one which has earned plaudits in the sometimes wild and wonderful world of contemporary art.
Jackson Pollock dribbled paint onto canvases laid on the ground, Picasso made Head of a Bull from bicycle seat and handlebars, and Yoko Ono – at this very venue a couple of years ago – exhibited artistic bottles of water.
To those aforementioned, who understand art best as a commodity, you wouldn’t pick up any of those famous works of art for a song. But all, in their way, have helped to change the way we view the world.
Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, back in 1917, whipped up a debate about the true nature of art which is still going on.
But the thing to understand about Karla Black is that she does not regard herself as standing outside any artistic tradition or cocking a snook at the art world.
Neither, it transpires, is she anti-commerce.
Before she is ushered away for another interview, I ask how it would be possible to collect her work.
“There are ways of doing it,” she replies over her shoulder.
For the record, Karla Black includes two pieces in her Baltic Turner Prize show, both attributed to her and to Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, which hosted the show that first caught the eye of the Turner Prize judging panel.
They are Doesn’t Care In Words (made of cellophane, paint, Sellotape, sugar paper, chalk, powder paint, plaster powder, wood, polystyrene, bath bombs, Vaseline, moisturising cream, spray deodorant, brown paper) and More Of The Day (polythene, powder paint, plaster powder, thread).
You can see Karla Black’s work at Baltic as part of the Turner Prize 2011 exhibition until January 8. She will give a talk in the gallery on November 19.