Lucy Skaer heads Turner prize shortlist

    After years of dreary line-ups, 2009’s prize is, in an unusually subtle way, a cracker

    The single most irritating thing about the momentously irritating Turner prize is its inconsistency. From one year to the next, you simply cannot know if the latest version will be a turkey or a canary. Last year’s effort was so dreary, I hoped it would be the last. Put the old bird out of its misery, we cried in unison. Nobody could have imagined that, in 2009, the damn thing would go back to singing beautifully.

    This year’s chosen four are all decent contenders, and three are more than that. The first time I encountered Enrico David, in a lovely show at the Approach gallery, his ambition seemed to be to create beautiful alternatives to painting, with elegant superhero pictures made of cloth. In more recent showings, however, he has ditched the beauty and shovelled on the angst. The unstable Humpty Dumpties scattered about his Turner prize installation demand to be understood as mad-eyed self-portraits. A butterfly has turned back into a psycho-surrealist caterpillar.

    At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Lucy Skaer is a sort-of sculptor, a sort-of installation maker and a sort-of painter who displays extreme delicacy in all her callings. A humble chair placed vulnerably in the entrance room appears also on the wall, in a series of careful rubbings of the sort usually employed to record the history of a medieval tomb brass. The beaten-up old chair is being loved and treasured. All of Skaer’s work involves this careful appreciation. It’s as if she has set out to bathe our tired old city eyes in fresh spring water.

    Richard Wright is another elusive presence. As you approach his giant wall drawing, it dawns on you that it is made of gold; and that what you took to be a busy decorative pattern is actually the turbulent swirling of an apocalyptic landscape. I suspect Wright has been looking at some of the Tate’s sublime big picturists – John Martin, Philip de Loutherbourg – and that he has borrowed from them some of their sense of the end of the world being nigh.

    Roger Hiorns is less a picture-maker, more a substance-lover. The frisson in his art is triggered by the materials he uses. A pile of dust in the centre of the room turns out to be the atomised remains of a huge jet engine. All of us know the ashes-to-ashes story line, but surely such a fate was never expected for a jet engine?

    This mood that Skaer, Wright and Hiorns share – reticent, yet weighty – is so consistent that I am tempted to announce the arrival of a new movement: emotional minimalism, or emo art. The discovery of this tendency is what I will remember best about this fine Turner prize, which deserves to be won by the skilled optical surgery of Lucy Skaer.