The Griffin Gallery

This is the first year of the Griffin Art Prize and the exhibition showed the work of the 10 finalists. I think it’s fair to say that their criteria for artists working primarily in painting or drawing are fairly traditional ones, but a prize based around an arts materials manufacturer understandably has a clear remit to demonstrate the use of their products.

The prize includes a studio space in the ColArt building (sponsors) for the artist to prepare for a solo exhibition (with catalogue) in the gallery. This also includes materials and any advice/ expertise you might need from the innovation and development departments working on Winsor & Newton, Liquitex and Conté à Pari. Who of us hasn’t lusted after that deluxe 96 pack of coloured pencils? Like with most open exhibitions, there is an entry fee (£10) and artists also have to deliver/collect and insure their own work for the exhibition. Adding this to the fact that the prize includes a studio space for 6 months in London, it’s a very London-centric opportunity and I’m sure artists based outside the capital would find it difficult to afford to deliver work or even to win this without anywhere to live.

The space is somewhat corporate feeling, but actually works surprisingly well as a small gallery. I sit in their communal space in between views of the work after helping myself to a coffee. I admit to being a bit confused about whether I was allowed to do so (this probably says more about me than anything else), but quickly realised the space was just open to anyone. I asked the gallery about this space and they told me a little bit about how it’s already being used for artists (for portfolio reviews or meetings with curators) and they seem very open to collaboration and generous in offering it to artists for meeting space or similar. Four works (from fifteen) had sold when I visited the exhibition, so that suggests this is a platform where artists might be able to gain an audience.

The winner of the prize is Alzbeta Jaresova and her work, for me, is the most outstanding in the exhibition. The interests we share into physical and psychological space probably sway me towards her work too if I’m honest. She pairs a delicate pencil drawing with a small model of the same space that is described in the drawing. It’s a little reminiscent of Borremans in that it is both beautiful and sinister and because you can’t be sure exactly what is going on. Jaresova describes her work as looking at issues of control, refinement and constriction in her home country (particularly when it used to be the socialist Czechoslovakia) and this really comes through in the work.

Technical skill and proficiency is what really come across in the exhibition as a whole, and the tightness of most of the work is probably what makes the exhibition coherent. Although I find this sometimes leaves me at a bit of a dead end (if everything is described perfectly, I am less likely to linger as they’ve not left me anything to do), there are a few works which really draw me in. Jemma Appleby’s charcoal drawings on paper depict forest scenes, the first of an abandoned-looking building in a forest with a very unsettling and dystopian atmosphere. The second drawing shows three curled up planes, like sheets of paper, on which I can make out more forests. The two together suggest some kind of narrative, and the curled up paper makes me think of photographs or a page from a book. I’m left imagining that terrible, gruesome things might have happened in this place so am surprised when read the artists’ statement, which uses words like solitude and calmness and utopia – perhaps the perfection in the drawing renders it a little too uncanny!

Lindsey Bull’s paintings are very sumptuous and elegant and ‘Dark Wave’ is especially intriguing, appearing at first like a grand woman in a ballgown, when I get closer I realise is a fairly pathetic-looking girl kneeling on a rock. It has a nice slipperiness about it, but despite the often slight brush strokes, this work is made of very sturdy stuff. Ross Brown’s ‘Glass House’ reminded me of J G Ballard’s ‘The Drowned World’ somehow, with jungle-like foliage seeming to spread in from the outside of the canvas and Hyojun Hyun’s magical landscape is the stuff of perfect childhood memories and it feels as if a unicorn might pop into frame at any moment.

Do we really need another art prize? On the plus side, this is a small exhibition with quite a specific medium focus, a catalogue, an audience who, evidently, will buy some things and of course, the lovely art materials. But, with winners come losers, and as artists are presented with increasing opportunities to enter competitions, they will spend more money doing so and plenty will be rejected. It’s a choice of course, artists don’t have to enter, but the prizes and chance to win might all seem worth a pop at it to those who don’t know any differently. Hell, I don’t even really use art materials and the idea of a ‘studio fully stocked with products of choice’ has me drooling.

Generally speaking, the competition model has become a popular way to run exhibitions because it is the default device to ensure publicity, sponsorship and excitement. The open competition also has the added bonus for organisations that people will pay to enter, and so costs are covered (and some organisations are also able to use this as a fundraising opportunity). I am uncomfortable with, and wouldn’t enter, anything that exists as ‘being good for artists’ that is also paid for by artists, but I also recognise the incredible, possibly career-changing benefits to those who win this kind of competition. I hope that the Griffin Art Prize proves to be this for Jaresova – it seems that ColArt are in a unique position to offer support to the artists who will work with them, hopefully in a relationship that continues even after her exhibition.

Located on the ground floor of The Studio Building, the Griffin Gallery is a new contemporary art space, 145 sq. m or 1500 sq. ft. The Griffin Gallery has a year round programme of exhibitions showcasing emerging and established artists, local arts communities and groups. It is open to the public every afternoon from Monday to Friday from 2pm to 5pm. Please contact [email protected] for further details.