Walker Art Gallery
North West England

Adding an imprimatur of commodity glamour to painterly output since 1957, the John Moores open painting exhibition has undergone a revamp, acquiring a JM2010 logo reminiscent of an alco-pop rebranding and, following an offshoot exhibition in Shanghai, the additional confidence of a recent, if belated, foray into China.

Once more staged at the Walker Gallery – a likeable Victorian rooster of a civic building which often battles with the art displayed for a visitors attention – it attempts to corral the nations urge to paint into one space and present twisty asides and surprising juxtapositions of parallel investments in paintings contemporary validity.

The fact that a big-brained primate can organize coloured muck to indicate profound truths about its perspective on the nature of reality will always be a remarkable event. Paints literal fluidity allows it to be a medium which can pull the rug out from under the graphic certainties of other media. Paintings drag the eye and mind into the proto-virtuality of picture space whilst retaining a stubborn object presence all of their own.

The best works here trip the viewers up, blanking out their context, seducing the eye and brain into considering material ambiguities and paintings impossible foldings of space, keeping in mind the fact that the ambient buzz of a material effect can itself be a particular snapshot of a cultures mindset, in a subtle and loaded way, and can never be comfortably transcribed into any other medium.

Sigfrid Holmwood’s ‘Butchering A Pig’ (2010), an apparent underpainting of an image of two women in Dutch traditional costumes lethargically slitting a pig’s throat, performs a striptease on the surface of painting. All exposed areas of flesh are rendered in near-fluorescent handmade orange paint, uncomfortably uniting the idea of the ‘finished’ paintings surface with the skin of the carcass and butchers flesh.

A more muted oddity sits on the adjacent wall, Geraldine Swayne’s ‘Industrialist On Wheels’ (2009), a ragged rectangle of canvas carrying a Rorschach blot of a face on wheels, stains of watery pink, blue and green polluting the canvas. Alternatively, prizewinner Phil Diggle’s ‘For Your Pleasure’ (2009) attempts to make a portrait congeal from a crusty impasto of ice-cream pink and yellows, heavy blue and blacks.

The narrower concern of establishing the illusion of the three-dimensionally concrete, the dead weight of sculptural form, can seem a rather dull procedure when pitted against the potential of capturing the sinuous liveliness of paints movements. Narbi Price’s ‘Untitled See Saw Painting’ (2009) shows that this is not always the case.

A traditional picture space respects the demands of gravity and allows an artist to, in effect, picture a flat sculpture which, in a near-photorealist depiction of a see saw decorated with two metallic flats of surprised cartoon seals, Price, quite literally, does. The dead white of the mass of sky, synthetic colours and layered references to an interplay between the substantial and the illusory make it one of the best pieces on show.

Paint might be a fundamentally seductive substance but another work which reins in its gooey charm is Andy Harper’s small oil on canvas ‘Frau Troffea’ (2009), a close-up of a calcified monstrosity of unruly vegetation; a concentrated decor with an anarchists heart, although initially irritating, after repeated viewings was finally rather good.

Jason Thompson’s 34 x 28cm ‘Refractions (Robert Hooke)’ (2010) is an insane symmetrical Vorticist spaghetti of lines, colours distressed by material scruffiness and a plywood support which ages the work. G. L. Brierley’s ‘Jilly Jiggy’ (2009), oil on wood, is equally small and seems to exhibit a textured fur-ball of regurgitated offal painted in the style of a melting Rembrandt portrait. The fact that both seem to be an aliens attempt to recreate a moment in Western paintings history somehow adds a touch of melancholia to two of the most intriguing works in the exhibition.

Aiming for a sophisticated scruffiness and simplicity, some of the other smaller works end up being far too stylistically commonplace, only narrowly avoiding being irritatingly twee affairs – objects designed to decorate the walls of a shabby-chic pub.

The John Moores has always been keen on acting as an arena for large scale productions and all five Shanghai prizewinners oblige. Unfortunately they are grouped together in a perplexingly claustrophobic hang. Zhang Wei’s ‘The Emperor Mountain’ (2009) – industrial Impressionism in the form of a vertically long, crusty, rusty, fungus-coated pond surface, a Kiefer reimagined by Peter Doig – becomes physically hard to view. Li Weizhou’s ‘Where Are We From? Where Will We Go?’, a stranded snaking queue of small figures rendered in ink on bright white paper, has no such problem. It’s to be hoped that the irony of its similarity to Saatchi’s infamous ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ poster didn’t elude the judges.

Enjoyably hard to read is Michael Simpson’s large vertical ‘Bench Painting (Untitled)’ (2010), the graphic infrastructure of a modernist bench on an off-white ‘painterly’ ground, top right, a snaking framed electrical chord motif. However, although the slick parallel drips of Ian Davenport’s large, lush ‘Puddle Painting: Dioxazine’ (2009) may seem coldly efficient its impact eclipses the other large scale work; a skillful compact of theatrical event and sophisticated wallpaper.

There’s a long overdue, if tentative, nod towards painting which threatens to become sculpture, or at least sits on the fence. A theatrical drape of rich red acrylic paint peeling off its supporting stretcher makes Adam Fearon’s ‘Untitled’ (2009) attractive enough whilst being uncomfortably similar to an Angela de la Cruz. Cornelia Balte’s ‘There You Are!’ (2010) is a two part affair: a line drawing of a large cartoon hand pointing emphatically at a large acrylic on canvas leaning beneath, its bottom half patterned with loosely spaced red rectangles.

One ingenious example of painting absorbing alternative media is a slightly left-field affair which, if an added boost of tabloid outrage is required, has the added benefit of reproducing really badly: Keith Coventry’s winning ‘Spectrum Jesus’ – a wide black frame holding a pane of reflective glass covering a painting of deep Klein blue carrying a muted electric blue portrait of Christ. Essentially a flat pastiche of a hologram icon. It’s a question of taste whether Coventry’s work should be presented as the best painting in the show but it’s certainly an intelligent presentation of paintings possibilities for 2010.

Overall the general standard of the 2010 exhibitors is higher than recent years and the selectors have to be congratulated for this, even if it is at the expense of the loss of some of the more unhinged mavericks of yesteryear. Time will tell if the new expansionist tone of the show will be anything more than an ambitious marketing exercise or if relative economic austerity will make the promotion of painting suddenly seem a rather smart thing to do.