Walker Art Gallery
North West England

Now in it’s 50th year, the John Moores Painting Prize has a reputation for offering up a selection of the most exciting new British painting. Yet far from the shock of the new, what is striking about this year’s John Moores selection are the references this diverse range of artworks makes to the traditions and conventions of painting.

A whole history of painting styles and approaches is represented here, from the photorealism of Steve Proudfoot’s ‘The Party’ to the self-conscious archaism of Veronica Smirnoff’s ‘Lubo’, painted in egg tempera onto gessoed wood panels. The acid brights of Stuart Cumberland’s ‘YLLW240, Cornelia Baltes’s good-humoured ‘There You Are’ and Ian Davenport’s technicolour ‘Puddle Painting’ nod and wink to Pop Art, whilst Jason Thompson whips up a tribute to Vorticism in ‘Refractions (Robert Hooke)’, Meanwhile, Daniel Coffield references the Surrealists and Situationists in ‘Episodical’, and G.L. Brierly brings a hint of Rembrandt to his small, precise, dark explosion of what could be a bundle of flora, fur, or something altogether more sinister.

The best of these works are far from straightforward tributes to a particular painter or painting style. In fact, many of this year’s John Moore’s artists seem to be actively seeking to disturb and interrogate the conventions of painting: Theo Cuff’s uncanny and aptly-named ‘Untitled’ is a prime example, suggesting a conventional head and shoulders portrait, but with the face at the centre of the canvas apparently obliterated by a sweeping blur of white paint. Similarly, Joseph Long’s ‘Hortus Botanicus’ is at first glance a highly conventional flower painting, until at closer inspection it becomes clear we are seeing it through a lens of plastic bubble wrap. Amongst the prize-winning artworks, Philip Diggle’s richly-textured abstract ‘For Your Pleasure’ might be a portrait, but its crusty layers of impasto in garish pinks and yellows ultimately render it unrecognisable, leaving us in the dark.

Of the prize-winning works, Nick Fox’s ‘Metatopia’ stands out – a dark, circular portal, revealing a troubled wasteland peopled by elusive, mythic figures. Referencing Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Fox here makes explicit the sexual subtexts that haunt pre-Raphaelite painting. Close by, this year’s first prize winner, Keith Coventry’s ‘Spectrum Jesus’ is a riff on the tradition of religious iconography; but this is an unexpected depiction of Jesus – anxious and alienated, depicted entirely in dark blue tones, kept behind a pane of reflective glass that both keeps us at a distance, and calls to mind holographic religious icons.

But it is Adam Fearon’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Untitled’ that finally hammers the point home: here the canvas itself performs a striptease for the viewer, exposing the wooden stretcher beneath. Ultimately, it seems that far from making painting new, the 2010 John Moores selection seeks to deconstruct and disassemble the conventions of painting– and raises some questions about what ‘new’ British painting might look like along the way.