Walker Art Gallery

Many painters I know grumble about the biannual John Moores painting prize, usually along the lines of it not truly reflecting contemporary painting or more probably because they were not selected. An unselected painter cannot help but wonder what the judges saw in the exhibited works that was better than your entry. It is also the competition that most UK painters hold in the most esteem. It can often polarise visitors on what are good paintings and which are, at best, rather ordinary. This difference in opinion can only hint at the impossible task of the selectors, but is also what makes the exhibition so intriguing.

The current exhibition however is, to my eyes on first viewing, both coherent and an attempt to address (without compromising on quality) some of the charges murmured against the prize in the past. This year there were hints towards the ‘expanded field of painting’ (Sonia Morange, Bernat Daviu or Liz Elton); towards painting as conceptual practice (Peter Liversidge, Amikam Toren or Ian Whittlesea) and of not picking the usual suspects (this year no Gerard Hemsworth, Ian Davenport or Jason Brooks for example). As usual though the shortlist seemed odd to me, the exciting paintings in the show to me all fell outside of the list. Sarah Pickstone’s painting however is a worthy winner and a good painting, though I wonder if any of the judges would have selected it as their own choice?

Overriding the show is my belief that the judges selected the paintings they found the most interesting, without preconceptions or following a ‘mates club’ approach. George Shaw confirmed this in his honest assessment of the judging process in his catalogue contribution, saying of the long-listing stage “There’s a lot of crap. I mean real crap. For once I feel liberated by the anonymity and begin to enjoy myself. Halfway through the first day I begin to know what is meant by the death of painting. How can it be that I’m moved by so little?” The show features, in the main, very few crap paintings and I think that maybe this year the painters I know will grumble less about not being selected, as the paintings are of a good quality. In response to Shaw’s question, perhaps the more painting you see over the years, the less you get bowled over by what you come across; maybe less art you see feels fresh, exciting and above all original? A painting has to do more to impress.

Around Pickstone’s large painting were small-scale pieces, displayed as if to make the winner stand out by sheer spectacle. However these were for me, ironically, some of the most quietly successful pieces in the whole show. Dougal McKenzie’s compositions revealed a journey from reality to abstraction, painted geometric marks appeared collaged on to prints and patterned material. The careful interplay between the multiple elements resulted in truly engaging paintings. To the left of hangs Thomas M. Wright’s bizarre and brilliant painting, Inherent Omniscience (Second Version). In front of muddy flurry of gestural brown paint was a bold graphic capital letter I, stood as if a figure on a grey horizon. Spookily peering out of the painting are two cold, searching eyes. David Dipré showed a truly strange self-portrait (this is a good thing). I had seen Damien Meade’s impressive work for the first time earlier in the day at Cave art fair. Talcum was equally arresting, with painterly translations of smaller approximations of heads made from modelling clay. For me the painting was transformed by the inclusion of a warm red glow on the right-hand side, almost as if the heater in the artist’s cold studio had worked its way into the composition.

Certain trends or commonalities stood out on my first visit. Above all was the staggering return of formal abstraction; I would say roughly one-third of the paintings on show would fall into this camp. On first viewing I am not sure which are the best, but James Ryan’s serpentine use of geometry on a grid of found fabric stood out, as did Robin Kirsten’s cloud-like flurry of broken circles. In the first room several works directly referenced the art-world. Enzo Marra showed a Guston-like impasto pink portrait of Monet; Dominic Lewis monochrome canvas composition took the position of an awkward bystander’s intrusion into an auction and Andrew Cranston presented a paranoid version of life-class, with easels hogging the edges of the room and the tutor awkwardly altering the position of the model’s right foot.

A number of works made reference to the current political unrest, though I am not sure if there was any reason for most of them being pushed to the furthest corner in the exhibition. Emma Talbot painting revealed the interior of an ordinary house in her distinctive style, the more observant viewer would not need the title, The Good Terrorists, to see the more subtle depictions of protestors’ activities. Laura Keeble painted riot police on a coke can collected from the aftermath of the London riots, while Wayne Clough’s photorealist tempera piece showed the clear-up after a fire or bomb blast. This could be a depiction of something accidental, or of arson or terrorism. The painting does not judge or pre-empt, it is up to us as viewers, guided perhaps by its placement near other works of civil unrest, to project something more politically loaded.

The painting that keeps nagging me after my first visit however is Rae Hicks’ Late Summer Mirage. A Scaletrix-like racetrack surrounded by woodland has been brutally obstructed by a black horizontal monolith. The painting prompts questions, rather than answers, like so many good works of art. I am not sure this is the best painting in the show (a somewhat absurd thing to try and single out). it is simply the painting that repeatedly returns to my thoughts. Next visit it may well be something else entirely.

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