Walker Art Gallery
North West England

When I was a student I would often visit the John Moores Painting Prize to study the paintings. My tutor, the late and great Roy Holt, would ask me repeatedly what I thought of the paintings in the exhibition. He would consistently ask me what I felt was good, what I thought really did not work and what was missing from the show. It was often hardest to talk about what, or rather why, a painting was good, but our conversations often brought out the richness in a painting. What I thought was a bad painting was often challenged by Roy, the words I used to describe my dissatisfaction rarely held up to his almost ‘police-style’ interrogation of my views. This week I took my students to the John Moores and I thought it would be interesting to share some of our discussions. Surely one of the aims of the John Moores is to promote contemporary painting, and students should be high up on the list of targeted audiences, given that they are the future contemporary artists.

The biggest discussion revolved around the old chestnut of the skill of the painter. Several of the students latched on to this as the key indicator of the success of the painting. We discussed why this made for a successful painting, and in particular why you should spend huge amounts of time and effort producing something like a photograph? The major concern for an artwork I tried to insist was if it stimulated thought and questioning, hopefully beyond something that you already know. We discussed if a painting merely makes you think about the skill of creation then what does it achieve in the long term? Furthermore should skill only be judged in terms of realistic rendering? I thought back to my visits as a student and although this was one of the factors that influenced my mindset to the paintings I appreciated, I was more drawn to the odder paintings, the ones that I could not figure out easily.

A lot of our conversation centred upon this year’s winning painting, Sarah Picktone’s ‘Stevie Smith and the Willow’. A winner often courts opposition I believe, merely because of the absurdity of a judgement that this painting is ‘better’ than the others. It is interesting that so often the reaction is focused around the belief that what you think is the best should have won instead, as if this is anything other than a subjective choice.

I had a long discussion with the students around the skill in Picksonte’s painting, many saw this as a somewhat childish naive work. I believe it is a highly skilled work, something only an accomplished painter could achieve. The proof for me is nowhere more apparent than in the central lower section. Here convergent lines of grey pick out a crudely drawn female figure. The under-painting of luminous orange and over-painting of yellow lends deliberateness to the mark making, but also interest, warmth and a glow. These gestures and details of application are present all over the painting and are what result in its success.

Later on I talked to another small group of students about Virginia Phongsathorn’s ‘Comma (Test Piece for an Eye Break)’. I think this might be the oddest painting in the exhibition, the one I cannot figure out and the one that I find hardest to talk about. For me this is a strength of the work, it opens up ambiguity and questions. As we talked I became more certain that this was a good painting, perhaps in parallel with the students believing it was a bad one. I think this is for the same reason; I could not talk about this work with any authority or sureness, only speculation. I wish there was more art like this, art that cannot be pigeon-holed, I think it would have prompted a good discussion with Roy.

A third year student, Belinda Thomas picked out Theo Cuff’s ‘Untitled’ as her most intriguing painting in the show. She said ”There’s something about the simplicity of execution of his limited palette and the abstraction within which attracts me. The gentle graduation of background blending lies in juxtaposition to the dynamic, thick brushmarks of what could be an obliteration. That single dribble hooks me, what lies beneath I wonder?” Like my response to Phongsathorn’s it is the opening up of meaning that attracted Belinda to Cuff’s painting. I wonder if this possibility for abstraction (of thought) is one reason why painting continues to ‘survive’ its drawn out supposed death?

Another student picked out Enzo Marra’s ‘Monet’ as his painting of choice. Chris is obsessed by Auerbach and makes impasto paintings back in Lincoln, so I can see his attraction to the viscosity of paint. However, I wonder if it is also because this painting acknowledges, or rather foregrounds past master painters. Earlier in the day he visited the Turner, Monet, Twombly blockbuster show at Tate Liverpool and talked of the obvious influences of one generation of artists to the next in this show. Perhaps in the painting we see the journey of painting from Monet to Auerbach to Marra?

Tessa Allen immediately picked out Jarik Jongman’s ‘Waiting Room (1)’ as her favourite for its intelligent use of light to pick out the details of this dark painting. She said “As I stand in front of it, I feel as if I am in the room itself, maybe stood in the doorway looking in. It feels damp, dusty and dirty as if it might be the acquired home of a homeless person. I think it feels damp due to the shiny oil paint looking wet.” She became transported through spending time with the painting, perhaps to a place of her nightmares, or more specifically of waking from one. I was reminded of myself as a student watching Tessa interrogate the painting. I would spend long periods of time sat on the floor picking out and trying to decode a single painting on my visits to the John Moores.

As we left the gallery I pointed out one final painting. It is an odd painting of seemingly abstract shapes with multiple layers of paint on it. Sickly blue dominates the right hand side and scrubbed grey on the left; Sweet-like forms hover over a curious architectural form. All of this is somewhat roughly painted, making the deliberate depiction of a pipe spouting water more focused and alive. This painting is ‘Outside Toilet’ by Jay Oliver. The students know him better as Jamie, he teaches illustration at Lincoln. My students were as impressed with Jamie’s inclusion in the show as I was when one of my tutors, Benet Spencer, was included in that year’s John Moores. It gives us all something to aspire to when someone we know is included in the prize, as a student it gave me something to aim for as an acknowledgement of success as a painter to be included. I hope my students felt the same visiting this show and seeing Jamie’s painting.