Walker Art Gallery
North West England

At the heart of each of the John Moores Painting Prizes I have attended is a debate about painting; whether over the discipline as a whole and its continued relevance, the nature of the prize, of individual paintings or what is missing from the exhibition. The usual place for my debate and conversations arising from the John Moores has previously been in front of the work with or later in the pub or studio. This year I was on a panel discussion with other painters (fellow North-West non-showers in this years prize, Magnus Quaife and Leo Fitzmaurice and prize winners Narbi Price and Sarah Pickstone) who I am sure said more eloquent things than me on the day. A lot was covered in this debate and I thought it would be interesting to discuss this in relation to this series of reviews.

Before the public debate we ran through the questions as a panel in the magnificent meeting room at the Walker, reached through a series of basement corridors and Victorian tiled staircases. It was fascinating to hear different members of the panel’s thoughts on the prize and painting in general, much of which was later said (perhaps, a more diluted or less casual form) in the galleries. Most tellingly for me was how much the prize does mean to painters, Narbi talked of his pilgrimages each year to the show from Newcastle for example. It was also interesting getting more of an insight into the judging process. I have always been a little cynical of what is presented as the anonymous nature of the judging process, there are always rumours of a ‘nod and a wink’ type approach.

Talking to the organisers it would appear that the anonymous nature of the judging is particularly important to them and their belief in the prize. There were three things that stood out in relationship to this, that I think it is important to share to confirm or reinstate a faith in the judging process. One was a comment over who does enter the John Moores and subsequently do not make it through, and by this I mean ‘successful’ painters. Only the organisers knows the names and they said we would be surprised who does enter. Secondly there was a comment over the amount of imitators that enter. This has always struck me as the strangest thing to do as a painter; to make a work like another artist in the hope the judges will select your work instead of the ‘real’ artist. If you were to get selected then it would be for a fallacy, only revealing your flaws as a (con) artist. That said it has always struck me that it might be an interesting exercise, if you could afford two entry fees. Narbi said how he had thought of entering an imitation of Ian Davenport’s works in the past, to see if that would get him selected or not.

Thirdly was the comment over painters phoning up to ask if the prize was truly anonymous as they did not want the judges knowing who they were if they rejected them. I had not thought of this aspect before, I have always assumed the opposite, that ‘big name’ artists would want it to not be anonymous so they would have more chance of being selected. The anonymity is a real strength of the prize and something they must retain if it is remain vital for years to come. After our conversation I believe the fact that the names of the artists selected were not known until the prizes had been awarded. I wonder what would happen if first prize was awarded to one of the imitators in the future? Look out for an Ian Davenport clone next time!

Out in the glare of bulbs in the gallery we covered a lot of ground as a panel, sat precariously on a stage in front of Sarah’s winning painting (I was terrified of falling backwards into it). Discussions centred around the prize in particular; its appeal, whether it still meets its initial objectives, the lack of woman winners, the amateur/professional openness of entry to the prize, trends in this years prize and how the prize should develop. We went on to discuss the continued relevance of and the ‘death’ of painting, the role of painting in art schools today, the role of commercial and public galleries in supporting art/artists/painters and many other things. Often I had just formed my thoughts (or remembered what I had said earlier on in the meeting room) when we were moving the discussion along, but much was said and discussed. I hope as a panel we added to the debate, which naturally occurs and is stimulated in the galleries during the John Moores painting prize.

Looking back I am surprised and pleased that one word did not get mentioned, ‘London’. I think this might be the first time I have been involved in a debate of this kind outside of London where the capital (of the British art world) did not get a mention. The debate was more pluralistic than this. The major issue addressed, but not resolved in the talk was undoubtedly the lack of female winners of this prize and, as I argued, the art world in general, in terms of representation in most group exhibitions or major museum retrospectives.

That only 3 woman (Mary Martin in 1969, Lisa Milroy in 1989 and Sarah Pickstone this year) have won the John Moores is both a surprise and a travesty, however how can this be addressed whilst it is an anonymous competition? One answer may be in having an equal gender split in the judges, perhaps then any underlying principles which can naturally (or unnaturally) split opinion might, in some way, be resolved. Those sceptical of this position only have to look to the judging split when this years winner and the year Lisa Milroy won, to see that in both years the majority of the judges were female. We still have a long way to go in so many ways it would appear. It was interesting when this issue was opened up to the audience that the two (female) artists who responded both said they did not enter as they were not ready to do so, most (male) painters I know will enter the prize even if they think their painting is not good enough. I could not help but think that the 2 members of the audience should just enter the prize and let the judges decide if their paintings are good enough or not.One thing to note on a positive note here, 29 out of 64 exhibitors are female this year, that said only 6 selected last time were. In both years the amount of applicants was equal. I could not help thinking that the panel was even more biased towards white male artists than the judging or the exhibitors of the prize.

Another major issue was over what constitutes a painting, and specifically in relation to the John Moores, which still retains many of the original criteria for entry (though they did change the rules a few years ago to allow watercolour paintings to be submitted!). The prize rules, in particular, state the painting must attach to the wall and must have paint on it. The feeling from the panel, in the main, seemed to suggest that maybe these restrictions/rules should be lightened to let in examples of the expanded field of painting which are currently disqualified from the prize. It was argued that a lot of painters today slip into over media, such as video and installation. The feeling was that if the rules of the prize allowed the painter and judges to decide what constituted a painting then the prize might more truly reflect contemporary painting. The inclusion of Liz Elton’s work ‘Twisted’ this year perhaps hints at the possibilities if tihs approach were to be taken, very tellingly Elton’s work could attach to the wall and stuck out the regulation 50cm. I wonder what could be included if regulations like these were released. That said there was a counter discussion over whether this would in turn diminish the appeal and importance of the prize. I guess the decision is with the Walker, but I, for one, would like to see what the prize would look like if the rules were lightened.

I think all those that attended the discussion will remember one audience member’s comments more than the panels, I leave what was said here to the memory of those in the audience and those following on twitter, but one audience member tweeted “debate perhaps unintentionally one of the most amusing talks I’ve ever been to! Audience member comments unbelievable!”. There was a general feeling among artist friends that he must have been a plant by Chris Morris or the Fast Show. I hope that those that were there will take the sentiments of the last person to speak though. An audience member said he wanted to say something positive and he said this most eloquently; saying that he was not an artist, but he thought the John Moores was brilliant and good for the city. I could not agree more.