Walker Art Gallery
North West England

One of the pleasures of returning to the John Moores is that paintings can appear to change in focus to the visitor each visit. Some which initially sparkle begin to offer less on return visits, others which appear to lurk in the shadows of my mind on the first visit almost shout out on returning the third or forth time. Often I look through the catalogue at home and cannot remember a couple of the paintings and seek them out when next in the galleries and am often rewarded for having done so. Often a painting just gets better the more I see it, but most of all there are some that I just cannot figure out, whether it is on the first visit or the fifth. These are often the ‘best’ paintings of all for me. For this review I thought I would try and reflect these aspects of the show.

I think Oscar Godfrey’s ‘Mineral 9’ may be my favourite painting in the show and after 4 visits I still cannot work out or have a clear idea as to why this might be. Words cannot sum the painting up; when I try to form them they sound cliché, inadequate and a little old fashioned, but here are some I jotted down in my notebook as I stood in front of it. “The painting is ‘simple’ in the best possible way, i.e. definitely not stupid, but gets rid of all the fuss…it is like a good sauce, where the wine has been reduced down to be so rich…perfect size and even better proportioned…the brushstrokes push and pull you all over…it flows so well…the colour sings…odd, but fantastic and certainly not wacky or peculiar…it just feels right somehow”. I think the last phrase is the nearest I could get in trying to describe it sufficiently. Whilst I was failing to form the right words I was reminded of a friend who recounted his first group tutorial with Gerard Hemsworth at Goldsmiths who said that “Nothing transcends language”. This might be correct, but I also wonder if paintings such as Godfrey’s are better off when you abscise language.

I was talking to a friend who visited me in the studio last week about this year’s exhibition. Sophia is someone whose opinion I trust and value and was pleased to discover we agreed on so little about this years prize, mainly because we usually have a good conversation when we disagree. There was one painting she talked of called “Dead Man” which I could not remember at all from her description, something I found troubling because of her enthusiasm for it. This was the painting I went to first in the gallery on this visit. It was in the place where Sophia had described and I had no memory of this work being there on previous visits, I think Theo Cuff’s gorgeous work nearby had dominated my vision. I

did recall Eve Ackroyd’s painting in the catalogue, which on page felt like it was from the Tuymans school of influence. In the flesh there is more subtlety of mark, than much of the Belgian artist’s imitators. It is well painted, the simplicity of the composition is betrayed by a complex web of underpainting and the almost disguised appearance of decision making. There is a richness to the scrubbed pure colour in the painting, but more subtle and pleasing is the little details. A halo of colour surrounds a foot of the corpse, this is made up of the paler leftover initial ground of the painting, which has been retained in a sliver between the foot and the richer and darker (near) sienna red that makes up most of the background. The key to the painting being successful though is the application of paint that forms the cloth over the body, there is enough ambiguity to this shape for it to be both abstract and yet certain of what it is describing.

Another point of discussion that us regularly comes up when discussing the show with friends is the decision this year to hang the show somewhat thematically. Usually (always?) the show is curated somewhat haphazardly in terms of ‘themes’, but I always felt sensitively in terms of the work. I returned to the show this time to look again at the hang, after being supportive of this year’s decision when in conversation with friends who are feel it simplifies and diminishes from individual works.

I find the decision to group works together does bring out sensibilities that are in common with works, and help to try to capture something that is in the zeitgeist of subject for contemporary British painters. Most of the time this is of interest and I think is most successful in the first room, where works by Enzo Marra, Peter Liversidge, Bernat Daviu and others all reference the art world in different ways. The curation works because the relationship between the works enriches the experience of seeing each one; they feed off each other. I am less certain this hang works so well when works that are aesthetically similar are grouped together, where powers inherent in each work can be diminished. An example of this is in the main room where Trevor Sutton’s deceptively complex (i.e it looks quite simple, but is definitely not) painting, completely overpowers an element of Jane Bustin’s paintings next to it.

Sutton’s work is a formal, rhythmic flow of line and blocks of colour; of black, white and above all blue. When I visited the first time I noticed the work next to it, but it did little for me. The top two of the three elements of Jane Buston’s painting hang at eye level, satisfactorily in the space. However low down near the skirting is a rich, almost IKB panel, which gets completely dominated over by the placement so near to Sutton’s work. Bustin’s work needs space around it for it to be seen as a complete unit, but then so does Sutton’s painting, in fact so would most works in the show.

I could not help feeling that if the paintings were not being hung thematically then debateable decisions to place works together like Bustin and Sutton’s paintings would not have happened and perhaps individual paintings would have been hung more sensitively to one another. That said I still believe it is a good/interesting decision to hang the show in groupings for the John Moores this year, it is perhaps a reflection of Iwona Blazwik being on the judging panel? It does bring out commonalities between paintings, and also allows the first time viewer to easily see these and the returning or informed viewer to start picking out other connections between paintings. This aspect of the John Moores is one of the joys of having so much of a melting pot of good paintings all together in one space. You try to make sense of it all, but then you revert back to just revelling in the best, individual paintings.