Martin Greenland - Before Vermeer’s CloudsJohn Moores 24

Walker Art Gallery
16th September – 26th November 2006

Reviewed by Adam Ford

This competition has now been a centrepiece of all four Liverpool arts biennials, and has a prize fund of £35,000. The winner gets a fair bit of national press coverage too. So why are the fifty-two finalists exhibited at the Walker so uninspired and unadventurous? Apparently 2,300 artists submitted slides, so I reckon it must be down to some of the people on the jury, which included Tracey ‘please look at my bed’ Emin.

First place and £25,000 goes to Martin Greenland, for his ‘Before Vermeer’s Clouds’ (above). It’s a fairly average landscape, with some decent greenery and a dodgy stream. But his gimmick is that he ‘copied’ the clouds from 19th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s 'A View of Delft'. I’m looking at that one now, and they’re only vaguely similar. Better than I could do, like, but so what? Ho-hum.

A couple of the other prizewinners are similarly dull. ‘Baptism’ by Wirral-born Matthew Burrows is all greys and whites, suggesting very little. ‘In the Basement (Kit II) by James White is very skilfully done, but at the end of the day it’s just a painting of a drum kit in a basement. Graham Crowley’s ‘Red Reflection’ and Vincent Hawkins’ ‘After Paul Nash’ are a little more intriguing, taking the viewer beyond mundanity for a change.

David Harrison’s - Bad FairiesAlas my own personal diamonds in the rough received no prize other than mere biennial exposure. Gary Sollars’ ‘When I Grow Up I Want To Go In There’ shows a hostess hanging out of the Masquerade gar bar on Liverpool’s Cumberland Street, while children stride by in fancy dress and a menacingly masked figure stares out the gallerygoer. And my vote in the Visitors’ Choice award went to David Harrison’s ‘Bad Fairies’ (right), which sees a group of naked Labour politicians getting up to no good in a weird nocturnal garden. It seems fantastical, yet somehow it also seems more than real than reality.

I’d love to eavesdrop on David Harrison’s nightmares, which is more than I can say for Martin Greenland’s dreams.

If you can’t be bothered going to the Walker and climbing those stairs, you can view all the exhibits at If you then need an antidote, go to the Stuckists exhibition at the School of Art and Design on Hope Street from 9th October.

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Comment left by J E Lumb on 26th September, 2006 at 9:32
No doubt Ford would say something sarcastic about Sir Peter Blake too, one of the other judges. This isn’t a review, but a cynical stab in a vain attempt to appear witty and intelligent. It is obvious that Ford has never bothered to climb those stairs himself and I can only assume that he wrote this sitting on his bed looking at the exhibition on the Walker’s website. Martin Greenland's painting is entirely painted from imagination, so is not a landscape at all, and certainly not 'average' – show me another average imagined landscape painted with such incredible skill that you could almost fall into the painting and get tangled in the undergrowth. The so-called 'gimmick' of Vermeer's clouds is quite incidental – did you not see the change in season from right to left (or is it the effects of global-warming?), and that the ‘dodgy’ waterfall is in fact snow-melt, a far subtler comment on the destructive policies of government than the childish rendition of Labour politicians in ‘Bad Fairies’. And did you not realise that the distant terracotta town has no identity (this is not Delft – and that is relevant), a mix of west and east, Christian and Islamic, somewhere that appears so at peace with itself that tragedy cannot be far away, like the bombing of innocents in the Balkans, or Afghanistan, or Iraq. And what about the golden casket? Is that Vermeer’s tomb, or a trunk full of war-bounty ready to be dragged away by an occupying force? This is the first painting to win the John Moores in its 50yr history that is ‘traditional’ landscape, that was painted by an artist who is not London-based, and marks a very important and significant change in direction for contemporary art in this country away from conceptual (even though Tracey Enim was a judge), to something more considered and meaningful – this is a triumph for painting, though I doubt Ford has never lifted a paintbrush in his life so he wouldn’t know that, would he?

Comment left by Adam Ford on 27th September, 2006 at 18:08
OK J E, I'm sure there's a point in there somewhere, but you let it slip with the personal (and totally unfounded) swipes. If Greenland is standing up for the environment then good for him, but 'a far subtler comment' is right. What percentage of people will take his concern for the environment on board? Very few, unless they read this page. We haven't got time for subtlety where the environment is concerned. And if only painters were allowed to have opinions about paintings, art would die-out very quickly. I think that is actually happening, because it is snobbish attitudes like yours that put ordinary people off.

Comment left by J E Lumb on 27th September, 2006 at 21:10
First, I’m not a painter. Second, to complain about ‘personal’ and ‘unfounded swipes’ is odd coming from a reviewer who thinks nothing about criticising other people with arbitrary and clichéd writing. And before you start with your class assumptions, simply because someone else dares criticise you, I never said art criticism shouldn’t pull punches or that non-artists shouldn’t be able to comment on, or question art. All I was getting at is that your so-called art critique of the John Moores 24 could have benefited from you actually spending time studying the work. You may well be a very good reviewer if you don’t rush it, and like you, I actually think this year’s show is weak and an odd mix of fairly empty paintings (except for a few, including Martin Greenland’s ‘Before Vermeer’s Clouds’), something I can only attribute to Tracy Emin’s personal preferences. In your review of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries, you say that ‘art is about reflecting the real world and yet transcending it. Art is about communication. Art is about provoking any human emotion other than boredom’. I couldn’t agree with you more, but to do this art doesn’t have to be brazen, like Gary Sollars’ ‘When I Grow Up I Want To Go In There’, or obvious like David Harrison’s ‘Bad Fairies’. Art can have subtlety and still make a statement, it doesn’t have to be shoved in the so-called ‘ordinary’ people’s faces to have impact - they are just as capable of understanding it too.

Comment left by Adam Ford on 28th September, 2006 at 16:56
I'm glad we agree so much! Great art certainly can be subtle, and one of the joys of it can be coming back to a piece many years later and finding shades of meaning you didn't see first time round. I did spend about an hour and a half in the gallery, returning time after time and looking for something of interest to leap out at me. I didn't notice any works of subtle genius, Greenland included. And I paid that one special attention. But yes, that is just me. I brought my own particular preconceptions and prejudices to the gallery, as did you, as does everyone who went. In that sense reviews will always be arbitrary. I'm not the Oracle, but I will express my opinions, and hopefully stir up some debate. So I am delighted you are expressing your opinions.

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