Peter McDonald - FontanaJohn Moores 25 Contemporary Painting Prize

Walker Art Gallery
20th September 2008 – 4th January 2009

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

John Moores 25 presents a selection of new British paintings shortlisted for the John Moores contemporary painting prize. It has an impressive legacy of painters – past winners include David Hockney, John Hoyland and Peter Doig. The jurors are artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, Graham Crowley and Paul Morrison and critic and curator Sacha Craddock.

In a sense I felt rather relieved to concentrate for once just on painted canvas. There were forty works to look at and after the frisson of excitement caused by Tracy Emin’s visit I enjoyed looking at them in the spacious context of the Walker Gallery.

The winning painting is Peter McDonald’s Fontana (2006) – a truly strange and elegant painting humorously evoking Lucio Fontana’s trademark canvases slashed with cuts. It’s a traditional theme: the artist in his studio, but here the brush has been replaced by a knife; the act of creation at the same time potentially an act of destruction. The artist’s head – large and transparent and helmet-shaped, misshapen even – doubles up as a palette, incorporating the paintings on the studio wall as dabs of paint. In this almost abstract work the focal point is the intensity of the ambivalent act of the artist as destroyer/creator.

Another prize winner is the poignant portrait by Grant Foster: Hero Worship (2007) a work which comes to the edge of the grotesque but does not go over. The encrustation of thick paint and real hair (grey in one part where the artifice has failed), the presence of the skull beneath the skin, the staring eyes all connote horror yet the fear is all in the eyes and demeanour of the figure not in the mind of the viewer. The artist has achieved a masterly balance between compassion and revulsion.

Neal Jones’ Bruegel Camp (2007), also a prize winner, balances a sense of oppressive bleakness with a slightly humorous view of human coexistence with the environment. Even compared with the meteorological excesses of Glastonbury, Bruegel Camp is a grim northern European place, flanked by grey rocks with the ominous shape of a battleship in the distance. Yet there is a sense of optimism in the cartoon-like caravan at the front of the painting; a hint of humour in the disappearing buttocks; the sense of human activity in spite of everything that threatens it.

The other prize winners are Geraint Evans and Julian Brain whose Special Relativity (2000-2007) takes us into the world of Magritte. It’s a lovingly painted and clever piece of nostalgia based - we are informed - on Brain’s family circumstances, the objects representing family members in relation to each other. Geraint Evans’ An Ornamental Hermit (2007) also contains elements of nostalgia. One is reminded of the illustrations in children’s books of the fifties in this depiction of a suburban family. There’s a high degree of technical expertise in the painting and the artist has used a limited palette to produce a sense of drabness in this satirical poke at middle class acquisitiveness and mock rusticity which in this case has gone quite a step further from gnomes and decking. Our Pythonesque hermit lives in a preposterous tree house which dominates the picture and the whole milieu is balanced between absurdity and complacency.

There is much else to admire in this exhibition. I particularly liked Georgia Hayes’ Oportuno III (2007) – a study of a horse which stresses its size and power by painting it not quite fitting within the edges of the canvas and by giving it a penis resembling a gun, its thrust echoed by the raised back leg. The painting is understated with an almost traditional oriental attention to the decorative power of line. Watchtower with Green Stick (2008) by Mie Olise Kjaergaard similarly uses all the picture space. This dynamic and slightly threatening painting references our precariously overcrowded environment at the same time that it comments on our over-vigilant authorities.

Roland Hicks’ Sometimes We Sense the Doubt Together (2006) is an accomplished painting which elicits an ambivalent emotional/aesthetic response in the viewer, hovering as it does between beauty and horror, like a jellyfish does.

Ged Quinn’s large painting There’s a House in my Ghost facilitates a meeting place for romanticism and surrealism and invites the viewer to step inside to explore. At the other end of the size scale Matthew Wood’s tiny painting S-CAT LRABI (2007) presents an equally spacious world – a doorway into a viable terrain beyond.

I was also interested in the variety of modern materials being used in the paintings. Michael Stubbs has used tinted floor varnish, eggshell and gloss paints on MDF in his dramatic painting, Virus Maximiser. Jake Clack’s Cornerways (2007) is characterised by decorative ebullience, uses oil paint and Fablon on canvas.

To mark the fifty years since the first John Moores Prize, a special display has been mounted of previous prize winners acquired for the Walker Art Gallery over five decades. This offers more information about the history of the prize and the subsequent status of the artists affirms the importance of the event.

So, two linked exhibitions, the opportunity to catch sight of famous people and excellent cake in gracious surroundings. A good time.

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