John Moores Painting Prize 2012

Walker Art Gallery Liverpool
15th September 2012 – 6th January 2013
Free Entry

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson

Apocalypse Now?

Described as, “the most exciting and cutting edge contemporary painting,” the 2012 John Moores exhibition left me feeling depressed; there was scarcely anything to raise the spirit: an unnerving result. Stronger than mere dissatisfaction; this was a sense of narrowness, underachievement and claustrophobic bleakness.

So what were the sources of my negative reaction? There were quite a lot of small paintings. Now size needn’t be a limitation: Picasso could create a sense of easy spaciousness on the lid of a cigar box. Neal Jones’s small painting Bruegel Camp (2007), a prize-winner in 2008, said something big and with humour. Humour doesn’t respect boundaries. Similarly, Matthew Wood’s tiny painting S-CAT LRABI (2007), also in the 2008 exhibition, opened a doorway into a viable terrain beyond. The overall winner of the 2010 exhibition, Keith Coventry, exhibited a small piece, Spectrum Jesus (2009) which offered a visual and cerebral experience. There was no feeling of smallness because, in causing me to focus on perception, the artist led me to contemplate the status of religious experience in a secular world. Nick Fox’s Metatopia (2009), also from 2010, had an oriental balance of distance and restraint.

Given that size needn’t matter, why did I register the fact that there were small paintings in the latest exhibition? Oscar Godfrey’s Mineral 9 (2011) exemplifies what I mean. It is small in dimension and limited in content and technique. I didn’t have any appreciable experience of it, save noting it was mid green paint with some black paint… er, brushed on. Julie Cockburn’s The Field is also diminished by its limitedness. It involves a found painting, which may or may not have been found obliterated, to which two ceramic objects: orange and yellow, have been affixed, the whole thing dignified by a bespoke frame. It’s aesthetically unappealing and it might have looked better or more interesting if it was bigger. But I doubt it. Could I find something conceptual to exercise my mind? Not much. Recycling? A comment on the way artists build on what already exists? Kevin Hutcheson’s Study (2011) consists of acrylic paint partially obliterating magazine cuttings on paper. It’s small; you have to peer at it. So is Enzo Marra’s Monet (2011). Though the subject is instantly recognizable and there is freshness in the brushstrokes, the rest of the painting is indistinct. A reference to Monet’s poor eyesight? Theo Cuff’s Untitled (2011) is a goodly slab of blues which I did find pleasing but why didn’t he make it bigger? Is the recession biting so deep? Perhaps it is.

There are more: in Henny Acloque’s 277 the conventional scene has been subverted by the superimposition of perpendicular areas of paint: red, white, pale blue, brown and orange. Again, you have to peer closely and the point in all these cases is: is it worth the effort? It’s the same with Laura Keeble’s “I’d like to teach the world to sing” (2011). Her image of riot police enamel-painted on a crushed coke can has political and economic resonances but you can hardly make it out and hasn’t it been said before? And haven’t we seen minimalism decades ago? Didn’t Sesame Street take over the new visual appraisal of numbers and letters from Jasper Johns? Ian Law’s M is Many (2011) is one of the prize-winning paintings, nevertheless. On the other hand, Hannah Brown’s small painting Time Hangs Heavy 3 (2011) is a country scene of such stifling banality, such lifeless tedium and such a successful depiction of heaviness that the experiential component transcends the consideration of dimensions. Indeed, the confining size successfully contributes to the experience. But Robin Kirsten’s Path of Whistlers (2012) is merely banal. Virginia Phongsathorn’s small oil painting Comma (Test Piece for an Eye Break) depicts a horrid mollusc-like creature taking up the space. The eye certainly needs a break from this so perhaps that’s the witty comment. Or perhaps it’s an objection to the way commas slow things down.

One of the prizewinning paintings, The Greater Light (2012), by Biggs and Collings, is admirable for its technical care, among other qualities. The same can be said for Katrina Blannin’s diptych Pink (2012) and Zheng Jiang’s painstaking examination of light and shadow on pattern, Waiting (2011). It is therefore disappointing to note the lack of technical achievement to be found in paintings such as Oliver Perkin’s DEAD RUBBER (2011) where the black lines are not so carefully painted and Sarah Poots’ Plaza (2011), which also lacks a precision not compensated for by any nostalgia one might feel for tiled areas. Dougal McKenzie’s 2011 work Otl’s Gift (The Honeymoon of the Mechanical Bride) is less straightforward. It is a visually drab experience which disappoints aesthetically by its stale carelessness of presentation, though that might be the experiential point of the painting. Compared with the celebratory power of colour in Sonia Morange’s Poncho (2012) and in Bernat Davin’s Overall Paintings (2011), or the graffiti energy of Dan Perfect’s abstract painting Future Sun (2011) or Zang Aicun’s hyper chromatic Makeup No 2 (2011), or the dramatically monochromatic downward surge of Cullinan Richard’s Collapse into Abstract (Black), 2010, Otl’s Gift is visually limp. But that might be its point – and its strength. A similar impression of staleness emanates from Jane Ryan’s Untitled (2011) painting on checked fabric. Possibly a comment on the recent flurry of Kidstonesque nostalgia for Coronation Britain?

So there is smallness and drabness and some lack of technical care. And these qualities, together with a sense of bleakness, permeate the exhibition. Though I’m not objecting to bleakness. I’m not objecting to bleakness. Trevor Sutton’s Irish Painting (for Jack) 2011 has an abstract geometric coldness about it. Laura Lancaster’s Untitled (2012) contains what appears to be a dark bouquet surrounded by blackness. It’s another dimensionally small painting but here the emotional resonance is large. Liz Elton’s Twisted (2012) successfully captures the drooping, faded gaiety of the morning after…more dejected than bleak. Nathan Eastwood makes the impact of snow visually sombre in his painting A Man after Ilya Repin’s Own Heart (2011) which is as sinisterly far away from White Christmas as one could get. James Bloomfield’s Collateral Damage - The Killing Jar 14.01.2012 (2012) has an oppressively grey sense of waiting. The buildings and what may or may not be figures are indistinct, as if viewed from a great distance through a telescopic lens - this distancing such a feature of modern warfare - and the central ground of the painting is empty. Wayne Clough’s painting Down the Acapulco (2012) looks like an indistinct photograph and has a similar feeling of blasted urban landscape. Be van der Heide’s In the Desert (2011) shows that a feeling of desolate suffering can transcend the warm colours of sand.

Some paintings take the bleakness further towards the ominous. Rae Hicks’s Late Summer Mirage (2011) shows something heavy – a piece of Stonehenge? – squatting over a landscape with sterile-looking conifers and a deserted road that seems to have no destination. Rather more than referencing the unyielding movement towards occupying our green spaces, it conveys a feeling of futility and powerlessness.

Damien Meade’s Talcum (2011) is a sinister portrait showing the back of a head covered in thick grey hair. What disturbs – as well as the absence of a face - is the unnerving glimpse of black vinyl skin on the neck and upper body. Are we in HR Giger territory? Don’t turn round mister!

Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse you come across Jarik Jongman’s Waiting Room (1), 2011. This oil painting has a menacing claustrophobia. It depicts a dark room containing rows of unoccupied black furniture, garishly caught by unnaturally dark yellow light coming in through a large window. The feeling of existential dread you experience comes from a realization that whatever awaits you when they come to call you from your seat cannot be worse than this place. Can it? The ominous thing is that this is only waiting room number one. The painting reverberates with the passive Orwellian bureaucracy of the person routinized into queuing and with our dread of room 101.

Another painting having literary echoes is the overall winning piece but it’s a world away from those death row settees. Stevie Smith and the Willow (2011) by Sarah Pickstone is a light, watery painting in which the immersion of the person “not waving but drowning” has been transformed into an interaction of two minds: the literary and the artistic. What we have is a large, optimistic painting which retains the watery downwardness of the poem whilst eliminating the bleakness of human despair and the failure to communicate which the poem addresses. I can’t understand the motivation here. Is the artist saying, let’s not have any of that gloomy talk here. Let’s have some nice yellows and greens to cheer us all up. Is this the equivalent of the post-bombing nice cup of tea?

In terms of combining word and image I liked Jane Bustin’s contemporary allusion sacrificed to veil sacrifies pour voiler (2010) because I appreciated the spaciousness and abstraction of the installation and the way the shadows worked.

Stephen Nicholas’s prize-winner The Gallery (2011) also bucks the trend. It isn’t a large painting but it is nevertheless filled with light and space and potential. It’s a place for the eye to find aesthetic tranquillity.

Another prizewinning artist, Narbi Price, has taken a piece of urban scenery and transcended its utilitarian function, so that it becomes a piece of abstract art. Untitled Kerbstone Painting (MJK) therefore does not have the depressing effect that some of the other paintings described have.

So far I have noted the current trends in terms of content, mood and presentation. Art is often self-referential and I was interested to know what it was saying about itself this year. There were a couple of pieces designed to make you smile at their wit. Matt Welch’s Painting of IKEA shelf brackets arranged in such a way as to signify towards IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad’s involvement with Nazism and Swedish Nationalism distracted by varying levels of perspectival depth, variations in colour and visually dominated by some form of unknown dark oval in the background satirises those art critics who can find something deep and meaningless to say about almost any art. It’s a nod in the direction of Pseud’s Corner.

Amikam Toren is also in debunking mode. Armchair Painting – Untitled (The Unthinkable), 2010 is a dully conventional amateurish landscape with the double advantage of a gilt frame and a Perspex box. In spite of the overdone security, the painting has been mutilated. The unthinkable has been done to it and there it is: the word UNTHINKABLE cut into the painting. As a visual joke it makes you smile and as a comment on our over-solemn attitude to art it rings true.

Dominic Lewis addresses the art market in his monochromatic sketch The Auction (2011), which evokes a pulp fiction world from the trench-coated Thirties. An extremely indifferent picture is held up for perusal whilst an audience sitting in rows looks at the pulpitted auctioneer. A spiv photographer, his camera trained on the audience, not the painting, is waiting to snap the highest bidder. This is not to be an aesthetic decision but an investment opportunity and consumerism has become the new religion. Emblems from classical art embellish the room: fruit, nude torsos, lutes…but all drawn in the hasty sketchy way used in the rest of the piece. References to classical art are also found in Paul Collinson’s Temple of Ancient Virtue (2010). This oil painting resembles a photograph that has been over-enlarged. The ancient traditions of classical learning have been trivialised and commercialised: replaced by the Pegasus Snack Bar in a graffitied container with a statue of Pegasus perched on the roof and antique relics strewn about the ground. Tacky.

Andrew Cranston’s Thinking Inside the Box (2012) creates an enclosed feeling through the use of dull greys in the created enclosure, and oppressive black at the top of the painting. The figures at the easels arranged around the perimeter of the enclosure are mainly sketched in and undifferentiated; the focus a more substantial nude on a divan, next to an old-fashioned radiator. A man is arranging the model. The implication is that artists cut themselves off from whatever is outside the box and focus on an (outmoded?) notion of what is a fitting subject for art. The only molecule of optimism in this greyness is that colours seem to be seeping in between the putty-coloured square tiles. Or are they draining out?

So, what does this exhibition have to say to us? I have emphasised the bleak and the banal and the careless. I have become increasingly aware of apocalyptic rumblings in recent exhibitions. The art world is saying that tradition has been subverted by commercialism, that conventional easel painters are out of touch and stuck with old-fashioned conventions and subject matter, that the sacred cows of the art world are now lifeless. In spite of some exceptions, this is all very dispiriting.

Perhaps I have been disproportionately inspired by our recent athletes, though I was determined not to be, but somehow, that moment of poetic movement, that approach to perfection seems worth all the money, effort and controversy that created it. Are my expectations: for contemporary art to raise the spirit, to give a positive experience, to be aesthetically and technically admirable, to be novel, to seek some perfection … also out of date? Is there nothing else to say, to say well? And is this the way to express that uncomfortable fact? Or are we frozen into inactivity, smallness, mediocrity, a bleak sense of futility, by the coming apocalypse?

Is this how it ends, not with a bang but a whimper?*

*TS Eliot: The Hollow Men

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Sorry Comments Closed

Comment left by Marcia Thompson on 4th November, 2012 at 19:02
I was pleased to know you were disappointed. I felt I was being cheated. I love the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle. I feel there is some exciting and imaginative artwork there. This year's John Moore's was more disappointing than ever. It seems like an insult to his name.