John Moores Painting Prize 2014

A Needle Walks into a Haystack: Liverpool Biennial 2014
Walker Gallery
5th July – 30th November 2014
Free Entry

Reviewed by Sandra Gibson


BBC Four has been focusing on abstract art recently, a genre linked apocryphally with the overheard statement: “My five-year old could do better than that!” It’s easy to understand why such an ill-informed statement would catch on: it’s uncomfortable to find yourself without a narrative, urged to view a painting with a new mind, an open mind. It’s weird to lose sight of external reality; it’s difficult to take on board the esoteric stuff associated with artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian or to accept that paintings can be about painting just as viably as they can be an expression of faith or wealth or social comment or decorative titillation. Yet painters who chose abstraction are acknowledged as among the greatest artists of the twentieth century: their work was sufficiently challenging to be reviled as “degenerate” by totalitarian regimes (always a reliable barometer) and they created a liberated space for the next generation of artists.

But what of the new century? Judging by the John Moores exhibition, abstract art it is not the current genre of choice. Out of fifty entries, there are only about ten paintings with abstract content and they are mainly small and unremarkable. Tim Renshaw’s Nowhere (2013) is an oil painting on aluminium depicting stripes and motifs in repeat patterns, using sludgy tones of grey, green and maroon. It has a miniaturist’s meticulousness but it’s rather self-effacing.

Thr Strps (2012) by Andy Jackson is a dynamic composition of diagonals: pale blue shapes, grey-smudged on a black background. Again, it isn’t big enough to make much impact.

I would describe Tom Hackney’s Chess Painting No 21 (Duchamp vs. Kostic, Nice, 1930) (2013) as an abstract narrative. There is the obvious reference to the tactical adversarial game and chess aficionados would perhaps find more narrative relevance than non-players. But you don’t need to know about chess or a back story to appreciate the balancing between stasis and dynamism that exists in the configuration of vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines.

Rose Wylie’s PV Windows and Floorboards (2012)

Crockett (2013) by Phil Ashcroft is a dynamic, dramatic painting in black and cold turquoise with some white. I would claim that this is abstract with a figurative tendency because one can impute a striving ‘figure’, its left ‘leg’ moving forwards, its right ‘arm’ going back, power-slashing through the planes of space. Vanity Totem (2012), Christopher Cook’s witty subversion of the popular red heart image, similarly misses being totally abstract, since the motifs are reminiscent of microscopic life forms. It’s a nice piece of textural work in black and greys, using graphite powder, resin and oil on linen. Christow (2013) by Trevor Sutton is an abstract arrangement of two columns of stripes, which addresses the tonal values of juxtaposed colours. One admires the neat precision but is this to damn it with faint praise? Fiona Eastwood’s Closed (2013) combines colour as subject with decorative linear rhythm but the concertina effect, together with the work’s title, creates narrative possibility. New Logo (White-Red): Bear Sterns#15 (2013) by Trisant has a tactile invitation which provokes the desire to move the elements about on the wall. Similar in appeal is Inked Prosopon/0813 (2013), Neal Roch’s tempting ceramic-like confection of silicone paint, Styrofoam and MDF. It has an almost visceral materiality that makes you want to touch it and invites the question: when does a painting become a sculpture? In witty response we have I Don’t Know (2013) Zhu Xiaocong’s colour-exuberant painting with 3D elements, which looks as if it will develop from a painting into a sculpture if we don’t keep an eye on it.

My favourite amongst the abstract sub-group is Drift (2013), where Karen Roulstone has provided an immersive experience of shifting insubstantiality in this mood piece of pale blue, dawn pink, green and yellow. Exquisite, but again, small.

Using this important painting competition as an indicator, abstraction has lost its attitude; it barely has a voice. Most of the clamouring comes from paintings having socio-political and ecological comment - much of it rather unchallenging.

There is a high level of female influence and content too. Fourteen female artists are represented in the exhibition; three of the five short-listed painters are women; the overall winner is a woman and at least eleven paintings come under the umbrella of female-based issues. The message is best conveyed with a helping of humour, in my opinion. Roxy Walsh’s Tunnel of Love (2013) wittily subverts romance in this nicely composed evocation of sexual performance. Tupperware Party (2013) by Lexi Strauss humorously examines the blurring of gender roles in a graphic comment on lunch box anxiety.

Rae Hicks’s Sometimes I Forget That You’re Gone (2013)

Abstraction has also lost its place to photorealism, as found in Hynek Martinec’s monochromatic vanitas painting: Every Minute You Are Closer To Death (2013), which has a sinister stillness, or sister is that you? (2013), Reuben Murray’s portrait of abuse’s power to distort. Sometimes the realism edges into surrealism. Mackie’s meticulously visualised Sorting Station (2013) has an eerie sense of rural isolation challenged - sinisterly, I thought - by the juxtaposition of an inflated dog: metallic and magenta and big. Mandy Payne’s formally balanced Brutal (2013) has a similar feeling of eerie apprehension, of Giorgio de Chirico’s mute power of place.

And the power of place is a strong theme in this year’s exhibition. David Dawson’s 18.45. April 7th 2011 (2013) combines an expressionistic use of paint with a heightened use of colour in his highly textured oil on linen portrayal of suburbia. The chunky hedges, impenetrable windows and warm colours give a sense of encrusted substantiality to this work. However, the message is mixed. Where are the flowers and do no people live here? The more you look at this painting, the more convinced you are that the people have left or that you are looking into a time warp of the past, like you do when you see old colour films or photos which have that distinctive, exaggeratedly bright palette. It’s on the eerie edge of nostalgia, and I think nostalgia also impinges on Vinculum (2012) by Juliette Losq (2012). This skilfully executed watercolour resonates with the secret space of childhood being. If it were sepia it would be eerie but it has a warmer palette. The enclosed - secure even - impression is created by the warm combination of brick building and greenery, the angle of vision and the absence of sky’s openness. It’s a security only slightly, very slightly, threatened by graffiti and the unseen contents of the plastic bag at the centre. There is a similarly nostalgic feeling in Untitled 2013 (2013), Emma Puntis’s careful depiction of a time-held bedroom. The artist balances puritanical rigour against decorative contrast, in this celebration of domestic order and stability. But, as with the other paintings, there is something unnerving and I think it comes down to the brown lampshade. That and the lack of people.

In terms of complexity of experience, my favourite painting is Rae Hicks’s Sometimes I Forget That You’re Gone (2013). It represents a psychological space from the dream world of mind and the feeling evoked is a sense of the sludgy dullness of things dingily camouflaged. There are green triangles with half-hearted zig-zag outlines of trees, and other metallic triangles with more ‘real’ conifers stuck on the apex. The general inadequacy of the props, together with the background of theatrical flats creates a world of failed illusion and a sadness arising from the drab lack of potential here portrayed.

Something: grief? has sucked the life from this doomed performance. The title is surely ironic because such pervasive sadness has no forgetting in it.

If abstraction is demonstrably not one of the themes of the John Moores, and there is a strong thread of ‘realism’ and an undercurrent of nostalgia emerging, what is one to make of this, if anything? Personally speaking, I felt saddened that abstract painting had been swept aside by - mainly - social issues. I see enough of this on the media and even the portrait of the war-abused woman could barely compete with what comes in daily to my FB account from Amnesty and other sites of outrage. One longs for painting to do more than pinpoint socio-economic and political-ecological phenomena or make one look back longing for something that never existed. Technical prowess - and there’s plenty of that here - always impresses but it doesn’t get you in the bowels. One misses the provocative power of minds such as Picasso and Kandinsky, the rhythmic elemental spontaneity of Jackson Pollock or the monumental colour field paintings of Rothko with their immersive effect on body, mind and spirit. I know, I know - I’m being nostalgic. I need paint and passion and I need it big and shocking and incomprehensible. Book (2012) by James Byrne has stayed with me for its expressionistic use of paint - its splash of bright light, its spontaneous offer of potential. But it’s minute. I know, I know, I’m being sizeist.

The winning painting is not at all self-effacing. Rose Wylie’s determination to create huge art work has limited her selling potential - we don’t all own the necessary wall space - and she has struggled to fund her materials, so it is pleasing that her refusal to compromise has finally found reward. PV Windows and Floorboards (2012) dominates the room, not just because of its dimensions but because of its confident spaciousness, its celebratory openness. PV Windows and Floorboards is a painting which makes you smile, partly because it defies categorization, as Germaine Greer has pointed out: “Everybody in the art world knows Wylie but nobody knows what to do with her”. Above all, it is a painting with attitude - an attribute one surely expects in the victor of a high profile competition.

So - for its shouty confidence, its humour and its acknowledgement of the power of space, for its bigness and badass audacity, I salute this year’s winner, Rose Wylie’s PV Windows and Floorboards (2012) because it offers courage and it gives hope that painting will find new ways.

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