Walker Art Gallery
9th July – 27th November 2016
Reviewed by Sandra Gibson
Photographs of paintings by Geoff Edwards
First the five prize winners.
The overall winner of the John Moores Painting Prize, 2016, is Michael Simpson. His oil painting Squint (19) 2015, is an elegant piece with an absurdist Escher narrative, beautifully executed in monochrome, with a touch of yellow. A diagonal structure resembling a metallic staircase, but which isn’t, leads to a perpendicular structure that blocks further progress. There is an out-of-reach, potential opening at the top right hand side. This imagery is from the surrealist landscape of dream, or is a likely comment on the experience of being bureaucratically thwarted.
The monochrome surrealist theme is continued in Talar Aghbashian’s Untitled, 2015: an oil painting echoing the classical references found in the work of Giorgio de Chirico. It depicts a large hand, which we impute is perhaps part of a larger figure, or a rock face in a surrealist world where size is subverted. It is rather reminiscent of Chirico’s painting The Song of Love, 1914, which displays a large, pink glove attached to the side of a building. By emphasising the hand shape, it references the sculptor’s art or the iconoclast’s destructive rage.
Selma Parlour’s oil painting One, the Side-ness of In-Out, 2015, painted on linen, also echoes the surrealists: Magritte’s strange interiors; Chirico’s blue/orange contrasts, for example. It is fairly uncomfortable to look at, being small and a bit cluttered and it engages the analytical mind, as Squint 19 does, in a futile attempt to make sense of our perception: the mismatching sides; the folding in at the bottom right hand side; the in-outness. Our edgy attempt to impose perceptual equanimity is hereby challenged.
The biomorphic forms created in oil, distemper, wax and charcoal in Benjamin Jamie’s Dissolver, 2015, are perhaps more evocative of the surreal paintings of Yves Tanguy. Their linear configuration skilfully expresses a distended, sticky, tension.
The other prize winner, Gabriella Boyd, introduces some figures, though we can’t see their heads because this painting isn’t about differentiation and the targeted focus is lower in the body. Her oil painting Birthyard, 2015, shocks with its title, invoking as it does an industrial workplace. With its repeated motif of bent knees, this is a birthing production line of babies waiting to be born from prone figures. The warmth of the colour palette contrasts oddly with the rather clinical idea and the babies are not anatomically in the right position. Nor are there any medical staff. Again, it’s all rather surreal. I would place it as firmly in the realm of the surreal as in the category of social comment.
Bridging the categories of surrealism and abstraction is Ben Cove’s elegant acrylic painting Freeloader, 2014. It’s a threshold painting – like those South of France scenes from a room with a view – in which the fairly substantial frame intrudes structurally into the painting plane. Then there is a sensation of release, space and distance. This is a framed space which incorporates the frame; the frame doesn’t frame; the picture claims the frame. It’s conceptually witty and I would have given it a prize. Another threshold painting: Bella Easton’s Passageways, 2015, painted in oil on 88 pieces of linen, draws you into an interior space of brown wood and stairways, through its sepia call of the past. Yet any claustrophobia is offset by reflected light; these are dream images in which things are on the point of dissolving or reappearing.
What else? Certainly more abstract pieces to choose from than in the 2014 show. I particularly liked Mary Wood’s oil painting Series 15 Cerulean 2, 2015. Its energy is multidirectional and dynamic but it’s really all about that splendid blue. Tristan Barlow’s oil painting on linen, Truck Stop Swamp, 2015, derives its harsh, impenetrable power not so much from colour, as from a craggy vigour created by an almost monochrome palette. Benjamin Jenner’s Flicker 3, 2015, in pencil, pen, ink, tempera and gouache, is a scintillating composition of contained angular shapes, where the combination of light and colour produces a glacial effect. It also has a surrealist connection in that it implies a painting in front of another painting, such as one finds in the oeuvre of Magritte, the two linked by the area of turquoise at the bottom of the canvas. William Dick’s mixed media work, Oldal II, 2015, with its geometric shapes and intersecting lines, gives a feeling of things held in balance. Textural interest comes from the concentricity and from the white, showing through black paint. The darkened blue, red and yellow colours convey a feeling of doubt. Simon Williams’s A bout portant, 2015, in alkyd oil, presents a decorative jigsaw effect of heavy materials on a black background. The three-dimensional modelling creates an experience of theatrical density, like old-fashioned hotel décor. Experientially heavy. Julie Cockburn’s abstract, The Playground, 2015, incorporates plasticine into an altered book cover so that media and theme complement one another: the brightly colourful indeterminate shapes recreating the world of the primary school. Experientially uplifting. Mandy Payne, a prize-winner in 2014, also uses materials which reflect her urban subject matter. No Ball Games Here, 2015, is created with aerosol and oil paint on concrete. The experience is of diagonal aggression and oppressive shadow.
Continuing the experiential theme, Alex Rennie’s oil painting Totem, 2015, has a dominating power produced by fresh and loose stacked images in red and black: geological striations interspersed with volcanic heat. If you entered this smouldering temple of columns you would be stifled and overwhelmed by the heat and density.
There is a similar sense of being stifled in Sneh Mehta’s acrylic painting Him and Her, 2015: two heads whose features are bound and hidden, the flesh showing in bands. And if you want bleakness, John Stark’s oil painting Beasts of England II, 2015, has plenty. His antidote to the English rural idyll is a penumbral of muddy wetness and distant mist, monochromatic apart from two strips of green and the pale turquoise of distant farm buildings. What a relief to slip into the warmth of George Lloyd-Jones’s oil painting Round Tables (2), 2015: an interior whose spaciousness is enhanced by there being two windows.
Another feature of this exhibition is the celebration of the closely observed, the meticulously painted, the photorealistic: works which gain the admiration if not (in my case) the heart. Linda Hemmersbach’s January, 2015, using oil and distemper on linen, is a study in greys with areas where the surface grey appears scratched to release a new tone and texture. Tim Renshaw’s tiny Notebook Architecture, 2015, in oil on aluminium, is a close study in vertical lines. Nicholas Kulkarni’s oil painting Untitled, 2015, is a work of carefully created texture, using a geometric illusionist design. My favourite in the meticulous detail category is Donal Moloney’s acrylic painting Cave Floor, 2015, which has the detailed intricacy one finds in Islamic decoration and in the mediaeval miniaturist tradition. The artist uses a palette you wouldn’t associate with a cave: amongst the deep and muted colours are jewel colours, bright colours, pastel colours, subtle colours. There is a proliferation of images: flowers, jewels, rocks, repeated arches in rainbow colours, all piled in there, creating a magical place.
I also noted examples of the diptych genre in this year’s exhibition. Traditionally associated with religious art, the diptych consists of two sections: variations on a theme, or an event in chronological order, such as the Annunciation and the Nativity. Gemma Cossey’s Halves II (Continuum), 2015, a painting in acrylic, water-based pigment paint and gesso on canvas, juxtaposes two carefully painted examples of texture and tone: white horizontal stripes and a white criss-cross motif. Bella Easton’s Passageways, 2015, is an interesting and ambiguous composition possessing a decorative formality that raises it from mere narrative description. She has used the diptych form compositionally, to create one painting. It is a symmetrical diptych: the two images back-to-back, creating exquisite poise. Seen another way, the twin interiors become the prow of a ship. The use of the linen is part of the structural scaffolding. I would have given this painting a prize.
I would suggest that Karl Bielik’s oil painting Sunday, 2015, moves towards the diptych genre in that he has separated colour from line. The left hand side concerns colour and the right hand side concerns line. Informally though. The piece has the freshness and vitality of a sketch. Christopher Hanlon has taken a less informal approach. His Untitled, 2015, (oil on linen over board), is a nicely executed painting of a trio of screens, whose familiarity in the realm of cubicle construction has been subverted by the artist for their formal interest. Here is a triptych of variations in blues where shadows add tonal interest.
Perhaps the most innovative use of the diptych is in Juliet Goodden’s small oil painting Kedleston Road, 2014, where there is a painting within a painting. The view point is of a road and buildings, in colour, from a vehicle whose occupants are seen, in black and white, in the rear-view mirror. The inside/outside dichotomy is emphasised by the contrast between monochrome and colour. It is a vertical diptych, one section above the other, rather than the traditional side-by-side version.
In terms of social comment, it has to be said that there aren’t many people in this exhibition: no kids play; no mothers hang washing; no window cleaners clean windows on Mandy Paynes’s balcony. There are no farmers in John Stark’s dreary pig field. The people who are represented include the dead: Steph Goodger’s oil painting Les Non-reclames (The Unclaimed), 2015, is a dramatic multiple portrait of contained corpses, like macabre dolls in a display window. This picture is reminiscent of the work of Marlene Dumas. Or the people might be threatening apparitions of our own insecurity, as in Thom Trojanowski Hobson’s expressionist work in oil, acrylic, spray paint, pencil, pen, and ink.* It’s a Circus Out There, 2015, has a linear stridency, a threatening figurative domination, which well illustrates our fear of the Mad Axe Man. Then there are the marginalised people, facing the darkness of the unknown in Nicholas Middleton’s black and white oil painting Figures in an Arch, 2015, and the commodified people chillingly represented in Duncan Swann’s oil painting, I choose the child, 2015. These are shown as goods to be appraised: a sort of labour market, with people on plinths and numerals above. One figure has a restraint round his neck, which reminds us of the slave market. Another, a child, has been ringed. Chosen. This black and white painting has a detached, indistinct, dreamlike quality as if it represents all such events. Lawrence Owen’s oil painting Ritual to the Westfield, 2015, has people stylised as statuesque figuration on a field of red, like a chess game. In a rather wistful echo of Gauguin, Julia Warr’s Where do we come from? Where are we going? 2015, addresses the existential issue. She portrays human beings as generic cut-outs, undifferentiated but not identical, engaged in an angular dance. Unlike Matisse’s famous canvas, there is no flow of life in this acrylic and pencil work. It’s a pale, two-dimensional and ultimately pathos – filled portrayal of the human race.
Or you could say it’s a charming evocation of childhood. It depends where you come from and where you are going.
Art as a mirror-reflection of society reveals a bleak prospect in this exhibition but parallel to this, and the other elements I have covered, such as the evocation of the artist-gurus, the experiential aspect and the trend to abstraction, other things are presented for consideration. Painterly preoccupations are exemplified in Enzo Marra’s strongly textured Invigilator (John Virtue), 2015, in Bernard Charnley’s colour-exuberant When the stars threw down their spears, 2015, and in the graphic skills of Tim Renshaw and others. There are things appertaining to the status of painting, such as the limits of critical appraisal raised by Richard Kenton Webb in his oil painting with found pigments: The Landscape as Discourse, 2014, or the art object as aesthetic pleasure as demonstrated in the sumptuously coloured acrylic painting by Julian Brown: A Fairy Tale of Gdansk 2015, which hovers between the abstract and the figurative and charms with its repeat pattern.
So, the most recent John Moores Painting Prize exhibition has represented and balanced issues between technique and expression, between the individual painter and the canon of painting and between aesthetics and the existential. This is what one would expect of a high profile competition.
*I noticed that artists are giving better details about the materials they used, instead of just saying “mixed media”. I applaud this.