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Switching the artistic spotlight onto Liverpool: The John Moores Painting Prize 2012

Virginia Phongsathorn's Comma (2011)

In 1957, Sir John Moores, one time head of the clothing catalogue giant, Littlewoods, established his painting prize. His aim was to draw the attention of the artistic world from the bright lights of London, and instead to illuminate the talent and creativity of the North. Of course, inevitably, being that the prize, like the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, is open to submissions from artists all over the country, it doesn’t necessarily steer that spotlight any brighter over Northern artists than those from the South. Nevertheless, every two years, when the prize, and the exhibition that goes with it, is held at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, it certainly does its bit to place Liverpool on the cultural map. In fact, some go so far as to call the painting prize the Oscars of the British painting world. It is certainly renowned for spotting rising talent, with previous winners reading like a roll call of the most influencial artists of the last 50 years of British painting, from David Hockney and Richard Hamilton, to Peter Doig.

Paul Collinson’s Temple of Ancient Virtue (2010)

This year, the exhibition is shown as part of the Liverpool Biennial, which also includes other forerunners of the Liverpudlian art scene, such as Tate Liverpool on the Albert Docks. It contains some 62 paintings, whittled down from some 3000 hopefuls (which included my painting which was disgracefully turned down) by a panel of judges which included creative director of the BBC, Alan Yentob, and Iwona Blazwick, director of the Whitechapel gallery as well as previous exhibitors.

Ian Law, M is Many (2011)

This year’s prize was as varied as ever, but perhaps more manageable than the larger Summer Exhibition – it only fills a few galleries, and in those, the paintings are mercifully spread out so as not to bamboozle the viewer with a “salon style” hang. Of course, as is inevitable in any contemporary art prize, this show had its fair share of “works” whose artistic merit remained highly questionable, like M is many by Ian Law, which basically depicts a black line on a white canvas which, because of its purely geometric form manages to resemble an “M” without doing anything else (oh, and it won a prize, by the way), or Oscar Godfrey’s Mineral 9, a badly painted green curve on a white background, which, if painted with his phlegm may have had more merit, although the colour resembles little else.

Oscar Godfrey, Mineral 9 (2011)

Luckily for those of us who had traipsed several hundred miles from London to visit the exhibition, many of the other paintings showed much more promise. I really loved Emma Talbot’s, The Good Terrorists, which showed a cross-section of a large Victorian looking townhouse, with a number of faceless characters getting up to all sorts in the various rooms of the house. Somehow it seemed quite spooky to me, whether it was because of the faceless individuals who were yet full of expression, or because the roof of the house, with its shattered window, resembled the creepy hotel in Hitchcock’s acclaimed thriller, Psycho. The attention to detail made for great viewing, and I like the way that both the interior and exterior of the house could be seen in tandem.

Emma Talbot, The Good Terrorists

Damien Meade’s Talcum (2011)

Also on my watch list were Virginia Phongathorn’s Comma (Test Piece for an Eye Break) which to my mind looked more like a figure wearing headphones rather than a grammatical symbol, and also reminded me of the work of Philip Guston; I also liked Damien Meade’s Talcum, which looked much like a figure from Cluedo with a super-realistic painted sculptural mess upon its head, and Paul Collinson’s Temple of Ancient Virtue (above) which, painted with blurred edges like an off-focus photograph cleverly combines two forms of abandonment – the relics of an abandoned past, and dilapidated graffiti-covered snack bar of the recently vandalised present. I must also include in my favourites list Elizabeth Magill’s Sighting – too fantastical for some tastes maybe, but this piece really excels in close up, where a mysterious forest atmosphere is filled with little bubbles, specs of glittering dust and nearly missed magical hummingbirds. A wonderfully figurative piece for so contemporary a show.

Virginia Phongsathorn’s Comma (2011)

Elizabeth Magill, Sighting

What is perhaps best of all about the John Moores prize is not that it promotes Liverpool, although there is much to be said for that, but that it promotes painting, a so often overlooked media in the modern age, but one which will, in my opinion, outlive the age of installation, and remain at the centre of art history and art present for centuries to come.

The John Moores Prize is showing at the Walker Gallery until 6 January 2013.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. petit4chocolatier #

    Brilliant! And I especially love Emma Talbot, The Good Terrorists and Elizabeth Magill, Sighting!

    October 12, 2012
  2. Charlotte #

    And don’t forget the other prize winners Biggs & Collings. Their work was on show at the RA Summer exhibition earlier this year, London Twelve in Prague and they are currently part of a group show at Vigo Gallery, Mayfair.

    October 13, 2012
    • Yes their work was fairly pleasing, although I have to say it would look really good as a wallpaper design rather than a prize winning canvas ;)

      October 13, 2012

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