Art Having studious attempted to ignore seeing much of the exhibition at the press event, today I had the opportunity to see the John Moores Painting Prize exhibition in full and my overall impression is that it’s the best show in some years. In recent times there’s been an overall lack of balance between the abstract and figurative, the former overtaking the latter by quite some margin which hasn’t always been to it’s favour. In 2014, there’s a startling number of people on the walls, walking, working, living, sleeping and although there are works in which the absence of us is the point, often it’s the results of their interference with the landscape which is.
Admittedly the most eye-catching imagine in the largest room is an expression of the very worst of humanity. Reuben Murray’s Sister Is That You? shows us a young woman’s swollen, beaten face, her eye covered haphazardly with bloodied bandages hiding goodness knows what painful horrors beneath. The title indicates that her treatment has been so severe her sibling doesn’t even recognise her. But it’s the scale which creates a confrontation with the viewer, this face at the height of an average person, always in our peripheral vision as we walk around the rest of the room, and no matter what else we might see here, it’s this face we’ll remember.
On the opposite wall, in People 69104, Frank Pudney reduces his people to the size ants and renders them across his canvas like point on a map, in various shades so that collectively, looking at the entire composition, they resemble a topographical map, or is it a cloudy alpine mountain side, or even the detail of a pencil drawing of human anatomy? There’s no accompanying notes, but we have to expect that there are 69,104 tiny people here or close to, a staggering painting achievement in and of itself? What is that statistic? The population of the country? Is this the map of that country? There are other examples at his website.
But these are the extremes. Between we find Robin Dixon’s abstract teenagers beneath Estuary Bridge. We find the naked form of Frank As Androcles, Robert Fawcett’s photorealistic investigation of the mature form. We find Nicholas Middleton’s Black Bloc, in which hooded figures, scarves across their faces prepare for a fight. The void behind them accentuates the deliberate blankness of their identities, “black bloc” being the choice of clothing which makes it near impossible for authorities to prosecute them or is supposed to. Anarchism ironically utilises conformity for its own ends.
There’s also a void in the painting I chose for the people’s vote, Charlotte Hopkins Hall’s A Private Space. A women in a purple checked blouse is side on to us, her face obscured by shoulder length straight blonde hair. Like the anarchists she’s lost her identity but on this occasion we’re not sure why. Is the blouse a uniform, is this some shop worker on her break trying to find some space to herself, the void her attempt to block out the outside world or some far simpler reason? What’s striking is the fine detail of the painting, each individual strand of hair distinct from the others, the squares of her clothing. But not photo-realistic. We’re always aware it’s a painting.
Which isn’t to say it’s my favourite painting. My favourite painting is Juliette Losq’s Vinculum, but that’s already a prizewinner so I decided to send my love elsewhere. The internet tells me that a Vinculum is an overline horizontal line used in mathematical notation, but it’s the English translation which is most resonant in this context, "bond", "fetter", "chain", or "tie". As we look up at this massive watercolour, were looking down some precarious stairs into an overgrown garden covered in weeds and ivy, graffiti and bin bags, perhaps a shared garden at the back of ancient office spaces or shared housing. What of the barred windows?
As with many of the paintings in the exhibition it’s the massive scale which draws the viewer in, as well as the detail, and the mystery. But it’s also the perspective, the sense of looking up and down at the same time, the three-dimensionality. Judging by her website its typical of Losq’s work, to emphasis those spaces created by us but almost relinquished to nature. Her installation work often combines similar images together with furniture-like sculptural pieces almost to remind us that man or woman still retains some control over space, that we can never quite abandon it. Which now I come to think about it could be a theme which underscores most of the paintings here.