The John Moores Painting Prize (2014)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

First held in 1957, the John Moores Painting Prize is the UK’s best-known painting competition and is held in Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery almost every two years. During a recent trip to the city for its Biennial festival I visited this year’s showcase and was really taken aback by the invention and diversity on show. So, to ignore the past for a brief moment, here are 3 of this year’s entries that really got me staring and nodding – oft at the same time!

‘People 61094’ – Frank Pudney (2013)

photo1 (1)After spotting it from far across the gallery, Pudney’s amorphous enormity altered before my eyes with every step I took. At first within squinting distance it seemed but a mass of long dappled strokes merging elegantly against rising steam. Closer still it became to me a snowy mountain landscape as if seen from far above, the dense mottled brushwork now looking more like trees beneath gasps of cloud. With my feet firmly in front of the frame however, my view changed once more as I noticed that every paint flicker was actually a person silhouetted against the wide canvas expanse. The majority of these people huddled close but never touching in thick bundles, with a few escaping to the blankness inbetween.

This impeccably crafted visual instability plays well into the emotions evoked by the piece. Face to face with the image, individuality soon becomes a thing of insignificance. Feelings of sonder (the realization that everyone you’ve ever glimpsed experiences a life just as complex as yours) overwhelm as the eye traces over the thousands upon thousands of people painted onto the board.

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By crafting every single person (though perhaps it’s difficult to ascertain from the above image) with great care and effort, Pudney spins what could be a dwarfing sense of triviality into something uplifting. Yes, the world is one in which our own experiences form a single heart beat in this world’s life cycle, but that is the same for everyone, we are all unfathomably small and ultimately inherently colossal.

Some of the figures lean in inquisitive to their fellow; others gaze and wander out above and beyond. They all however stick to their space and existence, whilst in the top left corner a searing emptiness waits for us all.

 

‘Freezer’ – Susan Hamilton (2012)

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Regardless of the flattened patterns of abstraction that bleed all across this piece, the motifs of supermarket shopping and frozen food aisles are all too familiar. What I really loved at this painting was this sense of place in spite of the abridged grotesqueness exhibited onto the acrylic. Faintly beneath the false white light for example are absent strokes to designate shelves amid the portal like entrance of the open fridge. The figure too is drawn in an uneasy equanimity with the food taken, both in color as well as their hands being  animalistic, like raw lobster claws in their execution

The blemishes on the back of the coat became a real focal point for me on my first viewing, their pulsing rings being the only real circular calm within a jagged canvas of transmutation and disarray. Indeed the surroundings of the image seem to be collapsing and engulfing upon the whole itself, with the true menacing black slowly seeming to crush both shopper and shop.

‘Sometimes I Forgot That You’re Gone’ – Rae Hicks (2013) 

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Tall natural pines lie up against a wall by a roadside, beside them Christmas trees have been painted onto imitation green board. Though the picture lacks the energy of my aforementioned choices, there is a moving quietness to the piece. The fake lies in the company of the real, all ignored against a setting sun and a road that seemingly goes on forever out of the edge of the frame.

The heavy use of triangles throughout is subtle but well placed, not only through the smaller shadow cast by the cut out, but also the wide triangle constructed by the leaning tree on the right. Hicks presents a piece of insensible assembly, laying before us dormant parts and asking us to construct and imagine.

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Jan Steen (1626 – 1679)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

My favorite paintings are those nestled in that sweet middle between contemplation and investigation. Whilst the aforementioned Alfred Sisley is undoubtedly of the former, today’s artist, the Dutch Jan Steen, seems to stray between both of these parameters. His bustling scenes of the everyday always aglow with the subtle life inside them.

‘Rhetoricians at a Window’ – 1662

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Straight out of the canvas we perceive four distinct figures (though more lurk in the viscera), whose clarity of humanity is quite astounding. On the bottom left is the reader of a poem, his face so jovial and clearly thrilled with the piece. Across from him, a critic listens and stares with great intent. By positioning both of the men slightly out of the window frame, Steen plays expertly with the contrast of light on their clothes and bodies, there is great skill in-particular in the fold of the reader’s elbow as well as the recess of the critic’s hat. The men just feel as if they are actually together, not figures painted in abstraction on a solid plane, but really together, all in someway responding to the presence of their companions.

After taking in these  figures however, more pragmatic thoughts took me over. How high up are we? The climbing vines and insignia hanging from the frame suggest a certain tallness, so why then are the men performing and to whom?

The jester seems to know in some regard, his farcical expression in contrast to his more humane companions marking him out as the piece’s centre. With his piercing looks he stares straight out into the viewer with his little finger focusing you back into his gaze just to make sure you’re paying attention. Indeed, the rhetoric that the men seem to be practicing has much in common with painting as a whole – both only truly acknowledged if given an audience, both in need of response. Whilst we can’t hear what the men are saying then, the Jester, just like Steen himself, encourages us to listen.

‘The Christening Feast’ – 1664

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As with all pictures of this clustered sort, it’s always worth scouring every inch of the piece to get a genuine scope of the image’s intent. The picture is so crammed of activity for example that I all but ignored the busy floor on my first viewing.

It is not only the subtle splashes of egg yolk on the tiles are are wonderful, but also the rigour of the ground’s checkerboard design . The way the relief retreats into the background helps to give surface and depth to the busy christening, drawing our eyes towards the back of the painting eventually up to the scribble of skin that is the baby.

I find however the woman with her back turned to us as a far more captivating figure, her melodious colors strike out perfectly across the wash of beige that covers the contemporary image. Her apron, which apes the shawl of the baby in its peachy blossom, helps to cut a nice slice of flair across the setting.

Supposedly though this painting is more intended to be subversive rather than triumphant. Steen is actually the figure in the background just entering, the one holding his hand above the child’s head – a supposed sign of cuckoldry at the time. The broken eggs scattered amongst the floor too seem to solidify this intent.

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Alfred Sisley (1839 – 1899)

Kweiseye is an art criticism blog written by Tom Kwei. If you enjoy this article, browse the archive HERE for more than 60 other critiques of both artists and exhibitions. Any questions/queries/use: tomkweipoet@gmail.com

Painting in a style far subtler than other artists explored so far on this blog, Sisley’s whispering brushwork always seems to me to revel more in the techniques of Impressionism, rather than the movement’s core strides towards realism.

‘The Seine at Daybreak’ – 1877

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Faced from afar with a small riverside settlement, Sisley divides the image into three unified wholes: the town with its people, the river and the sky. Whilst the settlement is painted in an endearing quaintness, with a chimney elegantly pluming above with its soot black top, it is the infinities the town is sandwiched between that seem more of interest to the artist. Indeed, the very that it is daybreak, with the town presumably hollowed of activity, allows these elements to come further into play.

Whilst the water elbows its way out of the picture, budding subtly more rich in color as it grows in depth, it’s the sky that really made me fall for the image. A vista that hands far more complicated than the world beneath it. The skill Sisley possesses here in his treatment of the cloud’s fold and crevasses is quite incredible, even the true blue of the sky breaking through is still dappled lightly with heavenly remnants.

‘Fog’ 1874

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A woman stoops on her knees working within a garden, she and it seem one and together. A union suggested not only by the muted color scheme, but also the roots that seem to run up her clothing, as well as the tree behind her aching forward in much the same manner. The pallid grey that washes over the image furthers this idea, with the ‘barrier’ of the fence separating portions of nature, becoming itself obscured through the haze.

The wispy undetermined fog lends an abstract quality to the present forms, trees and hedges become spindly nothings that surround the gardener unaware. Amid the entirety of the ghostly grove however, a rogue rose, a daring dot of pink cover that grins out from the closed mouth hues.

Enjoy reading that? Click HERE to see a list of all the art analyses on Kweiseye to date.

To keep up with the blog and all the art I write about, follow me right here on this blog or here @tomkweipoet

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