John Moores Painting Prize 2020

Walker Art Gallery, until 27th June, free (book a timeslot here)

They’re back! Indoor galleries and museums are back! You actually have to leave your house to see art, and can enjoy it without worrying about the weather! And the John Moores Painting Prize 2020 is finally a physical thing! The exhibition actually had a fairly decent online tour to explore before the gallery could reopen. If you know the galleries it gave a sense of the size of works, as well as a full account of the curation. But I waited to write anything until I could (hopefully, eventually) visit in real life too.

A large square painting mostly in shades of pink and green, depicting a gathering of people.
Kathryn Maple “The Common”

I didn’t – for once (you know I worry about these things) – think it would hugely matter, actually, as all the judging was done remotely. But with a couple of works this makes a seriously significant difference, probably no more so than with the painting which won first prize. Kathryn Maple’s “The Common” is far more subtle in person than it appears on my computer screen. The pinks are so much richer, working alongside the reds and purples to build up an overwhelm of crimsons. The figures seem closer and more intimate too, rather than spreading out across the large canvas.

The question of whether I think it deserved the prize is irrelevant to me by this stage: I don’t expect to wholeheartedly agree with the judges. It’s always more useful to see the prize as more of an overview into where painting is. Though this year, more than usual, I feel like there’s themes: figure painting, nature, urban landscape etc.. Is this the curation, the judging, or a mix of both? Whatever: I wouldn’t mind it, except it forces comparisons. Making judgement calls is perhaps inevitable in a prize exhibition – but do you actually like a work, or just prefer it to the thematically similar one it’s next to? It’s a bit of a shame that asking these questions feels at points like an injustice to some works which feel shoehorned together, and detracts somewhat from simply enjoying the sheer diversity of approaches to painting there are to discover.

A large and detailed painting of an urban scene, sort of looking into a hospital, in light colours.
Robbie Bushe “The Neanderthal Futures Infirmary”

That’s not to say there’s not lots to like across the exhibition. As usual there’s some I don’t care for, but lots I adore. George Wills’ “Paranoia” (featured image) captures the sinister cloud of suspicion which fills a film noir, And Robbie Bushe’s “The Neanderthal Futures Infirmary” would be my winner for sure. It’s a dazzling maze of a work, an excessive scene which, thanks I think to its colour palette, somehow managed to sneak up on you. You don’t realise the extent of the chaos until you’re in deep. It’s about the future, but it really gets in my head as the work most about where we are right now.

And while it’s not exactly unusual to find paintings of nature included, I find that many of the works on this theme which have made the cut share the same, rather particular, attitude towards its creations. They’re not quite sinister, but certainly ‘other’; not feared but definitely respected. Plants and trees seem to be viewed from a distance, as though they belong to a world apart. There’s a sense of lost connection, but also a kind of yearning to understand. I think this might be most powerful in Melanie Goeman’s “Hawthorn (Triptych)”, but I find it most enjoyable to contemplate in Hannah Brown’s “Hedge 4”, which calls me in to explore its depths.

I could easily go on: this is only a limited list of the works I could have talked about, for good or bad. Whatever you think about the style and quality of the work, there’s so many conversation starters here, jumping-off points into bigger discourses about what painting can/should do. It made the John Moores Painting Prize 2020 the perfect first show for my return to in-gallery shows.

Leave a Reply