Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Art of Painting - Figuratively speaking

To the south side today, to see the Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize 2010 in the impressive Painters' Hall. Now in its sixth year, this exaltation of all things figurative and created with paint,  the LPS has taken on greater significance,with the recent disppearance of the Hunting Prize, another accolade for figurative painters.   Judges this year included Graham Crowley, Humphrey Ocean, Daphne Todd and Andrew Wilton, Visiting Research Fellow at Tate Britain. 

Real painting, figuratively speaking is back. With a bang.

There are some real gems, from painterly near-abstractions to paintings so hyper-real they might have been photographed. Which begs the question, why not take a photograph? But there is undeniably a flawless range and technique in the painting  Hegel's Happy Hour, by Garry Denny,  a visual pun on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.  Whilst the skill and absolute precision with which Denny paints is to be admired, this kind of straight up portrayal, no matter how skilled, misses, for me, the point of  "art". If   being presented with a mirror image of wine glasses hanging over a winebar, is  art,  how does it  challenge our perceptions and what we perceive? It doesn't. Pop down to the local pub, take a picture, upload it to  Facebook page and hey presto! It's art.

There have been two long decades of  endless Emperor's New Clothes charades in the art world, this deconstruction of the tradition of English figurative painting. This  appears to have resulted in a backlash. Enfin! Art is a journey into another person's perspective. I don't really want to sleep in an unmade bed. 

The winner was Rachel Levitas' Urban Foxes, a sweet study of two foxes in a Lewisham street, bathed in  the eerie orange glow of street lamp. Except there were no street lamps painted in. Perhaps it was another visual pun, which was a shame. Painting doesn't need to be clever in this art college graduate  way. It is a turn-off. Whilst a good painting, this was by no means the best painting in the exhibition.

Urban Foxes, Rachel Levitas
There were interesting abstract themes being explored in  Peter Wylie's* Goldfinger Four ( with Le Corbusier flaking paint from Villa la Roche) was a study of the front of a grey urban concrete block building, one of those  municipal architectural afflictions on our contemporary cityscapes left over from the 50s, with flakes of paint from Le Corbu's own work,  a house for an art collector and banker dating from 1925. The architect of revolutionary design is evoked not only through the figurative painting, in which the front of the building looms, precariously as if it might tip forward, pieces of his own construction and fragments from his own work imbue a sense of historical lineage and some depth, a clever nod at its artistic antecedents.
Goldfinger Four ,  Peter Wylie

Also worth a close look are Marguerite Horner's  accomplished study in shades of grey and green glazes, like a modern day grisaille of a winter woodland scene and two obscured houses. 
Into the Widerness
Alicia Dubnyckyj's Manhattan II is made up of blocks of solid colour gloss paint, painted on a massive hunk of MDF. On first inspection, close up, the pieces fit together neatly like pieces in a jigsaw but the composition is unclear until it is viewed from a few feet away then all New York's down-town glory sweeps into view, from the triangular wedge of the Flatiron building to the green space of Union Square and the overall effect and success of the painting is quite literally, rather like its subject matter, breath-taking. It's aprticiapatory, it involves the spectator, there are no shadows or light in the painting, the eye blends in all it doesn't see and makes sense of it. Sometimes good art is really hard work.

Manhattan II
 The forlorn institutionalised interior , the grey walls and ghostly iron bed-stands , the shimmering shadow of someone who might have inhabited the space which holds so many secrets is stark and striking. It's a reminder that  we leave pieces of ourselves behind wherever we go, in the same way that  art  remains and leaves an impression on the people who view it.

Untitled Rebeca Byrne
Isn't that Clive James and surely that's Brian Sewell  in Morgan Penn's The Critics? All in all, this exhibition heralds a return to the great English tradition of figurative painting but is a little bit uneven in the selection of the final  67 pieces from over 1 000 entries for the 2010 competition. There has to be more than one artist in the UK (Clara Drummond, Rose) who can paint an attractive and alluring and accurate portrait? Some of the pictures of children were plain disturbing and ugly. 

Finally, this bucolic landscape  by Malcolm Mitton's Bridge on the River Chatton : Autumn, which embodies all that is great about accomplished figurative painting, it makes you want to be there, step into the frame, enter the art. 
Malcolm Mitton
The exhibition is at the Painter's Hall until November 26th  then from November 29th - December 3rd 2010 you can view it at WH Patterson Gallery on Albemarle Street. 

*that Pete Wylie?


  1. I would quarrel that the painting of the foxes by Rachel Levitas is sweet. There is a real sense of menace and apprehension in the play fighting of the foxes. There is a dark side to this painting which deserves a closer look. I was also at the exhibition and I believe she has caught the zeitgeist of our modern environment.

  2. Thank you for your kind words and sharing your thoughts.
    oil painting