The John Moores 24

By Louise, Dany | Art Monthly, November 2006 | Go to article overview

The John Moores 24


Louise, Dany, Art Monthly


The John Moores 24 Walker Art Gallery Liverpool September 16 to November 26

New Contemporaries The Coach Shed Liverpool September 16 to October 22

The John Moores and New Contemporaries exhibitions are two strange and quite particular beasts. Seeing both on the same day is like visiting two generations of an eccentric family; each unintentionally informs the other, allowing for deeper insights, but the turf wars leave you feeling a bit sick.

It is easy to conceptualise the John Moores as the grandfather of New Contemporaries; the weight of traditional values set against the shallow cult of youth. Except that the John Moores, like trendy grandparents, would prefer to see itself as moving with the times, of having the flexibility to recognise and show works that speak of now.

Therein lies its difficulty: painting is no longer the mass contemporary medium of choice. The emergence of new media technologies and the growth in time-based and performative work have given rise to painting's second prolonged major crisis. The first was with the advent of photography. Then, the medium and its artists were robust enough to carve a new niche within the Avant Garde, but what is the response now? Where do painters situate themselves within this new landscape? How do they present the case for continued relevance in the face of other tools that can have greater impact and be more versatile? To be a painter in 2006 is to make a significant statement of choice. Where is the argument that painting can still carry content and visual excitement in ways that make it unique and important?

You might think that the John Moores would be a good place to start looking for some answers to these questions. After all, it is one of the few institutions to deal specifically with painting, and it selects via a national open submission process. Now in its 48th year, it was established when painting was still in the ascendant, and its mission is the same today as it was then--to show the best and most exciting current work in the medium. Surely these are the contemporary questions that it could be expected to engage with?

Sadly, this is not so. This year as in recent years, the John Moores disappoints. At a basic selection level, there are too many mediocre and even chronically bad works, and not enough truly excellent paintings. And in terms of overall curatorial themes, it rarely engages with the problems of painting, or with any wider context.

There are highlights. Two perfectly executed, finely resolved images: Eliza Meath Baker's exquisite and soulful, Bird, 2006, a depiction of beauty, aloneness and stoicism, and Scene from a Contemporary Novel, 2006, by Nicholas Middleton, a constructed photo-realist back street scene, in which every element is meticulously placed to realise a narrative that would take 1000 words or more to describe.

There are some pieces that actively enjoy the medium of paint, such as the A Slice of Desert, 2006, by Paul Thomas; prizewinner Graham Crowley's Red Reflection, 2005, which disrupts the cosy tweeness of a traditional English village scene; Broca's Area by Andy Harper, a luxuriously verdant image of undergrowth, full of thrusting phallic shapes and dark holes to get lost in, and the Gary Hume-like Madame Bridgette, 2005, by Clare Woods, which luxuriates in the qualities of paint, colour and surface. David Mabb has the most intellectual piece in the exhibition, one that is about process, artifice and fabrication, questioning what a painting is and can be.

For each work of interest, there are two that fail to excite. Why is this? The judging panel is changed for each exhibition and always includes artists--although not necessarily painters--along with institutional representatives. This year the artists have been Sir Peter Blake, Tracey Emin and Jason Brooks, an unusual combination of personalities perhaps. Were the voices too diverse, unable to cohere around three or four central ideas? …

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