Beyond Surface – Painting for Dark Times: The Contemporary British Painting Prize and Mandy Payne: Out of Time

Stephanie Douet, Born in a museum (2019). Acrylic on plywood, Dutch gold leaf, rhodedendron stick. © the artist.

An aside: when an institution simultaneously programmes two exhibitions that foreground a specific strategy or medium—in this case painting—there is, implicit in the space/time relations of the works, the setting up of discourses between the two. In the case of one, The Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019, there is the further setting up of winners and losers—the skewing of value judgements that are not, I would argue, useful for the viewer in either critically or sensually (the two are not mutually exclusive) entering into a dialogue with the work. This year’s Turner Prize, after an intervention from the shortlisted artists was awarded jointly: ‘they believed that pitting themselves against each other “would undermine our individual artistic efforts to show a world entangled”’: proposing themselves as a collective, as an act of resistance, would be a symbolic gesture’.[1] This idea of world entangled is as important to looking and thinking inside the space of the museum as it is to a politicised world that is supposedly—but never, not really—outside of its walls. There will be, in this review, which is also a work in discourse with the works about which it speaks, no use of ‘winner’ nor ‘loser’, no shutting down of the conversations that are to be had.

Helen Hayward, ‘The Fool’ (2018). Oil paint and fabric. ©the artist.

The Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019 at Huddersfield Art Gallery brings together twelve shortlisted artists. The selection seems to be located in two quite different ideas of space: a materially assembled space located both in flatness and in expanded sculptural ‘nods’, and considerations of representational, figurative space which perform atmosphere and uncanny. Of the former Stephanie Douet’s work enacts a playing card ‘quirkiness’, the surfaces resolutely flat despite the cartoonish cut-out ‘sculptural’ supports. The catalogue refers to an exploration of ‘the Raj and reading about Britain’s involvement in India’,[2] which I confess I struggle to see. Helen Hayward’s ‘quirkiness’ has a more plastic materiality; expanded shapes emerging from canvases employing a constrained palette of Play-Doh colours. Hayward’s statement positions the works as naively, playfully sentient, and has something in common with that of Laure Prouvost’s, though in appearance very different, in that it performs an appealing and absurd discourse with itself and with the viewer.

Jo McGonigal, ‘Side (Cadmium yellow deep)’ (2016). Lycra, pigment, wood. © the artist.

Scott McCracken writes of his work in purely formal terms, invoking a ‘pictoral space […] rooted in the vocabulary of early modernism’.[3] I find ahistorical, apolitical readings of ‘early modernism’ (which was driven by social and political agendas and sometimes colonialist in its unacknowledged appropriation of non-western forms) problematic—but this said, the paintings are successful on their own terms. The surfaces are fresh, the forms questioned, and the palette considered. It is Jo McGonigal’s work that performs most successfully an elegant formality. The pleated, colour saturated iterations of ‘canvas’ displaying their relations to the traditions of painting supports—the considered off-cuts of the wooden ‘stretcher’—speak of the luxury of painting in ways that can be, if contextualised by histories of painting as ideological object, read as politicised. And oh, that saffron!

Adam Hennessey, ‘Sexy Hands’ (2019). Adam Hennessey, Sexy Hands, Acrylic on canvas. © the artist.

Adam Hennessey’s and Diana Taylor’s work could be seen as bridges between the different ideas of space, and share, in their chalkiness and mark-making, a sense of page-in-flux, or even whiteboards: they are paintings that offer up a process of being gesturally written. Hennessey’s charming statement is written in the third person, anecdotal, statement as memoir, and the accompanying paintings are painterly, faux-naïve vignettes of sexuality, resilience, and intimacy. Hennessey’s contribution to the catalogue demonstrates the importance of the language that accompanies the image—a discourse, a dialogue, a conversation that is often overlooked. Diana Taylor’s large canvases deploy a kind of cultural lace-making that deliberately require unravelling. These flat assemblages have emerged from a period of research into the tropes of craft in the context of the digital age, her references including (albeit obliquely) the Arts and Crafts movement, the lace-making traditions of her Anglo-Cypriot heritage, and the material ‘affect’ of analogue and digital production, ‘oscillating between hand, machine, and computer, pushing digital methods beyond the screen and back into the realm of the material’.[4]

Diana Taylor, ‘A long and argumentative night under the bridge’ (2019). Oil, acrylic silk-screen, newsprint paper and embroidery on canvas. ©the artist.

Ruth Murray’s paintings, also large, technically virtuoso, are ‘about the experiences of women’, [5] and if women’s experiences amount to being looked at, then they are. But, perhaps this is unfair. Blue Rosie (2019), depicts two young, conventionally attractive white women in what appears to be an informal, middleclass living room, its whiff of bohemianism suggesting that these are women with cultural capital. For me, its historical lineage is in literature, in the worlds described by Virginia Woolf in works such as Mrs Dalloway (1925),[6] whose subtext of space is that of the places where women could speak, to each other, of each other, and of the world—this in the context of an interwar British society where women were largely limited from fully inhabiting the public spaces of discourse: boardroom, political chamber, or post-meal dining room. Maddie Yuille’s ‘rooms’ approach the abstract—sheens of broadly brushed luminous paint describing walls and windows and light. They are pleasurable, but possibly too pleasurable to achieve the ‘uncanny non-place’ to which they lay claim,[7] and the long, literary titles don’t quite do the job of expanding this idea.

Ruth Murray, ‘Duff’ (2017). Oil on canvas. © the artist.

Kirsty Harris’s paintings of nuclear tests in unidentifiable, featureless landscapes, might also be said to be ‘over-pleasing’.  The statement describes an apocalypse, a ‘fight for survival’ in which we have ‘shown ourselves THE END’ [sic],[8] but the sleek, expertly painted surfaces distract from any uncomfortable narratives, and offer, rather, a version of disaster that is easily consumed. Equally slick, but avoiding grandiosity and instead acknowledging the pleasurable, are Louise Bristow’s oil paintings masquerading as collage. Witty and almost Utopian, model-like, drawing on glossy representations of architectures, landscapes, and leisure, they are what they are, and as such become narratives that are more than the sum of their parts.

Joanna Whittle, ‘Gloaming’ (2019). Oil on canvas. © the artist.

The spaces of Juliet Losq’s large works on paper are concerned with the contemporaneously familiar spaces of the ‘edgeland’. Empty, quasi-natural landscapes, containing graffitied walls and structures, are rendered with Pre-Raphaelite intensity. Joanna Whittle’s tiny, glowering, malevolent little paintings are of another order (I would argue—subjectively—that Whittle and McGonigal are the exemplars of the two kinds of spaces that I propose above), and for once I will discard the importance of an accompanying artist’s statement. These paintings of circus tents and similarly temporary structures don’t need an explainer to convey impermanence, rot, environmental threat, and the absurdity of attempting ‘erection’ (I use this word deliberately) in the face of encroaching, threatening phenomena, in the face of a crumbling body politic and an enclosed world of insular encampments. Arthur Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat (Le bateau ivre) (1871) is a long poem written in the voice of the boat, ‘indifferent to all crews’, water penetrating a hull that is full of ‘vomit’. Whittle’s paintings exude a similar terror:

If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly[9]

Mandy Payne, ‘Remnants of a welfare state’ (2019). Spray-paint and oil on concrete. © the artist.

Mandy Payne’s work is, like Whittle’s and other’s above, anti-grandiose in scale and affect, and is all the better for it. The works in her solo exhibition Out of Time, also at Huddersfield Art Gallery, are the result of having, in recent years, the opportunity to work as an artist full time. These are sharper, crisper, effectively and subtly decisive in their explorations of Brutalist architectures, social housing, the tensions between ideas of utopias and dystopias, and the repurposing, gentrification, or demolishing of modernist architectures to make way for luxury or ‘aspirational’ developments. Payne’s work, while almost ‘meta’ in its flatness, functions not just as surface, but as structure, object, and conceptual architectural blueprint. The smallest works employ spray paint and oil on hand-cast concrete, the porosity of the support absorbing the representations of the buildings into the means of such buildings’ construction. The larger works are painted onto marble, with the unpainted areas materially revealing a narrative of the tensions between neglected and gentrified spaces, the ‘stuff’ of the painting asking questions of value—the value of the spaces and the value of their absent inhabitants. This is considered, poetic, politicised work, executed with surety. The best of what painting can be, in these dark, dark times.

Mandy Payne, ‘Beginning of the end’ (2019). Spray-paint and oil on concrete. © the artist.

Out of Time: Mandy Payne and the Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019 continue at Huddersfield Art Gallery until 18 January 2020.

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Emma Bolland is artist and writer who works experimentally with literatures, translations, script and screenwriting, performance, drawing, and the moving image. This includes an investigation of the problematics and ambiguities of an expanded understanding of translation—between languages and language codes, and between modes of writing, reading and speaking. She is a co-editor at Gordian Projects, a small press operating at the intersection of artist’s book, art writing, and archive, and a Specialist Visiting Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University for the MFA/MA/BA Fine Art.

[1] Charlotte Higgins, ‘It’s about solidarity’: the artists who hijacked the Turner prize speak out’, The Guardian, 4 December 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/dec/04/its-about-solidarity-the-artists-who-hijacked-the-turner-prize-speak-out

[2] Stephanie Douet, in Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019 (catalogue), Huddersfield Art Gallery/Kirklees Council, 2019, p. 12.

[3] Scott McCracken, in Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019, p. 32.

[4] Diana Taylor, in Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019, p. 44.

[5] Ruth Murray, in Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019, p. 40.

[6] Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, London: Hogarth Press, 1925.

[7] Maddie Yuille, Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019, p. 52.

[8] Kirsty Harris, in Contemporary British Painting Prize 2019, p. 16.

[9] Arthur Rimbaud, from ‘The Drunken Boat’ (1871), trans. Wallace Fowlie, in the Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/55036/the-drunken-boat

Published 20.12.2019 by Holly Grange in Reviews

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