First held in 1957 as a collaboration between Sir John Moores and Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery, the John Moores Painting Prize was created ‘with the intention of showcasing the best of new British painting.’ This year is the Prize’s thirty-second edition, receiving a record-breaking total of 3,357 submissions which the jury – composed of Yu Hong, Alexis Harding, Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Marlene Smith and the White Pube (made up of Zarina Muhammed and Gabriella de la Puente) – have reduced to a selection of seventy which are currently on show at The Walker Art Gallery.
At the entrance to the gallery a video created by National Museums Liverpool ‘How to judge a painting’ covers the history of the prize and provides context on the process by which exhibited paintings are selected. Each painting is presented to the jury anonymously ensuring that the works are judged purely on merit, and without the bias of knowing the identity of the painter. Marlene Smith says, ‘I think it’s really important that we give the work the opportunity to speak, because everything is blind we have to go by what information is presented to us by the artist. I think it’s a really strong process because of that.’
Due to the volume of the paintings present in The Prize exhibition it would be impossible for me to comment on all of them, therefore I’m going to talk only about those which impressed me the most, reviewing them in the order I encountered them. I have made a selection of nine.
The first is Jack Foster’s ‘After Fra Angelico’ (2022). We are presented with a room which is open to the outside, furnished only with a bed dressed in vermilion sheets; the interior broken in two by a shadow in the shape of a Play button, an oval of light passing through a porthole sloping above the pillows in imitation of the sun. The exterior is barely glimpsed, a blurred photograph taken through a muggy window, with suggestions of clay dirt and hedges. Then an outline of a circle on the ground, like a house-sized coffee cup stain, trails through a rectangle of olive brown and sewage green grass to dominate the bottom of the painting. The composition is decisive, with each part sharply sectioned as though with scalpel, it is reminiscent Francis Bacon’s navigation of space in his mid-career paintings (see ‘After Muybridge – Women Emptying a Bowl of Water…’, 1965). The influence the digital has on the visuals is also clear; as an environment it evokes the inescapable sunlight of a Unity viewport. Foster, through a process of reimagining and reframing, has grounded the intangibility of the digital in the physical world with canvas and paint.
Adjacent to this is Martyn Cross’ ‘The Comin’ Through’ (2023), which has a cosy, nostalgic feel to it, like returning home. A tired face amidst the waves as if the sea has had a long day. The viridian bank of clouds cup the sun like a hand, promising a dousing. The warm colours and rubbed out paint makes me think of old tobacco advertisements and pub paraphernalia, ships in bottles and books that smell like wood grain. It presents as a piece of invented history, or a portal through which other beings reside, where the weather itself is a creature, moaning, yawning and sleeping its way through life. Cross says, ‘There is an attempt to try and conjure another time or place – a world that’s slipping between the cracks.’ Cross’ attempt is successful, with the painting evoking the moment before a change. Observing, we can imagine the waves making many faces with the motion of the tide, communicating through expression, something bygone, lost and no longer able to be understood.
In the corner of the first room is Francesco Rodriguez’s ‘The Golden Hour’ (2023). A black dog, dimensionless as a shadow, skulks about a painted schoolyard. Moving along the stained and postered walls in the direction of the cartoonish trees and residential houses where the sky is the same grapefruit red as the walls. It is foreboding, like a depiction of a dream which details an omen. The black dog – a symbol universally synonymous with depression – slinks around memories which appear retrospectively sinister; a conflict which never ends unless addressed or faced directly. It is searching for someone but who?
On the other side of the room is Yin Yung Sabrina Pun’s, ‘Emergency Convention Order 1’ (2023), which immediately hits you with its spectrum of colour and detail. Imagine a Michelangelo fresco painted from the perspective of a pantheon of gods born of a new era, brandishing fire, glowing emeralds and tiny top hats. ‘Time and reality ends… the entire human race… brought to judgment before the gods who are deciding our fate.’ The pantheon-esque style and dramatic fictional history remind me of the worlds and characters created in the FromSoftware Games of Elden Ring and Dark Souls and the style of the painting itself is something of a combination of game art, wall fresco and anime storyboard. As I paid attention to each detail I found myself wondering what the story behind the painting was, where each of the characters came from and what it is they want from us.
In the second room you are greeted by First Prize Winner Graham Crowley’s ‘Light Industry’ (2022), a painting that presents a double-entendre both in title and in form. It is a chiaroscuro; a monochromatic blend of yellow and black, the light forming the objects and the objects emitting the light. The motor shop presented is the focus of the painting’s centre, each object defined yet also vague in its depiction; the tools on the back wall, the peculiar jellyfish-like-object hanging on the ceiling, the clock and stool and ladders which blur abruptly into an amalgam of squiggles at the painting’s edges. The paint itself has this quality of pan grease which sticks and streaks its way across the steel worktops, creating an effect where the paint looks as though it is sliding away, as if someone has dipped a finger in motor oil and drawn technical diagrams on a car bonnet. It’s immediately recognisable as a real space, one coloured through the lens of a sublime subjectivity, and extremely idiosyncratic in its style and beautiful. It graciously earns the title of First Prize winner. Crowley has been shortlisted for the Prize twice before, and this achievement, combined with this year’s prize, has earned him the offer of a solo exhibition by the Walker Art Gallery in 2025
Facing ‘Light Industry’ on the opposite wall is Chris Milsom’s ‘Mirror Mirror’ (2022). If a painting could sweat it would be this one. Layers upon layers of yellow oil paint have created a skin mottled and porous over the electrical debris that is the painting’s base. It tells a story of repurposing, recycling, regeneration; a life after death, fried circuit boards destined to decay have come together to form an adhesive whole, a communicative image which describes their state both present and future. The artist tasks the man-made to act as though it is again natural, coaxing it into a mimicry of its primordial state. It stands, I think, as a metaphor for the relationship between the natural environment, technology and how we use it. As Milsom states, ‘We have finally realised that our presumption of an infinitely resilient ‘nature’ has been a damaging myth.’ Operating as a mirror on our everyday and historical decisions on both an individual and societal level as we continue tackling problems of climate change and ecological collapse.
On the other side of the room is Tom Woolner’s ‘Internal Weather (Idyll)’ (2023). Another painting which presents as its own pulsing, alien entity. It is a portal into a world where every object is a digestive organ, and one imagines the clouds grazing on mountains and raining acid down into gastrointestinal lakes which feed trees with recycled enzymes. The stomach lining effect is created by the piping of acrylic resin to build the surface of the painting itself as opposed to applying paint to a canvas. Creating a pastel-toned, Minecraft-esque landscape paint-cake which slightly juts out of the wall like the Rosetta stone of an alternate universe, perhaps the molecular universe of our bodies; a tablet which depicts the first scene of a digestive creation myth.
In the final room stands Prize Winner Nicholas Baldion’s political triptych, ‘Social Murder: Grenfell in Three Parts.’ (2023). A burning Grenfell Tower is flanked by depictions of the actions which have caused this fire and subsequent calamities. The painting is a revenant, refusing to be forgotten, commanding attention with its obelisk-like stature. It is unashamedly political, demanding penitence and consequence for what has occurred. I enjoy how the paint is used as a timeline and storyboard, highlighting key moments of history and using visual metaphors to show the viewer what has happened and who is responsible for it. To paraphrase Baldion himself, it is the weaponization of artwork for political justice. It stands as a monument to the fact that art still can and will be used for the expression of politics, and inspire people who see it to take action for change.
At the exhibits end the prize winners of the John Moores Painting Prize China 2022 are on display. The seventh since it was conceived in 2010, JMPP China received a total of 1,702 submissions – the five prize winners are displayed in the gallery. My favourite is Nie Li’s ‘The Wall.’ (2022). A diptych which depicts both sides of a corrugated iron fence with a gap in the middle and a fallen torch which shines a cone of light across the grass, calling attention to the boar which charges towards it. At the top of the wall is curled barbed wire, which from both perspectives is imprisoning in its centre the full honey-coloured moon. The wall itself is the protagonist in a moment of conflict, the cause of which we can estimate from the pieces presented but which are impossible to fully discern. Its ambiguity is attractive, and leaves you with questions the answers of which you can only use your imagination to confirm.
The video at the beginning of the gallery poses as a statement, ‘How to judge a painting’. It is also important to consider it as a question. What entails a “successful” artwork? I suppose to determine the “success” of an artwork we have to ask whether it achieved what it set out to achieve. That is, if it set out to achieve anything at all, and, if not, is the presentation of the art in any way affecting? Are we moved? Are we changed? I believe that art, or any creative work for that matter, becomes “good” when it implores you to think, to turn your mind in a direction which it had not yet considered, and through a perspective which you would not be able to consider on your own. Good art allows you to see, as cliché as it appears, through new eyes.
I question the statement given by Professor Ling Min and Lewis Biggs in their Preface to the John Moores Painting Prize China 2022 that ‘Art is a social activity – the crafted and conceptualised object becomes art only when accepted into the social discourse of culture.’ Is art only art when it is socially and culturally accepted? Is the creation of art not also an idiosyncratic expression of individuality, created not always for the purpose of social progression, but rather for the enrichment of the imagination and creativity of the self? Art is both I think, as the paintings selected here show. From the weaponisation of a triptych for political cause to the representation of a motor shop as an expression of artistic style; art serves its purpose as a moment to reflect, to look into and out of, and be read endlessly just as all things great and worth remembering do.
John Moores Painting Prize 2023, Walker Art Gallery, 16 Sep 2023—25 Feb 2024
Reece Griffiths is an artist and writer based in Liverpool
This review is supported by National Museums Liverpool