John Moores Painting Prize brings contemporary joy to The Walker Art Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 22 September 2010
An abstract painting featuring strips of orange and of black and white checks
Still Squallings by Daniel Sturgis, 2009 Acrylic on canvas (138 x 213.6 cm)© Daniel Sturgis
Exhibition: John Moores Painting Prize, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, until January 3 2011

Before announcing the winner of the “Oscars of the British painting world," judge Sir Norman Rosenthal described the shortlist as “an exciting, joyful and up-to-date insight into contemporary painting.”

He then handed the £25,000 John Moores Painting Prize to Keith Coventry, whose portrait of Jesus features the most miserable looking messiah you will ever see.

Spectrum Jesus is as dark as a badly aged old master and as blue as a piece of 20th century abstraction. Its subject has lank hair and heavy lidded eyes. It is one of the smaller paintings entered in this year’s competition. The frame and glass cover make it as iconic as it is iconoclastic. Coventry’s statement has depth.

A blue painting of a sad looking christ figure set into a black frame
Spectrum Jesus by Keith Coventry, 2009 Oil on canvas, wood and glass (68.6 x 58 cm)© Keith Coventry
Another finalist, Nicholas Middleton, brings the eye of a contemporary Brueghel to a historical painting of a demo outside the Bank of England. While the black and white photorealist treatment gives his work all the seriousness of a news report, other details such as a fiddler, a couple embracing and the date in the title (Protest, 1st April 2009) appear to deflate the efficacy of the anti-globalisation movement.

Meanwhile The Party by Steve Proudfoot has the quality of a boozy snapshot with a lapsing timeframe. Figures ghost in and out of this family gathering, which is set in a colourless sitting room. The guests drink and look on rather than interact. It does not look as if anyone has any particular desire to be there. Yet it is a compassionate scene.

A black and white painting of a crowd at a public demonstration
Protest, 1st April 2009 by Nicholas Middleton, 2010 Oil on canvas (117 x 203.5 cm)© Nicholas Middleton
But alongside the downbeat works mentioned, there are indeed many joyful outbursts in this year’s Prize.

Finalist Daniel Sturgiss layers busy chequered panels over vibrant strips of orange to produce a crisp and balanced design. And Cornelia Baltes paints an audacious pointing finger on the wall above her canvas, which features a candy pink explosion of glee.

There are 45 artists on show in the shortlist exhibition, all of whom are worth a look. But it’s also worth mentioning the five works chosen from the John Moores Painting Prize China, a bi-annual competition newly introduced this year. Winner Han Feng has painted a stretched and fragile grey passenger jet, both impossible and dreamlike. Painting is still going places, as Big Plane demonstrates.

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