Photography: Gareth Jones

The biennial JOHN MOORES PAINTING PRIZE is a highlight of the city’s cultural calendar, and is as much of a big deal in national art circles. Nowadays it’s held concurrently with Liverpool Biennial, but has become defined as its own institution over its 60-year existence. The list of alumni of the prize since it was first awarded in 1957 reads as a history of some of the most well-known names in British painting, from David Hockney and Peter Doig to Sarah Pickstone and Rose Wylie. The JMPP is an award coveted as one of the most prestigious in British art, and its home has always been right here in Liverpool.

The Walker Art Gallery is the home of the £25,000 John Moores Painting Prize, and on the day of the prize announcement the venerable gallery attracts a buzzing, interested crowd. Artist Lubaina Himid CBE, a member of the 2018 jury for the prize, explains why she thinks it is so coveted and what it has to say about the state of art in Britain. “I think it certainly shows that painting is very, very vigorous in this country,” she says. “People still care about it. They’re all passionate – you have to use that word about the show, and that’s great. It’s so brave.” Even now when contemporary art utilises more media forms than ever before, it’s painting that perhaps still has the most ability to shock and surprise. The Walker is a perfect venue for the prize exhibition in many ways, not least because it’s a gallery that tells the story of painting since the 13th Century through artworks and objects of the highest quality. If the works by Cranach and Rembrandt tell the story of painting’s traditions, then the John Moores Painting Prize casts an eye on the state of contemporary painting – and what a healthy state it is.

JOHN MOORES PAINTING PRIZE Image 2

This is perhaps one of the most diverse shows in terms of style and presentation that I’ve ever seen from the JMPP. It’s impossible to say that there’s anything staid or samey about what the jurors have chosen: there’s abstraction and realism, figurative work and dreamy visions. In size, meanwhile, the pieces range from postcard-size to enormous declarations of intent. Nor is this confined just to British art, either – since 2010 the prize has also established a parallel in China, and the five prize-winning paintings are exhibited here alongside the 60 selections for the British prize. It’s a move that reflects how art made in different cultural contexts may present issues from new perspectives. More than this, though, it celebrates the strength of painting on not only a national, but also a global scale.

It was the scale, according to Himid, that was one of the biggest surprises when the jury first came to view the works. Each juror first sees the 2,700 entrants for this year’s prize on computer documents, which leaves plenty of time for surprises when they begin to narrow them down in real life. “Even though it says the scale, of course you’re busy looking at the work and doing whatever comes into your head when you look at paintings. Inefficiently, I don’t think many of us engaged with the scale except when we really need to think, ‘Surely that isn’t enormous!’”

JOHN MOORES PAINTING PRIZE Image 2

So, from almost 3,000 entrants, how on earth do the jury set about deciding which should be featured in the final exhibition – and which should ultimately win? Himid’s description of what is considered in the judging process is twofold; technique, yes, but fundamentally it’s about emotion. “When you’re in the room with [the paintings], you fall deeply in love with some. And you think, ‘I am not gonna let that go, whatever these other jurors think’.” This is not to say it was not at times a frustrating process: from the potential pitfalls of the anonymous entry system to the self-agonising about which paintings to settle on (“Sometimes things that were on the ‘no’, we say ‘I need to drag that back’”). As well as knowing the prestige of the prize, however, Himid and her fellow juror Bruce McLean both understand the impact of institutional recognition, what it can mean for an artist’s profile. McLean won the JMPP himself in 1985 with Oriental Garden, Kyoto, while Himid was last year’s deserving and widely celebrated winner of the Turner Prize. Having a jury with this insight and passion means that, as ever, this year’s decisions about, as the Walker Art Gallery’s website quotes from the Royal Academy’s Sir Norman Rosenthal, “the Oscar of the British painting world”, is once again a decision that can be trusted in form, intention and emotion.

Thus the exhibition becomes settled on 60 paintings, and from these, five prize-winners were selected – five paintings which happen to reflect five very different artistic concerns. From the strong unknowability of the figures in Shanti Panchal’s The Divide, Beyond Reasoning to the careful illusory construction of Billy Crosby’s Quilt, there’s something different to admire in each work.

“It certainly shows that painting is very, very vigorous in this country. People still care about it”

Thus the exhibition becomes settled on 60 paintings, and from these, five prize-winners were selected – five paintings which happen to reflect five very different artistic concerns. From the strong unknowability of the figures in Shanti Panchal’s The Divide, Beyond Reasoning to the careful illusory construction of Billy Crosby’s Quilt, there’s something different to admire in each work.

This year’s prize went to Jacqui Hallum for King And Queen Of Wands. It’s an enormous work spread across multiple cotton sheets, a statement piece that very much declares its place as a work of art. Hallum explains how the roots of the piece lie in both the aesthetic and spiritual aspects of the tarot deck. “Depending on where the cards lie in the deck, it gives them a different meaning. So, if you move the sheets around, you would get a different reading between the King and the Queen. But as they are they’re in a kind of stasis, and there’s a kind of electricity between them, like there’s something about to happen.”

JOHN MOORES PAINTING PRIZE Image 2

It goes without saying that Hallum is delighted with her win. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I slog away at it, and then finally somebody recognises it and you think, ‘Oh my god, it’s not real’.” Hallum is also delighted and amazed at the fact that her triumph was a unanimous decision. As Himid explains, “We all saw something in it. It wasn’t at all one of those compromises. It was [more like]: ‘Do you know something? This could stand the test of time’.” As to what exactly that ‘something’ was, “Look at it! It’s bold, it’s playful, it’s taking huge amounts of space, it’s complicated to hang, it’s not painted to a formula, it’s ‘this is what I want to paint’.”

This year’s win was based on acknowledging the passion of painting, of painting existing as a conduit for putting emotions and thoughts into the world for us all to admire. Thanks to the Walker Art Gallery’s policy of bringing the winning prize into its own collection, King And Queen Of Wands will become part of the history not just of the prize, and of an individual triumph, but of Liverpool’s history.

 

liverpoolmuseums.org./johnmoores

The 2018 John Moores Painting Prize is exhibited at the Walker Art Gallery until 18th November.

RELATED
CURRENT ISSUE Bido Lito! Issue PLAYLIST