Thursday, August 21, 2008

Threadneedle Figurative Prize (part 2) - Green, Mills, Murdoch and Schierenberg

"What do I ask of a painting? I ask it to astonish, disturb, seduce and convince."
Lucian Freud
Hannah (NFS) by Eloiza Mills
oil on copper, 11 x14cms

I saw the exhibition of works accepted for the Threadneedle Figurative Prize on Tuesday and was very impressed with the overall standard and presentation. I'm going to split my comments into two more posts, today and tomorrow as follows:

Part 2
  • an overview of the exhibition
  • Anthony Green
  • Eloiza Mills
  • Nina Murdoch
  • Tai-Shan Shierenberg
Part 3
  • Paul Brandford
  • Tim Shaw
  • Nicholas Charles Williams
  • Other entries
  • the DVD
  • the Debate
The West Gallery
An Overview

Those organising this prestigious new prize and exhibition are to be congratulated. The original aim was to achieve an entry of at least 1,500 pieces in its first year. What happened instead was that 1,600 artists - both emerging and established - submitted over 2,700 works filling all three galleries completely!

This is the third highest level of submissions of any open art competition in the UK after the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and the John Moores Contemporary Painting Prize, both of which have been going for considerably longer. The total of 71 pieces being exhibited is a little larger than the number originally anticipated so I guess there was stiff competition. However the assembled works look splendid in the recently revamped Mall Galleries. You can see a shot of the West Gallery above.

Judging took place over two days and the selectors have managed to produce an exhibition which embraces the range of figurative art being produced in the UK today and includes quality examples of such work. By which of course I mean I wouldn't have chosen all the works they did - but then my taste is not as eclectic as some!

For me, there was just one piece which in my opinion should definitely have been included in the shortlist - of which more tomorrow along with some other pieces which caught my attention!

The works were presented on an anonymous basis although of course there is absolutely no mistaking some artist's work - we know that Ken Howard (Lay figure and discobulus) likes painting his studio!

Others were well known to some of the selectors - as indeed is always the the case with any juried exhibition operating at this level. However it was confirmed to me that some "names" entered and did not get accepted (although I don't know who) - which must come as consolation to all those who have ever been rejected from a juried exhibition! I must confess on my initial scan through the accepted entries I was surprised by names which were missing. Interestingly I gather some artists took the opportunity to explore styles and approaches to painting which they don't normally employ.
Some Facts
  • 71 works by 61 artists have been selected for the exhibition.
  • 32% of accepted artists are under 40 years of age; 50% are aged between 41 and 60; 18% are over 61.
  • The oldest accepted artist is 85 (Anthony Eyton); the youngest is 21 (Eloiza Mills). The average age is 46.
Mall Galleries
The work is for sale: One point which is worth making is that unlike a number of other competitions of this nature, most of the work is priced and for sale. The prices vary very significantly - from the £64,500 being asked by Shierenberg to £350 asked for one installation piece. Most are asking thousands and a significant number are asking five figure sums.

I'm not quite sure how the sales side of things is working for online viewers however I suggest you contact the gallery if you're interested and want to see a price list.

Anthony Green with "the Jessica side" of The Heaven and Earth Machine (£35,250)
oil, wood and found objects 257 x 101 cms
photograph by Katherine Tyrrell
Anthony Green

I've been entertained by many of the works of Anthony Green RA seen at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition each year. I'm very used to the polygonal shapes he often uses for supports for yet another interesting narrative about his life - but I don't know that I've ever seen one of his installations before. I haven't talked to him before either - and he was both delightful and interesting.

You can only see 50% of The Heaven and Earth Machine on the Threadneedle website. As with any 3D work there are other angles and in the case of this work there is a completely different painting on the reverse.

The work celebrates the end of the long and interesting life of his mother, Madeleine (1910-2004), on one side and the start of the brand new one of Jessica (b. 1997), one of his granddaughters on the other. It sits on his mother's dining room table in a piece of machinery which allows the work to be portable.

In his interview in the DVD (of which more tomorrow), he comments that he's always been absorbed by history and that moving art (as a parable) around to tell its story has a very long tradition. He worked on it from 2003 to 2008, and it measure 101" high, 72" long and 56" wide.

I found the universality of its story about two female family members he loved and loves to have enormous scope for connection with those who view it - the deterioration and ending of one life and the fresh abundance of new life. I've always liked the way he's challenged the notion of what a painting should look like - and in this piece I particularly liked all the small paintings around the main two sided piece. His Mum popping up out of her handbag was very touching. I also loved the way he celebrated the sunflower competition with his grandaughter on the reverse - the photograph shows him next to the small image of himself looking at the winner!

I can imagine this piece will be very popular with some of those who see it, although its full impact can only really be appreciated in the gallery. I especially liked the idea that this is a piece which will be liked by those who appreciate that silliness can be combined with awareness and respect for spirituality.

Eloiza Mills and her models (Katey and Hannah) with the paintings
photograph by Katherine Tyrrell

Eloiza Mills

I met and talked with Eloiza Mills, age 21, who is living the dream of every art student who ever entered a prestigious national prize in their final year at Art School. She's the only artist to have all her submissions accepted for exhibition and she's been shortlisted in the first year of an important new Art Prize. This achievement must be an encouragement to other young artists who consider entering this competition in future years.

Her work initially reminded me very much of Lucian Freud's early work (before it became textural and almost sculptural). Having personally met two of the models on Tuesday evening (see above), I now appreciate that there's something about the way she very slightly distorts dimensions and features which makes her work seem like a cross between Lucian Freud and Vermeer. There's also something about the eyes which seems Freudian - in the artistic sense. I was not in the least bit surprised to find these are two artists who provide her with inspiration.
When I look at a Vermeer painting it's such a strong bright silence, it's not's very subtle. It's so beautiful....I'm drawn to it and it's what I aim for in my work.
Eloiza Mills - on the DVD "Threadneedle Figurative Prize - 2008: The Shortlist Interviews"
The notion of working small so that it draws the viewer in and makes them look more carefully at a work is an excellent one for the style of painting she's employed for this type of painting. She loves painting with oil on copper - a support which was very popular in the 16th-18th centuries but one which is not often used today.

Her three works are not for sale and I'm so very glad she didn't put prices on her work. There were very many positive comments being passed on Tuesday night about Eloiza's work. I greatly look forward to seeing it in future competitive exhibitions as I'm 100% sure other jurors will also recognise its excellence. I hope she receives some expert and excellent advice in the very near future about the value which should be attributed to her very fine small portraits.

Untitled (£18,500) by Nina Murdoch
Egg tempera, 152 x 122cm
Photo by Katherine Tyrrell
Nina Murdoch

I got to cast the first vote in the gallery on Tuesday afternoon and this is the work I voted for. I very much liked Nina Murdoch's work when I saw it online (see my online perspective). However it looks nothing like its photograph when you see it in the exhibition. Her 'Untitled' work - a painting which reflects simple rhythms of light and space and colour - is simply stunning and hugely impressive and again attracted a number of very many positive comments in my hearing on Tuesday night.

You can get a better appreciation of her work on her website (Paintings/08) but even then it still doesn't convey the impact of the seeing it in the gallery. For one thing it's varnished. which creates a reflection but also persuades you that you might be looking through a window onto another world.

She studied with Euan Uglow (1932-2000) at the Slade. For several years she's been developing a way of painting with pigment and egg on gesso on a large scale. However she doesn't paint in the same way as those who work with egg tempera in a more traditional way. I loved her description of layering and knocking back and immediately identified with it. In fact I wanted an immediate lesson as she verbalised the idea about how I want to paint which has been in my head for a long time now! The varnish is a brilliant idea as it completely transforms the piece. It creates really strong darks, reveals the colours and completely transformed my notions of what egg tempera could look like. The way in which it reveals the history of its making also greatly appeals to me. The notion of the painting stripping back and revealing what is also in essence and reality stripped bare too just makes for a wonderful piece of figurative art.

Self portrait as a man of clay (£64,500) by Tai-Shan Shierenberg
oil on canvas, 153 x 122 cms

Tai-Shan Shierenberg

I had a suspicion that Tai-Shan Shierenberg's Self portrait as a man of clay might look very different in reality - and I was absolutely right. Again this is a painting which really rewards the viewer who makes it to the gallery for the exhibition. He's almost sculpted the work from oil paint used thickly with big brushes on a large canvas and it's very impressive - although I must confess I found it generating more of an academic interest for me rather than an emotional response. I decided to photograph a very small part of so you can see the sort of effect he achieves.

Detail of Self Portrait as a man of clay

I liked the ideas he talks about on the DVD of both "tickling the synapses" and working on two very specific ideas - the specific and real which exists at a distance and the making the language of painting very visible when the work is seen close up. He used very big brushes and worked very loosely - as you can see.
Painter of portraits, figures and landscape; studied at St Martin's and the Slade Schools of Art (1981-7) and has subsequently had one-man shows at Flowers East in Hackney. In 1989 he won first prize in the National Portrait Gallery's John Player Portrait Award and as part of the prize was commissioned to paint the portrait of playwright John Mortimer for the Gallery's collection. The National Portrait Gallery also holds his portraits of Lord Carrington (1994), Lord Sainsbury (2002) and most recently Seamus Heaney (2004).
National Gallery
The John Player Award is the Award that morphed into the BP Portrait Award when the sponsorship changed hands. You can see more images of his work here in Google Images or on his page on the Flowers East website.


More about the other paintings and the other shortlisted artists tomorrow! See if you can hold off from voting until I've finished my posts!

The follow up post to this one is Making a Mark: Threadneedle Figurative Prize (part 3) - Brandford, Shaw, Williams and the DVD ]


  1. Wonderful read Katherine, I wish I could see these in person, especially the portraits on copper and the Man of Clay.


  2. It's a tough call between Mills and Murdoch.


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