Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: Threadneedle Prize Exhibition 2011

Yesterday I went to the Preview of the Threadneedle Prize Exhibition which opened today.  Below I offer you:
  • my comments on the exhibition in general - which have been a challenge to write this year!
  • plus comments on the work by the selected artists
Tomorrow you get my select seven - which is the seven works I would have selected.

You can see the Threadneedle Exhibition at the Mall Galleries until 8th October.  If you visit before the 3rd October you can vote for the best artwork in the show - and all selected pieces are eligible for your vote.

The Threadneedle Exhibition 2011

This is an exhibition which is different from any Threadneedle exhibition which has gone before.  It's good that it continues to develop.  However this year I found it less palatable and I think others might well feel the same.  Next year I'd like to see it come back more towards a more balanced exhibition - and I explain what I mean by "balance: below

There's three shortlisted works in this picture - counting from the left they are 3, 5 and 9
It seems to me that there are two factors at work which very much influence what the exhibition looks like this year.
  • First, this is a competition which has been rebranded.  It is no longer about "figurative art" - it is now about painting and sculpture.  
  • Second, this is an art competition where selection and hence the nature of the exhibition and who wins the prize is very much determined by - surprise, surprise - the selectors.
I'll look at each in turn

Rebranding - more emphasis on painting and sculpture

This year there seems to have been more emphasis on contemporary painting practice.  This of itself is a good thing and has resulted in an exhibition which has expanded the scope and range of painting practice on display.

However, the website says the Threadneedle Prize is about representational art.  I have to say that the boundaries of what that might involve now seem to me to have been stretched a very long way.

This is now an exhibition in which to my mind less than half a dozen works could be defined as "realism" (as opposed to some variant of "impressionism").  Now I'm far from being a fan of exhibitions which are heavy on the "realism" but exhibitions about representational art which are very light on "realism" seem to me to have lost their way a bit.

I also don't think this exhibition accurately reflects the best in contemporary practice in painting and sculpture across the UK.  Any exhibition which is offering a top prize of £25,000 should be able to select 50+ works (from the 4,350 works submitted by the 2,377 artists) which are indisputably top notch.

It's simply not good enough for the piece to be able to press the button on technique or concept - it has to be capable of pressing the buttons on both.  (More "wow" factor if you like). In my view, every single piece in this exhibition should be capable of winning that £25k prize - the selectors job is to choose the best seven.  However I don't think that's the case and I find that disappointing.  In fact I think there are some pieces in this exhibition which really challenge the credibility of the selectors - and they are a very reputable bunch - if they accept my terms of reference for what we ought to be seeing.

It occurs to me that this exhibition is what happens if the selectors place more emphasis on the practice of painting and sculpture and perhaps neglect the representational aspect and the £25k prize and the notion that we should be seeing the very best in representational art.  I don't want to see the scope of what's possible - I want to see the best of what's available.

Thus there are many more conceptual pieces and a fair bit of work which leans towards minimal abstraction in terms of representational.  For example, for me, the three virtually white paintings would very much fall into this category.

The reason why I am banging on about the figurative and representational aspects is that there are any number of prizes which reward painting and sculpture which departs from the figurative and representational.   There is no need to duplicate their role.   The fact is that the original point about this prize, (if I remember correctly - having covered it from its inception) is that this Prize was created to champion figurative art - an aspect of art with a strong tradition in the UK and a form of art which is very popular with the public.  People had a problem with the word "figurative" and this translated into "representational".  Both for me means artwork which is rooted in what we see around us and can be understood without too much explanation.

Diluting the emphasis on the figurative for me represents a lost opportunity for strengthening the quality of figurative art in general.  No other prize is going to do that - and this one was supposed to.

An exhibition which reflects the selectors

One of the huge benefits of this art competition it that it is a real open - that is
  • There are no entries sponsored/favoured by Judges (as has been seen in competitions elsewhere).
  • There are no invited artists.  
  • Everybody has an equal chance - and the rest is up to merit and judgement by the selectors.
Now we all know that any exhibition will ALWAYS reflect the preferences and prejudices of the selectors rather than our own personal sense of what is "the best art". I'm not quibbling with that at all.

That said, I think there's a very cogent argument for:
  • artists always looking long and hard at who the selectors are before submitting work.  Their track records in supporting particular types of art is very likely to manifest itself in the works which get selected.  Artists can then make their own minds up as to whether or not their art stands a chance.  (Note:"  You'll always find links to the selectors on the call for entries post on this blog)
  • creating a group of selectors who are not all of the same "mindset" means that those who have strongly held beliefs are more likely to be challenged to defend WHY they see merit in particular works.  I'm not going to single out any artist but I'd absolutely love to challenge the selectors about some of the pieces which have been chosen for the exhibition.  I simply cannot believe they represent the best which was on offer.
I'd really like to see a panel of people who offer DIFFERENT perspectives on what is good representational art.  Let's say an artist of renown (of a representational persuasion), a gallerist, an independent critic and an academic.  With none of the usual suspects and no works from the gallerist's artists allowed in that year!  I'd like to see a debate about what good representational painting and sculpture is all about.  I'd even like to see the whole process filmed to create something rather educational for the rest of us!

The Good news - more regional artists in 2011

I learned that a change in the submission process has led to the proportion of regional artists rising from 30% to 70%.  That's really good news!  More about this next week when I comment on why all art competitions and national art societies need to give serious consideration to the accessibility of their submission processes.

The Selected Artwork and Artists

I've already commented on my initial review of the selected work which could be seen online as a digital version - see Shortlist for Threadneedle Prize 2011 dominated by women.

However you can't beat actually going to the exhibition to get the best perspective.

So here's my take again - with comments now based on seeing the piece in person.  In the first two years I picked the winner in advance of the announcement.  In the third year I very much liked the piece which won but didn't think it was in with a chance because it was a pastel - and pastels don't win art competitions!

However this year I have not a clue who's going to win!  I know who I'd like to win and I know who I have an uneasy feeling might win.
  1. Open Lid by Georgina Amos - I still don't get it.  I still don't understand why it's shown one way up on the artist's website and another way up in the exhibition.  How can paintings "evoke the inner surface of the eye?".  Technical explanation please. 
  2. White Burka by Howard Dyke  - This is huge and has been bought by the Charles Saatchi Gallery.  I suspect it might win but I don't like it.  The problem I can't get past is that it very much reminds me of the Abu Ghraib pictures and I'm not into artwork linked to atrocities and abuse.  The surface is covered in bits of tape and the painting appears quite slapdash.  However it's impressive from the other side of the gallery.  I just don't want to look at it for very long.
  3. Everything in its Right Place by Sarah R Key - I still can't place the artist it reminds me of - but maybe it's a type of work I'm thinking of.  It still doesn't do it for me.
  4. Anon Series (4) by Nadine Mahoney - the technique is fascinating and I do like the way she has a commitment to exploring what painting can do.  I can see why this might appeal.  However it doesn't press all the buttons for me. 
  5. Henriette Simson with Bad Government (after Lorenzetti)
  6. Bad Government (After Lorenzetti) by Henrietta Simson - I had a long chat with Henriette last night.  I now get the point of what's she doing - and pursuing through her practice based PhD ar the Slade and it isn't maybe best explained in the narrative accompanying her entry.  What's she into is pre-perspectival landscape art and how spatial construction works within a painting before perspective puts in an appearance on the scene.  Taking the people out is about eliminating the element which contextualises it in the past and enables us to look at the landscape in a more contemporary way.  Now that I "get" and it does indeed make her work very interesting.  The one bit I don't get is why paint it in the subdued tones of a painting which has lost its pigment and saturation over time.  Why not paint as it would have been seen at the time it was originally painted - especially given the fact that the colour would have greatly influenced how the painting worked in terms of depth and recession.  Henriette also has three works in the show in total - which I'm guessing makes her a contender.  
  7. Knife by Laura Smith - Is it a £25k painting?  Surely not?  It's small and, for me, it looked much better in digital format than it did in person.
  8. Amy Stephens with Birch in Space
  9. Birch in Space, 2010 by Amy Stephens  This is a little stunner and is much better in person than in the digital image.  I love it.  It's a work I'd like to own. I met Amy last night and she told me it's actually cast in eight pieces and although she is producing an edition of six, each one is slightly different.  Her explanation (below) of what she does also makes complete sense to me.  I'd really like to see this one win.
Stephens’s interest lies in the appropriation of nature, using drawing and architectural influences within her work to transform spaces into an exploration of line, plane and volume
Tomorrow, I'll post my "select seven" and you can see more of what there is to see - and vote for - because, in theory, any one of the pieces in the exhibition deserves to win the £10,000 Public Choice Prize.  (Which to my mind is tosh - but there you go!)



  1. I looked at the images online of the included work and all I can say is "REALLY?!!" So many of the pieces look amateurish or simply bad. It seems like intellectual concept has become more important than execution or visual presentation. But shouldn't visual art impact the viewer because of what is seen, without having to first read or hear a lengthy description of the concept behind it? Seeing this work makes me think I shouldn't be so hard on myself when I turn out crappy paintings--they could be prize winners!

  2. Can I suggest others also take a look at the work and see if they agree with Jana.

  3. I agree with Jana. this is not an exhibition of the best of representational is like a gallery show of conceptual pieces. Nothing wrong with it, but I could have not bothered entering.....

  4. I liked Everything in its Right Place by Sarah R Key - more on a second look - but could find little else of interest. Some pictures, like the white burka, evince a squeak of meaning and then you're just left with a dreary surface. It's no wonder Saatchi is as famous for selling his pictures as buying them; who would want to look at this when the meaning has gone? This is a truly dismal display of conceptual painting, the more so for the way it has hijacked what promised to be the best of figurative art being produced today. It's odd though that the show is run by the Mall Galleries, which are owned by the Federation of British Artists, hardly a bastion of conceptual art.

  5. Thanks for posting this review, it explains a lot. I have to say I was a bit perplexed as to what had happened to the standard of the selected work when I visited the exhibition on Saturday. I hope this is just a blip, over the last few years the Threadneedle has built a reputation for showcasing some very strong work.

  6. This is a really good review - thank you. I visited the exhibition on Saturday and was extremely disappointed. I left with an overall impression of poorly executed grunge. Personally, I think the digital images elevate the standard. In the flesh, it just felt a bit 'End of Year Show'. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that if you're not advertised as an exhibition of the very best in 'Representational Art'.

    Within my very generalised opinion, and upon reflection, there were a few pieces that I did like: namely Simon Wright's 'Glider', Peter Marsh's 'Untitled', and Peter Wylie's 'Goldfinger Seven'. I could see skill involved in the creation of each of these pieces, with the artists making purposeful decisions about composition and technique. In too many cases it just felt that the artist had a concept but no facility to translate it.

    I don't want to sound pedestrian in my taste, because although I enjoy the challenge of working within a fairly traditional representational style myself, I have a very broad aesthetic in terms of the art (and design) that I enjoy looking at and collecting. I just don't see how this exhibition progressed Representational Art either conceptually or technically.


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