Contemporary British Painting Prize 2021

Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop

28 January to 12 February 2022

Exhibition poster with ‘Inflatable’ 2021 by Susan Absolon

“The stated aim of Contemporary British Painting is to explore and promote current painting. The subtext to this is giving voice back to the artist, the originator and source of painting. The real discourse around current painting is generated painter to painter and emanates from the studio and not from the boardrooms of institutions, directors’ offices, lecture halls or galleries. This prize is artists submitting themselves to consideration and selection by their peers.” (Simon Carter, co-founder CBP)

Tony Antrobus‘Narcissistic Wounds’ 2021 oil on board

A woman and her partner are standing in front of ‘A Farmhouse near the Water’s Edge (‘On the Stour’)’ by John Constable. “Does he ask questions?” she reactively inquires. I think it’s a rhetorical question. It’s certainly a gift of a question and I now wonder, was the painting asking questions about subject matter; perception; time; self; the painting process or the fiction of imagery and invented composition? Constable also appears to have gouged his palette knife into the surface of the oil painting and it is an unsettling image. I doubt that the subject matter is merely a farmhouse or a landscape. Paintings have so much to offer and so much potential for interpretation, with endless ground to cover. It’s no wonder they continue to intrigue viewer and maker alike.

What happened (is still happening) within the history of painting? Thousands of years on from the cave painting phenomenon, as Matthew Burrows would remind his audience at the opening of the London leg of the Contemporary British Painting Prize, current practice might point to the fact that many artists believe that the journey continues because painting is so inexhaustible and adaptable. Selected survey shows such as this point to the fact that the painting continuum trundles on, regardless of other media, technologies and contexts that artists employ to make certain points or simply investigate as life choices. But the CBP prize acts as both a celebration of, and a manifesto of sorts, exclusively for painting. The mission statement is, perhaps, understated, as there is no one predominant style, genre or parameter for painting being proclaimed – although an exploration and promotion of current trends in British painting, especially from the community of the painters rather than the gatekeepers, is paramount.

Martyna Lebryk‘Sirens’ and ‘Three riders of my fate’ (each 2021, oil and oil pastel on paper)

Before arriving for the Contemporary British Painting Prize 2021 – which consists of a selection of 15 artists’ work made by Unit 1 Director Stacie McCormick who had visited the prize show at Huddersfield Art Gallery a few weeks back – I had finally got around to jumping on a train, adorned with a facemask, to see a few London shows. The exhibition batteries had been running low, so the CBP show was ideal to touch base with some contemporary works and to see a few friendly faces.  Beforehand, experiencing the Late Constable exhibition at the RA was bound to impress and, so too, was the Georges Braque show, The Poetry of Things, at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery that had fortuitously been extended to this very day. Both prestigious exhibitions might have overshadowed seeing anything else that day but it is always necessary, I believe, to put status aside when viewing the works of contemporary painters, otherwise there is a danger of being disrespectful to the endeavours of such an extraordinary community.

Sarah Poots‘Temporary Sculptures’ 2021 oil on canvas

The Unit 1 space had allowed for a selection of 27 works, including a small triptych set, depicting ‘Temporary Sculptures’ by Sarah Poots, without either being jam-packed or leaving acres of wall space empty. Arriving before the many visitors for the opening there was ample room to step back or to go in closer, particularly for the smaller and finely rendered paintings by Daisy Richardson. None of the paintings were inappropriately combined, which was testament to the careful hanging decisions. Some works were obvious to display together if by the same artist, such as Martyna Lebryk’s pair of drawing-type paintings on paper; Bill Stewart’s two commanding canvases and Jesse Leroy-Smith’s three compelling portraits. Other exhibitors had their respective works such as Gary Spratt, Tom Robinson, Zack Thorne and Donna Mclean interspersed with others, which enabled an overall cohesiveness to the selection and hang that clearly attempted to celebrate every participant rather than any one in particular. So, even the winner of the 2021 Prize, Susan Absolon, had her three works split into a small pair and one relatively large work, ‘Dugout’ intriguingly placed between Zac Thorne’s ‘The End Part XI’, a tight figurative work and Tom Robinson’s ‘Telmah’, one of the most painterly and abstract in the show. More object-oriented works came from Christina Niederberger (with a strong mimetic textile vibe) and Roland Hicks (constructivist, non-objective, found object become painting), whilst Tony Antrobus, Jan Valik, and Highly Commended Award winner Hannah Murgatroyd (with just about the largest canvas – ‘Night Mapping’ at 130x150cm on show), had just one canvas selected each, which perhaps left one wanting more.

Installation at Unit 1 with Thorne, Absolon and Robinson paintings
Hannah Murgatroyd ‘Night Mapping’ 2021 oil on canvas and Jesse Leroy-Smith‘Father Figure’, ‘Blowback’ and ‘Creator – Tricky’ (each 2021 oil on panel)

Picking out any one or two participants as favourites seems unfair in the context of this exhibition, though inevitably one will gravitate towards preferred visual languages or subject matter (though as an abstract painter I found myself gravitating towards Mclean’s ‘Cloud’ and Leroy-Smith’s portraits throughout the evening – yet still felt compelled to sneak of with Antrobus’ ‘Narcissistic Wounds’ that took a while to grow on me). The recommended approach to ingesting the show is to enjoy and be intrigued by this celebration of British painting. There is no overriding theme. Search for a subject if you wish, but do not establish a territory of preference. If works are resolved still see painting, generally, in a state of becoming and development, not only for the individual artists, but also for painting as an ongoing project.

Bill Stewart‘Oklahoma’ and ‘TheDancingTreesOfYellowstoneAnthemStandingVibrationWyoming’ (both 2021, oil on canvas)

The catalogue for the aforementioned Braque show added poignancy to the day as it contains what I believe to be art historian, Mel Gooding’s final essay. In the last paragraph he writes of Braque’s nature morte paintings: 

“They are real, indeed, but their actuality is within the painting. They give the mind a reality to contemplate, one that doesn’t and couldn’t exist elsewhere: only here…”

If there are relevant contemporary narratives in British painting emerging post-Brexit they seem to be about time and place; history and self; inside and outside. But it is still too early to see, I suspect. There has to be an argument for painting though, best developed from the studios of the dedicated practitioners who live in every town and community on this tiny little island. The selected work supports this cause for we are all on the same side, even if we disagree or appear to live in different realities sometimes.

Jan Valik‘It’s About Time’ 2021 oil on linen
Gary Spratt‘Odd Legs’ 2021 oil on canvas
Donna Mclean – ‘Sarah Lund’ 2019-20 oil on canvas
Christina Niederberger‘Revue (after de Kooning)’ 2018 oil on canvas
Zack Thorne‘The End Part IV’ 2020 oil on canvas
Tom Robinson‘Telmah’ 2021 oil on panel
Daisy Richardson‘Rutilation (DOMESTIC)’ 2021; ‘Tourmalination’ 2021; ‘Rag and Bone’ 2020 (each oil unprimed paper)
Roland HicksTriple Zip Board Chord’ and ‘Blueshady’, both 2021 (acrylic and acrylic gouache on shaped MDF panel)
Huddersfield exhibition poster with ‘Blowback’ 2021 by Jesse Leroy-Smith

Copyright © of paintings remains with the artist.

Links:

Unit 1 – https://unit1gallery-workshop.com/contemporary-british-painting-2021/

Contemporary British Painting – https://www.contemporarybritishpainting.com

Mel Gooding – https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/oct/03/mel-gooding-obituary

Bernard Jacobson Gallery – https://www.jacobsongallery.com/georges-braque-catalogue

Author: Geoff Hands

Visual Artist / Writer. Studio based at Phoenix Art Space, Brighton UK.

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