John Ruskin Prize, Sheffield: Recording Britain Now

Daniel Dylan Wray
Photo of a painting by Michael Cox

The John Ruskin Prize in Sheffield showcases emerging artists – the work on display is at once bleak, and beautiful.

Victorian artist, critic, writer and social reformer John Ruskin had a saying: “the greatest thing a human being ever does in this world is to see something… To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one.” The 2014 John Ruskin prize asks exactly this of its entrants; to see and to absorb a theme – and the title of this year’s exhibition – Recording Britain Now. With recent political proclamations about the importance of “British Values” being met with a series of confused faces from many, it seems apparent that Britain is in a something of a state of flux. This year’s prize has honed in on this transitional period and, as a result, extracts an interesting variation of contemporary visions.

“To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion all in one”

John Ruskin has a permanent collection in Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery, where the entries for this year’s prize are being exhibited. This prize was founded by the Guild of St George (which Ruskin initially founded), in partnership with The Campaign for Drawing. The brief? “Established  and emerging artists present fresh, contemporary visions of their urban, rural or social environment, from haunting pastoral vistas to evocative depictions of 21st Century suburbia.”

The twenty-three finalists for this year (whittled down from over six hundred) vary greatly. Many have submitted straight-up drawings and paintings, while others utilise more unusual techniques such as lithography, type-writing, woven tapestry and embroidery. Artist Mandy Payne’s entry even uses actual concrete slabs taken from Park Hill, which are then spray-painted and coated with oil on top to capture the housing estate on the housing estate.

The results, while incorporating the commissioned themes of “urban”, “rural” and “social”, all have a vast leaning towards the first two. Only one of the twenty-three entries visibly captures a human being. The overwhelmingly consistent strands to be found running through Recording Britain Now are that of stillness, quiet, reflection and reclusion. Colour, too, is rare; big heavy greys and dark tones dominate the collection, emphasising further the – occasionally eerie – silences. The most colourful piece, a bright grey and pink oil painting by Michael Cox, is still a depiction of the empty, slightly dilapidated-looking garage area of what appears to be a housing estate.

Maggie Hargreaves’ winning entries, by contrast, are large, grey and immersive. One is an overgrown park with a solitary children’s slide in the middle, where the second is located deep into some woods with thick, protruding grass. Nature cloaks the large canvas. Ros Ford’s wonderfully grand but gloomy capturing of a disused Parcel Force building in Bristol stands out too, sitting in tone alongside Anny Eavason’s beautiful graphite drawing of the Dungeness coast.

In a country more heavily populated than ever, with our lives becoming increasingly busy and manic, these artists – almost universally – choose some kind of seclusion when asked to capture Britain. They offer a retreat, an escape from humans and the business of life. The two most prominent themes of rural and urban often seem divided and opposed: the encroaching presence of urban life on rural life is captured. This is city versus the country; industry and concrete versus nature and grass.

2014’s John Ruskin Prize is an eclectic mix of styles, but it uniformly focuses on a bleakness that these artists appear to see unfolding before them. However, there is a beauty to be found within much of it. This is an exhibition that makes for varied, intriguing and immersive viewing.

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