First launched in 1957, the John Moores Painting Prize is one of the most established and esteemed painting awards out there, providing a biannual snapshot of some of the most interesting new work being produced in the UK. The open-submission policy and blind-selection process brings together professional and non-professional artists at all stages in their career, resulting without fail in an endlessly rich and varied exhibition that constantly tests the limits, boundaries and past conventions of the medium. The 2020 presentation was of course postponed, but is now going ahead this February with an online virtual tour and hopes of a physical opening as soon as circumstances allow.
Among the 67 works selected from nearly 3,000 submissions, five have been shortlisted for the prize itself (which comes with £25,000, the inclusion of the piece within Walker Art Gallery’s permanent collection, and a future solo exhibition at the gallery). Of these, Robbie Bushe’s surreal and somewhat haunting painting, ‘The Neanderthal Futures Infirmary’ (2019), delves into the realm of daydream and fantasy, imagining an old Victorian hospital with a Neanderthal DNA extraction and cloning facility within a complex network of underground bunkers. Steph Goodger’s ‘The Motherland’ (2019) also considers bridges between past and present through a dramatic depiction of an exposed tangle of tree roots threatening to crush a red brick pillbox dating from the Second World War.
Nature is a dominant theme in the other three shortlisted works. Kathryn Maple’s incredibly beautiful panel ‘The Common’ (2020) meditates upon the often-unmarked moments of organic intersection between different people’s lives that occur in the rare pockets of open space that cities provide. Michele Fletcher considers the relationship between painting and gardening in her swirling muted piece ‘Compost’ (2020), both processes involving elements of intervention, manipulation and composition. Lastly, artist and art critic Stephen Lee’s pastoral composition ‘March’ (2020) is reminiscent of an earlier time, a man toiling beside his dog, set within a rolling rural landscape. The use of burnished, stained and glazed painted imagery creates a strong sense of distance and separation from this easily romanticised scene, raising questions around our relationship to the past.
The overall 2020 selection was judged by a diverse panel of artists and art professionals, including painter Hurvin Anderson, art critic and Frieze editor Jennifer Higgie, and musician Alison Goldfrapp. A meeting of minds that promises yet another unmissable chapter in the prize’s long history.