Representational painting is alive. Of course it is, you fool. But at what level of creativity can it be said to be alive? Is it a little moribund and wistfully backward-looking? One place to look for an answer would be The Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize, currently on display in one of the City's livery halls. This particular prize has been in existence for five years. It exists to encourage not only representational painting in general, but also to nurture skills of draughtsmanship. The rewards for winning it are not to be sniffed at: a first prize of £15,000, and lesser sums for the runners up. This year more than 80 works have been chosen from a little under 1,000 submissions. The means are relatively traditional – oil on board, oil on canvas, acrylic on canvas, etc. The range is, at first glance, familiar: landscape, ruminative portraiture, still life.
What we look for in any show such as this one is the way in which the painter has engaged with his or her subject, the particular angle of attack, you might say. A good painter is never the passive processor of sense impressions. He or she is there to mould reality, to wrest and shape a particular vision. This does not necessarily mean being wildly experimental so that the world as we know it disappears altogether. There is none of that here. And yet abstraction does play a part, and often quite a subtle one.
Look at a painting here by Saied Dai called Silhouette, for example. Two figures sit side by side, in profile to us, against a window. We are not, however, quite sure what kind of a window it is, whether the window of a moving vehicle or the static window of a building. And the view through that window – a strange entanglement or intermeshing of what could either be abstract lines or the shapes of buildings, pylons, etc – is never fully evident to us. This mood of indeterminacy, emphasised by the faint fuzziness of the overall rendering, leaves us in a kind of pleasing suspense. We want to enter in more fully, and yet something holds us back, which seems right.
Yes, the best paintings here show painters impressing their world views upon us by quite subtle means. David Paul Gleeson's Self is a portrait in profile, particularly crisply painted, in a room with bare boards, a rug and one or two disturbingly odd details – a brace of pumpkins which may be over-sized satsumas, and a waste bin surrounded by three balled up tissues. Why are they not in the bin? What do these brilliantly orange pumpkins signify? The portrait itself is not at rest. The face looks both mild-mannered and inwardly agitated. He is in profile to us, but it looks as if he is about to leave, about to get on with more essential business, which may not be too pleasant. The very meticulous way in which the portrait is painted seems to be at odds with the mood, which is edgy, unresolved, almost turbulent.
And then there is landscape. How do you ring changes on the portrayal of landscape within the limits of representational painting? Alan Welsford has done something rather interesting in Rural View. This is a rural scene framed by a complicated sash window. Various small ornaments sit on the window ledges – a cyclist, a windmill, a cow. They are pretty well in scale with the landscape which we can see beyond the window, cut into segments by that window. These toy-like figures bring an element of play into the idea of representing that landscape at all. It is both cunning and pleasing. It helps us to reflect upon the idea of painting as assemblage.
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