John Moores Painting Prize 2023 – Walker Art Gallery
“… there are no losers here, just a celebration of the varied talent on show here at the Walker. I’m raising a glass to you all.”
– Sir Peter Blake, Artist and Patron of the John Moores Painting Prize.
After submitting his entry to the 2023 John Moores Painting Prize, Graham Crowley turned to his wife, Sally, and vowed that, win or lose, this would be the last time he entered. He could be forgiven for the tone of weariness in his decision, given that this would be his 10th attempt – the first having been in 1976. In the intervening years, he had been shortlisted twice and even served as a Juror for the 2008 edition. But this year, his perseverance and belief in his art finally paid off and at the age of 73 he secured the £25,000 first prize.
His painting, Light Industry, was selected in a two-stage anonymous judging process from a record number of 3,357 entries. It was inspired by a visit to a motorcycle dealer in Framlingham, Suffolk, which Crowley describes as “part workshop, part counter-cultural museum”. He says it was the light in the workshop that had enthralled him: “It was a diffused, dusty kind of light that emanated from a grubby, obscured skylight.”
Crowley’s practice focuses on his long-standing preoccupation with class and creativity. He explains that one of the ways of navigating these complex issues is by adopting a variety of graphic devices: “In this case it’s the low-tech duotone. My intention is to make paintings that are both luminous and their own object”.
Gabrielle de la Puente, a Juror for the Prize and one half of the collaborative identity, The White Pube, says it was Crowley’s painting style that stood out: “It manages to make a rugged scene absolutely glow; a blur of painting that makes memory and space momentarily lucid. In places, the monochromatic image ceases to be an image and paint and colour take over”.
Naturally, Crowley is thrilled to have won, saying it is “the best painting I’ve ever done” but also wanting to encourage others who were not successful on this occasion: “Exhibiting as part of the Prize in the past has played a significant part in establishing my reputation as a painter. This is important, as, like most practicing painters, I am not represented by a gallery or by a commercial interest”.
The owner of the workshop depicted in the winning painting is Andy Tiernan. He says he liked the picture as soon as he saw it: “The atmosphere it evokes is quite magical. It really captures my workshop very well – a sort of organised chaos (as we know where things are most of the time and manage to work there). As for my workshop being immortalised in this way, I am thrilled, as it is like leaving something for posterity, my workshop captured as a moment in time!”
The exhibition celebrating the Prize features 70 works from the thousands of entries – including paintings by the four other shortlisted artists, who will each receive £2,500: Social Murder: Grenfell In Three Parts by Nicholas Baldion, Stochastic 14 by Emily Kraus, Other Light by Damian Taylor and Champagne Cascade I by Francisco Valdes.
Juror, Zarina Muhammad of The White Pube, talked of the impossibility of their task and also of the joy it gave the judging panel: “It gave me so much faith in art and in artists: proof that art is valuable, vital and totally alive and kicking despite a political headwind that seems determined to make it untenable in every way. This show is only the tip of the iceberg, because there is so much amazing art being made out there right now — and the impossibility is, we’re only able to show you a tiny fraction of the stuff we were enthused about.”
The Jurors also had the task of selecting the winner of the Lady Grantchester Prize, formerly known as The Emerging Artist Prize and re-named this year in honour of the late Lady Grantchester. She was an avid and loyal supporter of the Painting Prize, which was created by her father, John Moores.
They selected Emma Roche as the first winner of this award for her painting, Hurl. She will receive £5,000, a residency and £2,500 worth of Winsor & Newton art materials. Roche’s work is one of several in the exhibition that challenges the boundaries of painting. She says this is one of the interests that underpins her art practice: “I am interested in pushing painting to its limit through the different processes that I use, so the work is not always immediately recognised as painting or as paint”.
Her process involves making long lines of acrylic paint, extruded through a syringe onto plastic sheeting, and then laying them out to dry. Once dry, they are peeled off and used like wool or thread. As Roche explains, the paint strands are literally knitted together to make the painting: “I make preliminary drawings on graph paper that double as a knitting pattern and so I am working from the top left hand corner to the right, over and back until the painting is done”. In this way, Roche explains that she is physically questioning and negating the ‘heroic gesture’ in painting through what she describes as “the irreverent and ridiculous use of materials”.
In the case of her winning painting, Hurl, the image is of one of her children throwing up while wearing their favourite jumper. The humour in Roche’s work acts as a counterpoint to the relentless repetitiveness of daily life – something that was highlighted in an essay on Roche’s work by Professor Rebecca Fortnum, Head of Fine Art, Glasgow School of Art: “The comedy slightly recedes, allowing the sorrows of everyday life to come to the fore. In all her paintings Roche tells it like it is and owns the difficulties of mothering, of working, of painting”.
The exhibition also features work by five prize-winners of the John Moores Painting Prize China 2022, a competition that was established in 2010. Chen Jiabin’s portrait of her friend, Lisa, is one of the five paintings on show, which, to my eye, has echoes of Walter Sickert’s work. The China Prize is not a monetary award, but provides the prize-winning artists with the opportunity to travel to the UK to take-up studio-based residencies and exhibitions at the Liverpool John Moores University. The five artists were welcomed earlier this year to the John Lennon Art & Design Building to take up their residency.
Inevitably, visitors to this exhibition will have their own strong opinions about the Judges’ choices. With this in mind, there is an open invitation for visitors to vote for their favourite painting. The winner of the Visitors’ Choice Award will receive a cash prize of just over £2,000.
When John Moores established this sponsored competition in 1957, his intention was “to give Merseyside the chance to see the best and most vital work being done today”. The present Patron of the Prize, Sir Peter Blake, confirms that this is still the case: “It is one of the most prestigious art competitions in the UK … for 66 years the Prize has continued its tradition of supporting British-based artists and I’m proud to be its Patron”.
The John Moores Painting Prize 2023 exhibition, runs until 25 February 2024, Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 8EL.
Open every day during school holidays, otherwise opening hours are Tuesday-Sunday 10.00-17.00.
More information and tickets can be booked here. All 70 paintings on display are available to buy as high quality prints. Most of the original paintings in the exhibition are also for sale.