Nick Hackworth

Jerwood Painting Prize, 2002

Essays & Reviews Evening Standard

Set up six years ago to reward “excellence and originality in painting”, the Jerwood Painting Prize is, at £30,000, the largest single award given to an artist in this country for painting. Admirable in ideal but not in practice, the prize tends to be a beauty parade of the usual suspects. Previous winners include Craigie Aitchison, Patrick Caulfield, Maggi Hambling, Gary Hume and Prunella Clough, and they will be joined by one of the six short-listed artists, all of whom are well known in the art world.

This petty concern with art-world politics would not matter if the exhibition of short-listed work at the Jerwood Space were indeed a revelation of excellence and originality. Of the six short-listed artists, though, only the abstract painter Callum Innes makes work of memorable beauty and none could claim originality as their forte. Innes’s beauty is one of a quiet interaction between minimal blocks of muted colours and shades, and between surface and depth within the painting.

In the works here, areas of deep darkness, built up with layers of dark brown and blue, sit beside passages of vine and ivory pigment drawn lightly across the canvas combining to create an aesthetic of a mild and tempered minimalism. To a far greater degree than any of the other artists on show here, Innes displays an affinity with the specific qualities of painting.

Elsewhere, figuration rules but to dismal effect. Graham Crowley, no less a figure than the professor of painting at the Royal College of Art, paints Irish landscapes loosely and lightly on bright, artificial-coloured backgrounds. Pamela Golden’s tiny miniatures, each measuring about three inches square, depict Sixties suburban American scenes and are carefully built up with layers of thin paint.

Nicky Hoberman describes distorted children with swollen heads who stare straight at you and float in fields of flat colour. While none of these painters particularly deserves condemnation (and nor do the final two on the short list, Lisa Milroy and Paul Morrison) their inclusion on a short list of the best British painters stands as either a condemnation of British painting or of the Jerwood’s judges.

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