Columbia Threadneedle Prize, Mall Galleries

‘Dead End’ by Ana Schmidt, the winner of this year’s Columbia Threadneedle Prize, depicts the sort of urban corner we might eagerly avoid in daily life. Yet her painting, currently on display at the Mall Galleries as part of an exhibition by the shortlisted artists, manages to make the unsalubrious setting paradoxically poetic. It succeeds in being hyper-realistic whilst emitting an emotional resonance that a photograph could not. There’s an almost impressionistic beauty to the sweet lavender tones in the dank reflected water, and the scene almost seems perfumed. It has a Romanticist overtone of heartbreak, like a 21st century, skewed version of Caspar David Friedrich. The result is intangible beauty. Like all the best art, you really need to see this large picture in the flesh, though. A computer screen isn’t enough.

Elsewhere, actual photography is used to create a very different effect. Emily Allchurch’s ‘Babel Britain’ is a composite photo image displayed on a lightbox, mimicking the composition of a 17th century Tower of Babel by Verhaecht, seemingly a comment on the greed of landlords. The piece reminds us we’re in a time when collage merges with photography and painting, via scanned elements and stylus pens. Photography can be warped and edited and drawn onto. We’re in the place where figurative art is a much wider field than ever before.

The exhibition is divided up according to the three traditional art genres of portraits, landscape and still life – though this perhaps only serves to emphasise that nowadays these labels are as fluid and intermingled as the many and varied media which creates them. This makes for a vibrant show full of unexpected quirks – not the staid collection of genre pictures these categories would lead you to expect.

Shelley Morrow has constructed a huge piece called ‘#whomademyclothes’, in which 1,138 clothing labels are sewn onto a giant quilt. Figurative or conceptual? A bit of both, for sure. You don’t need to read a wall label, however, to know what she is asking about the manufacture of clothes and our own scary distance from the origins of everything we consume in the privileged West. It’s a brilliant and thought provoking piece.

The portrait category of this show is particularly strong, especially in some of the smaller scale pieces, which seem to reflect a more intensely concentrated personal examination by the artist. ‘Rose Without A Thorn’ is our pick of the bunch, easily the most affecting painting in the whole show – an incredibly confident self portrait in tone and execution, made by Jemisha Maadhavji who is still only 20 years old.

Thomas Doran’s ‘The Jury in Widescreen’, meanwhile, is a series of tiny oil paintings executed on handmade plaster TV screens, their bevelled shape immediately evoking old school cathode ray televisions. Everything about them is pleasing to the eye, alluring and nostalgic. The paintings depict frozen moments from a 1970s episode of Crown Court – real life characters, ever so slightly caricatured. It hangs right at the edge of the ‘portrait’ section, bordering the ‘still life’ category, perhaps in an intentional nod from the curators to the uncertain classification of this piece.

Though this exhibition is an extremely broad collection of styles, media and subjects, as a whole it still offers an overall snapshot of prevailing zeitgeist trends in figurative art. Most of the work here is very slickly executed, for example. It feels that painterly passion is rather off the menu. (Mike Skinner’s small ‘Field View’ canvas being a rare exception) Is expressionism just uncool these days, or does the curators’ selection of this exhibition aim itself partly towards a sleeker, more cerebral, aesthetic? Notwithstanding, this show offers an intriguing and extremely varied experience, which inspires great confidence in the future of the figurative tradition.

The Columbia Threadneedle Prize
Mall Galleries London
Open daily til Feb 17th. Admission free.

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