Contemporary British Painting Prize 2021 - Selector Essay


I was a selector for the Contemporary British Painting Prize in 2021 and wrote an introductory text for the accompanying catalogue:


It has been a privilege to be a selector for the Contemporary British Painting Prize this year alongside such deliberate painters who have approached the process with a commitment to unearthing the fundamental significance of painting in 2021. Our varied approaches to our practices, we hope, has made for an exhibition which embodies the richness and diversity in painting today. It has been two years since the last prize in 2019, in which time the world has changed irrevocably. As painters we have been uniquely placed to explore this new territory; adept as we are at reflecting on the world and translating this into pigment. As such, this year’s submissions have shown the tenacity of painters to negotiate adversity and to flourish through their enduring practices.


During these times we have been more than ever aware of the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ and somehow the painted surface intercedes on the boundary between. In Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’ he considers such a tension:


“If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and outside , this surface is painful on both sides [...] The centre of ‘being-there’ wavers and trembles. Intimate space loses its clarity, while exterior space loses its void”


In many of the submissions this year, we have found ourselves in this place, in an unsettling confusion of space which spills and expands within and beyond its parameters, questioning certainty and unravelling this malleable surface within the discourse of painting.


In our final selection we encounter surfaces where paint slips and glides; where some marks are buoyed and pasted upon uncertainty whilst others are tightened and stapled into trompe l'oeil. Where are we, where is this place? We are looking for ourselves in the gap, which has always been the space between painter and viewer; this hinterland where we share perception (share ourselves), each as lost and as mesmerised as the other.


So we find ourselves in the work of these 15 painters, passing through thin veils of paint, diaphanous curtains concealing or pulling back to reveal spaces half defined, limbs piled up and half running, strange territories which elude, causing a misstep in our perception which pulls us back to the full press of the painted surface, lurid and layered with plastic colour or chalky, discreet imaginings. We retreat into darkened, empty rooms and woven surfaces which reveal themselves to be only paint (only paint) These are spaces where trees vibrate and faces loom, whilst darkness sits upon the stark light of the ground beneath and fragmented objects are laid out in intimate archaeologies.


This is an exhibition borne of uneasy times, of fleeting thoughts punctuating surfaces, anxieties splaying bushes into spaces of assignations and half formed somethings skidding into being. But is also an exhibition which exemplifies the Contemporary British Painting Prize, which affirms the vigour and innovation in the painted mark and celebrates the continuing evolution of this language to reflect its times. And however these selected painters have chosen to make these marks, be it reflectively, precisely or wildy, paint remains stubbornly itself. This unique object. This sticky thing, bedraggled and emerging with its own authority of materiality.


1- Gaston Bachelard ‘Poetics of Space’ Translation 1964, Orion Press, p218


Selectors: David Ainley, Karl Bielik and Sikelela Owen and Joanna Whittle

Image: Shortlisted artist, Jan Valick's paintings at Huddersfield Art Gallery




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