This exhibition, for the most part, is a people’s choice, a survey of our Visitors’ Choice Award winners from the Columbia Threadneedle Prize over the years. In the wake of a year fraught with tensions on the subject, it is a chance to positively reflect on public opinion. It is also a moment to take stock on the decision making processes involved in art prizes themselves and the complex manner in which we, as viewers, whether layman or expert, decode a work in front of us.
There are two anomalies in this exhibition: Tim Shaw RA (FBA Selectors Prize 2008) and Aishan Yu (FBA Emerging Artist Prize 2009), were not chosen by the public but by a mixture of artists, critics, curators and dealers. This is because in the first two editions of the Prize the main dedication was chosen by public vote from a shortlist, with a second award chosen by selectors.
We could have included the first two visitors’ choices, here as a consistent survey of work chosen by public vote. Perhaps more provocatively, we have instead opted to include the early winners of the selectors’ awards which are on par with the present Visitors’ Choice in value. We have done this to provoke discussion: do those in the know make choices that are any different from the public?
That they are all within the realm of figurative art notwithstanding, the works in this exhibition are extremely diverse, as would be expected from an award to be judged on quality alone. At first glance, they seem to have little in common. Yet there are thematic and stylistic threads that can be pulled at from both the Visitors’ and Selectors’ choices. Indicative of our times, we see war revisted throughout the years and the relationship between painting and the camera not far away.
In the last decade we have been traumatised by conflict far from our borders. A century on from World War I, modern warfare still haunts our psyche. Perhaps, this is why we see so many references to it in both the visitors’ and selectors’ choices. Tim Shaw's Tank on Fire, with its burning man leaping from a vehicle in desperation, etched itself into the selectors’ minds in 2008. Shaw's revelling maenads decked in the bull's skulls dedicated to Dionysus, on display here, exhibit a continuation of thought; the dark undercurrents that swell just beneath the surface in politically volatile times.
Nearby, Robert Truscott’s Frederich Paulus contemplates surrender at the Battle of Stalingrad, 1943. A sculpted line of German soldiers captured during this historical event won Truscott the visitors’ admiration in 2012. Finished the same year, Ben Johnson’s R oom of the Niobids leads us into an empty room of the Neues Museum scarred by Allied war damage, Sophocles’ words ‘There are many terrible things. But nothing is more terrible than man’ written above the door. This cocktail of violence and silence was emblematic of Johnson’s thinking at the time. Two years later Johnson won the Visitor’s Choice Award for an empty room shattered by bullets used for the assassination of a Mexican Revolutionary.
A second current running through this exhibition is the camera. In an era in which the photographic image is an inescapable window through which we view the world, artists who engage with this reality also speak loudly in this exhibition. In 2014, Ben Johnson’s talent in being able to produce by hand what the camera has made instant, left visitors in awe. For Johnson it is these skills of ‘manipulating paint’ that enable him to interrogate architecture, his primary subject matter. On the other hand, Conrad Engelhardt’s depictions of Aung San Suu Kyi, chosen by the visitors in 2013, and the Queen, exhibited here, translate media imagery into corks echoing the newspaper print in which we remember seeing such public figures rendered.
Aishan Yu was chosen by the selectors in 2009 for a painterly portrait executed with the help of photography as reference material. In her most recent work, abstraction and photorealism have separated further and in the works exhibited here early ethnographic and documentary photography, painstakingly reproduced in pencil, reacts against calligraphic gestures of paint. Similarly, Nicholas McLeod puts sourced material to use, drawing on imagery of eery abandoned spaces and crime scenes trawled from films, documentaries and the internet. This reported imagery is reinterpreted in painterly fashion as in the works on show here, or disrupted with poured and flicked paint as with D rained, for which he won the Visitors’ Choice in 2011.
For Boyd & Evans, working in both painting and photography, one medium informs the other and vice versa. Chosen by the visitors for their painting, they exhibit their photography here, their characteristic interrogation of landscape evident in both. They reject the label ‘photorealism’ (or any other kind of realism) reinforcing that both mediums are a form of repres entation, not reality itself. Finally, Tim Shaw’s most recent work, Eric, points to another rea lity in which we step through the rectangle that frames our world. E ric was conceived during a residency project which examined robotics, artificial intelligence and the ways interaction with digital technologies changes our behaviour. Shaw lifted the lid on a virtual world and Eric, human but not quite, slipped out.
To suggest that The Columbia Threadneedle Prize judges would have not chosen differently to the public would be disingenuous as for the first seven years they d id. Yet if we take the selection you see in this exhibition as example, the social contexts that preoccupy and impact the society we live are present across the board. Then, in 2016, for the first time both public and experts agreed. Lewis Hazelwood-Horner, a figurative painter sketching from life and depicting the working lives of traditional craftsmen, from umbrella makers to beer brewers, won both the Columbia Threadneedle Prize and the Visitors’ Choice Award, suggesting that perhaps the experts and the public weren’t so out of step after all.