THE entries for the inaugural W Gordon Smith Award, the winners of which will be chosen this week, provide a snapshot of the art form at an ambivalent moment in its history
Anticipation fizzed in the air as the projector fired up. Gathered round a table in the basement of the Royal Scottish Academy building, the judges for the inaugural W Gordon Smith Award for painting were about to view the competition entries for the first time. The screen flickered and the first painting appeared – a vivid and slightly macabre image of carousel horses by James Cowan (the selection was made anonymously, with names released to the judges only after the shortlist was chosen). Heads nodded around the table. A promising start.
Over the course of the day, we looked at more than 430 paintings, in many different styles. An important principle of the competition, founded in memory of the former Scotland on Sunday art critic by his widow, Jay Gordonsmith, and friends, is that it must be a level playing field: there are no exclusions on grounds of age or stage, style or subject matter, career success or lack of it. As Tom Wilson, former proprietor of the Open Eye Gallery and a judge and trustee, says: “If it’s a painting, let’s have it, bring it on.”
And they did. Since the competition was launched in September, 436 artists have submitted their work online. There are bold, large-scale works and meticulous miniaturism. There’s abstraction, landscape, still life and portraiture, allegory and mythology, and some paintings which do not readily fit any category. There is precise photo-realism and great swathes of sticky-looking paint. There is the quirky and the humorous, the contemplative and the disturbing.
By lunchtime, we had seen all 436, and (apart from feeling the need to stare at a blank wall for a while, just to clear the head) we felt we had seen a vivid snapshot of painting in Scotland today.
Our task was to select a shortlist of around 50 paintings which will form an exhibition at Dovecot Studios, opening to the public on 12 January. The winners (who will receive a top prize of £10,000, and two further awards of £2,500) will be announced at an evening reception at Dovecot tomorrow. At time of writing, the winners have not been chosen: that will happen only when we view the paintings at Dovecot “in the flesh”.
We all know the decision won’t be easy. All those who entered should be assured that the standard was high. The work we have shortlisted will make a fine exhibition, reflecting the diversity of the entries. I have no doubt that it will dazzle, hung in the beautiful galleries at Dovecot under the instruction of Wilson and fellow judge and trustee Sandy Moffat, the former head of painting and printmaking at Glasgow School of Art. But none of that will make the decision any easier.
The judges, Moffat, Wilson, artist and sculptor Margaret Hunter and myself, bring a range of experience to the panel, and a spectrum of tastes. What we hold in common is an enjoyment of painting, and a desire to see the work of painters celebrated. “We wanted to give painting a little voice,” Wilson says. “We’re not looking to change the world, but there is a lot of good painting going on, much of it hidden away in studios and spare bedrooms. It’s nice to get it out there and give it a platform, it deserves a place.”
We are all aware that painting no longer predominates in Scottish art schools and publicly funded galleries and in the work written about in newspapers and magazines. While some conceptual artists include painting in their repertoire, they rarely consider themselves painters.
Moffat says: “If you’re at an art college now, you’re not encouraged to paint, it’s as simple and as sad as that. It’s not considered the contemporary vehicle of the avant-garde. We’re trying to give painting a bit of a boost, trying to say: ‘It is important, it is capable of meaningful contemporary statements, it’s not dead’. I hope some art students will come along and see this show. We want to encourage people of the possibilities of painting.”
The spirit of the awards is one of encouragement, not complaint, in keeping with that of W Gordon Smith, himself: playwright, broadcaster, critic and legendary encourager. Paying tribute to him in Scotland on Sunday shortly after his death in 1996, John Bellany wrote: “His love of the visual arts and artists was boundless and his hallmark was encouragement.”
Bellany and Moffat were two of those who benefited from Smith’s encouragement when he made films about their work in the 1970s. Margaret Hunter, about whom he wrote for Scotland on Sunday in the early 1990s, was another. “He was very kind and really supported my work, which was always more successful in Germany than in Scotland,” she says. After graduating from Glasgow School of Art in the mid-1980s, Hunter pursued the opportunity to study in Berlin under Georg Baselitz, and has worked in both countries ever since. “I appreciated the comments and the exposure he gave me at an important time in my career.
“W Gordon Smith’s idea was to bring painting to the public view, to encourage the public to be interested in painting. This will be a good exhibition for that. Most of the work is for sale [the artists have set their own prices] and if works are sold, the full price goes straight to the artist. For anyone thinking about starting a collection of Scottish art, this might be a moment for doing that.”
Hunter has been observing contrasts and synergies between the paintings selected: the expressive seated figures of Audrey Grant and the thoughtful, subtle portraiture of Jennifer Anderson; the monumental landscape of Barry McGlashan, the more intimate rural landscape of Phoebe Cope and the rush and swirl of Alastair Strachan’s New York taxis; the movement inherent in Karen Warner’s abstract, and the poised stillness of Rachel Ross’s trompe l’oeil objects.
Wilson picks up on what he calls “a school of scariness”, edgy figurative works with a touch of the surreal from artists such as Alice MacDonald and Helen Flockhart.
Some artists evoke other eras: Simon Laurie’s shapes have an echo of high modernism about them; Carolynda Macdonald has created a painting of goldfinches and jewellery reminiscent of the Dutch Golden Age. Alan Macdonald’s Hungry Hearts defies categorisation, with its Elizabethan figures, pop culture references and adroitly placed tin of spam.
There is a sense in which the exhibition takes the temperature of painting in Scotland at an ambivalent moment in its history. For, while painting is still widely practised, and practised well, and remains the mainstay of many commercial art galleries, it is no longer central to the way art is taught. That means one can no longer become a painter by default. It has to be a choice, and involves a certain determination, a willingness to fly in the face of fashion.
While this does bring a kind of freedom, it also means that we are seeing less evidence of the unbridled ambition of the painting student, taking the skills they’ve learned and pushing the boundaries of their art in the hot-house environment of art school. It is to be hoped that, as prizes such as this one support and encourage painting, the urge to experiment will once again produce exceptional new talents. Moffat, a friend of Smith’s, echoed the importance of encouragement in his legacy.
“I’m sure he would have endorsed the diversity of the work we’ve chosen. He always liked to support the underdog, and I hope we’ve done a bit of that too. Hopefully all 50 artists on the shortlist will be given a step up, encouragement to keep going, that’s what artists really need.”
• The W Gordon Smith Award Exhibition will be at Dovecot Studios Edinburgh, from Tuesday until 30 January. The winners will be announced in The Scotsman on Tuesday. www.wgordonsmithaward.co.uk THE SHORTLISTED ARTISTS Jackie Anderson