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Re: THE THREADNEEDLE PAINTING PRIZE, all prizes corrupt, absolute...

Category: Art
Date:     22 August 2008
Time:     06:31 AM


I am an artist. I suppose there are a number of sub-categories: I am told I must submit to the title
‘Painter’ and possibly ‘Figurative’ -although I’m not so sure about that, I prefer the term Image
maker. My great models/heroes – Picasso, Guston, Morandi – I don’t see as ‘Figurative”. I see them
as immensely inventive and innovative, hugely emotionally powerful, cerebral and contemplative
artists who made use of images, bold or restrained, crude or refined, for whom the human image is
the central motif, the vehicle for all drama. 

One thing I am sure about - I am a maker. I have always been. If one must be crude and reductive
about it (I must) I work with me ‘ands – always have done. A confession (please don’t tell anyone):
I have the grand title Professor of Painting at The University for the Creative Arts but I did
sculpture at art college. 

Painting is a noun, but it is also, more importantly a verb. Artists are thinkers who are compelled
to give form to their thoughts. But they recognise the infinitely complex and ambiguous relationship
between thought and act.  They cannot – do not want to – know what form the thought will take,
because they do not know what the thought is. They epitomise an E.M. Forster character who complains
“how can I tell what I think till I see what I say”. They understand that thinking is not merely
remembering – it is entering an unknown space, speculating, discovering. Perhaps it is not true for
all artists, but those that I have known do not distinguish between thinking and doing. They are in
my experience doers for whom thought and act are one. They are people whose main aim in life is
(aside from the small question of making money) to engage in the process - the activity. 

Whatever the space/context; whatever the material; whatever the technology, it is the sheer joy of
entering into that magical zone – what Philip Guston refers to as ‘The space of forgetting’ that
remains the motivation to engage in this strange activity.  When process takes over and the I/
artist is absorbed into the thought/act, a state of being is achieved that is as unalienated as I
think one may ever hope to achieve in life. 


The word “figurative” is problematic. Who isn’t figurative now? Post-modernity seems to have
unleashed a torrent of images into the world. At the Venice Biennale there is a huge predominance of

Having just looked at the paintings selected for the Threadneedle Painting Prize for “figurative
painting” I think there must be some misunderstanding of the term. So I looked it up in the OED and
the internet. The OED’s definition was: “Pertaining to, or of the nature of, pictorial or plastic
representation”; Google said: “Representing forms that are recognisably derived from life”. Neither
said anything like “Boring”, or “Dreary”. The selectors of the Threadneedle prize evidently have a
different dictionary. Simon Davies’ (Executive Chairman of Threadneedle) expresses admirable
ambitions in his statement: “Threadneedle’s own investment philosophy is about promoting debate and
encouraging innovation and therefore we are keen to encourage similar innovation in figurative art.”
Is extremely hard to reconcile with the provincial and anachronistic feel of the work in the
exhibition. If they must use this term ‘Figurative’ they need to demonstrate a tiny little bit of
intellectual rigour in their definition of the word. There has for some time been a tendency to use
the word pejoratively. This show will reinforce that tendency. It is so deeply conservative that it
makes the word ‘figurative’ synonymous with ‘reactionary’. I can see absolutely no evidence
whatsoever of innovation.

It’s a pity. I don’t know what Angela Flowers and Bill Packers politics are like but I do know that
old Corky and Brian are, or certainly were, men of the left – as I am. Brian has, to use a word he
loves, execrable taste in painting. He seems to think that figuration is all about skill – which it
certainly isn’t – but then goes on to promote awful figurative painters and write vicious critiques
of good figurative painters like Paula Rego. How can you be simultaneously so bloody reactionary and
supposedly progressive Brian? I admire his writing and, whilst he does get it wildly wrong on some
occasions, he does say things that need to be said about the iniquities of the establishment. Nobody
else ever dares to put their head over the parapet. He also writes well about cars – and dogs – and
masturbation. Maybe you should stick to the latter subjects Brian.

Incidentally I also looked up the word ‘plastic’ (after the OED’s inclusion of the term as part of
the definition of ‘figurative’) it said: a) fashioning or giving form to a yielding material.
b) concerned with remedying a deficiency of structure
3. In reference to immaterial things, conditions or forms, aesthetic or intellectual conceptions,
literary productions etc.


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