Reality: Modern and Contemporary British Painting is a new exhibition curated by artist Chris Stevens and organised by the Sainsbury Centre, the exhibition brings together more than 50 works celebrating the strength of British painting, with some of the best and most influential artists of the last 60 years.
Major 20th-century artists are represented, such as Walter Sickert, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and LS Lowry, alongside contemporary painters including John Keane, Ken Currie, Paula Rego and George Shaw.
Uncompromising and direct, the work of each artist represented retains a strong reference to the real world, ‘the stuff of life’. While, some might argue, painting has been eclipsed in the media in recent decades by minimal and conceptual art, installation, photography and film, REALITY testifies to the survival of painting as a medium and reveals the impact of British painting today.
Commenting on the exhibition, guest curator Chris Stevens, whose work also features in the exhibition, said: “It is an enormous privilege to bring together in one exhibition a group of artists who have been a major influence on my personal development as a painter.
“The painters in this exhibition have been selected under the banner of Realism through their interest in everyday subject matter. Each painter is figurative or representational in nature and yet REALITY will present an extraordinary overview of artists, all with highly individual approaches towards the making of a painting.”
The artists tackle a diverse range of subjects, referencing the body, relationships, history, politics, war, the urban environment and social issues.
The changing British landscape is a dominant theme. From the coastal areas of Great Yarmouth and South Wales to the urban landscapes of London, Coventry and North Yorkshire, the artists in REALITY have continued to explore the transformative impact of the landscape upon British identity over the last century.
Each painting also conveys human presence or absence, investigating the empty voids that people have left behind or the everyday objects and spaces with which they engage. Some of these sights are so routinely visible that they can become invisible and overlooked. Through painting, the artists show the potential for art to transform that which is sometimes mundane.
Ann Bukantas, Head of Fine Art at National Museums Liverpool, said: “REALITY presents a superb selection of modern and contemporary British art which we’re really looking forward to showcasing at the Gallery.
“The Walker Art Gallery has a long history of championing British painting, notably through the John Moores Painting Prize, which has provided a stage for some of today’s most renowned contemporary artists – some of whose work features in this incredibly exciting exhibition.”
From the earliest painting in the exhibition, Walter Sickert’s Ennui of 1917, to the wide range of works made over the last decade, REALITY reveals how passive observation has remained a powerful quality running through British figurative painting.
George Shaw’s depiction of his home town, Coventry, reveals the absence of human life with great subtlety, almost tenderness; his streets and buildings are deserted, allowing his own emotional response to the ties of suburbia to creep in and take hold.
David Hepher’s expansive urban landscapes capture the hopelessness and decay that emanates from these buildings, capturing the lives of the inhabitants who he has chosen to omit from the canvas.
Caroline Walker’s paintings, in contrast, are voyeuristic; her women appear to be in limbo and seem unaware that they are being observed, either half-clothed or naked. Meanwhile, the figures in Chris Steven’s works challenge the preconceptions we have about people – exploring identity, class, race, gender and the environment.
Despite their different references, the works are all united by two things: the harsh realities that have concerned key British artists over the decades, and the simple act of painting.
Reality: Modern and Contemporary British Painting – Walker Art Gallery – until 29 November 2015