We all know how a prize works. Someone has to give it. Someone has to win. And then someone says thank you, and several more say thanks anyway. And the whole thing self-perpetuates thus.
They’re fun for the judges and the winners alike – quality is defined and rewarded, and for the weaker-willed among us, a gold standard is set.
But beyond that, who cares? One look at the East London Painting Prize exhibition catalogue left you wanting more of everything – yet we’re left with just one winner.
The shortlisted works – more than half of which come from Hackney painters – were not, as the name suggests, a testament to East London as a place, but to a remarkable range of artists who happen to be based here.
Among the finalists were images of a burqa-clad mother pushing a stroller in green-gloved hands, a woman with the face of a monkey clutching a tree, masterful plush country landscapes and several geometric abstractions. Cathy Lomax, director of Transition gallery, submitted a watercolour of a woman gazing hesitantly back through a half closed door, while Ben Jamie’s shortlisted work is an evening sun-lit landscape, complete with violet foliage and deep metallic blues.
The prize is awarded in the spirit of the East End-born painter and champion of emerging artists Jack Goldhill and in this, its inaugural year, the prize went to a documentation of the oft-unnoticed minutiae of a changing neighbourhood – its humanity defined and celebrated by the unremarkable incidents of everyday life.
It began like this: 41 year-old painter Nathan Eastwood, who works from a studio on Cambridge Heath Road, stopped by his local greasy spoon for a “good solid lunch” of steak pie and mash, and snapped a covert photograph of an elderly man having a quiet meal alone, which was to become the winning painting, Nico’s Cafe – one of Eastwood’s many representations of “incidents of everyday life in East London,” he says.
The grey-and-white work is an homage to the café scenes of great American realist, Edward Hopper, but with malt vinegar and ketchup bottles instead of jaunty hats and coffee cups. And without the colour. Since finishing his MA, Eastwood has turned his back on pigment in favour of shades of black, white and grey.
As if describing a person, Eastwood describes his winning work as “very antagonistic. It was a real fight to get it the way I wanted it.”
Eastwood’s scene of moody mundanity is charming, but the draughtsmanship in some of the other paintings was astonishing.
For his efforts Eastwood will receive a £10,000 cash prize and a solo show at the Nunnery Gallery on Bow Road. With part of his bounty, Eastwood plans to expand his studio and travel to Holland to see Van Gogh’s early works in their natural habitat.
The selection implied that the judges prefer the right atmosphere to technical accomplishments, which answers my question about whether the East London Painting Prize is about celebrating East London or celebrating its best painters. This year, it seemed to be the former.
But that’s neither here nor there.
For those of us watching from the sidelines, the value in this exercise lies in the ensemble. To the Jack Goldhill Charitable Trust – thank you very much for that.
Nathan Eastwood’s solo show will take place at the Nunnery Gallery, Bow Road, E3 2SJ in October./ 6 June, 2014