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Is This Painting?

Submitted by Nunnery Gallery on Tue, 03/03/2015 - 14:33

by Oliver Basciano

Recently I was asked to produce a list of my top ten paintings from London’s public collections for a magazine feature. My initial choices were immediate: paintings I look at and think about on a fairly regular basis: Caravaggio’s seventeenth century painting of John the Baptist’s head, gormless, served up on a platter; Turner’s epic Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812); Richard Hamilton’s awful, painful, The citizen (1981–3). Then some artists whom I definitely wanted an example of their work to be included, but it was a question of picking a single entry: Picasso, obviously (blue period or a later work…?); the odd, ghostly interiors of Vilhelm Hammershoi; the lush botanical works of Marianne North. Eventually I had got nine paintings – Hélio Oiticica, Wyndham Lewis and Ithell Colquhoun added to the list – and I just needed my final pick. Yet I’d run out of steam at that point. Not that there weren’t more great paintings to choose from, more that they weren’t ingrained on my mind.

The deadline for handing in the list was a little way off still, so I put it to one side for the time being. A week later, on a wet Sunday, I happened to be passing the British Museum. Walking through to the quieter halls, I came across a fragment of pottery. The notes said it was possibly the form of a human head from Grenada, though to my mind it resembled more a rudimentary tortoise, painted on back and bottom with orange slip. Something about it made me fall in love. He was going in. The editor of piece wasn’t so sure. ‘But is it a painting?’ he emailed.

All of this is a preamble to a point of rebuttal to my commissioning colleague, and one that I think will be carried through to the East London Painting Prize: no, painting does not have to be on canvas. If you want to make the case the presence of pottery and slip in the shortlist, the jury will listen. If you can convince us that sculpture (I always think, for example, Phyllida Barlow owes as much to painting as she does to object and installation making), video (think Bruce Nauman’s Art Make-Up, 1967) or performance (here, Yves Klein’s Anthropometries works would be the obvious reference) fit the criteria; the jury will listen. We will welcome tortoises, for they can be paintings too.

Oliver Basciano is the editor of the magazine ArtReview and judge for the 2015 East London Painting Prize (closing date 8th March 2015)