Diverse, thought provoking and celebratory - curating the John Moores Painting Prize

The final stage of judging for the John Moores Painting Prize 2016 drew to a close last week, so we caught up with artist and juror Phoebe Unwin, to get an insight into judging and her thoughts on the final exhibition.

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Jurors discussing the paintings during stage 2.
Jurors discussing the paintings during stage 2.

What has it been like for you during the final stage of judging?

It was a full-on couple of days, looking long and hard at each work... I don't think I have ever been in a room surrounded by so many paintings!

Have you found a lot of common ground with the other jurors?

Many times, yes, but at other moments a painting might have provoked quite a lengthy, lively discussion. It was interesting to hear how varied our responses could sometimes be, often revealing particular aspects that each of us most value in painting. These two days were an opportunity to reflect on what qualities a painting might need to be convincing or achieve a visual presence. Qualities which can manifest in entirely different ways.

Have there been any paintings that have surprised you at this stage?

Yes. Although we did know the measurements of each work during the first round, experiencing the scale can have such a wonderful impact. During these days in Liverpool, I have stood back, looked up at huge, bold paintings and then, in turn, peered closely at small works showing exquisite detail. I've been surprised by subject matter, surfaces, compositions, titles and colour combinations. Phoebe with Head of Art Galleries, Sandra Penketh
Phoebe with Head of Art Galleries, Sandra Penketh

Were there any times when you were not convinced by the digital image, but won over by the painting in the flesh? Or vice-versa?

When I walked into the viewing room on the first day of Stage Two, the paintings felt familiar, sparking my memory from Stage One. Yet seeing them in life for the first time, they also felt new and fresh. At this point I could start to make sense of the scale, brushwork, medium and colour.

Do you feel like you can ‘see’ the exhibition now – how do you think the final selection will hang together as a show for the public?

I think together we have achieved a selection of paintings which are diverse, thought provoking and celebratory, and the Walker's galleries are a beautiful space in which to exhibit the works. But there have been difficult decisions to make. Ultimately, the exhibition wouldn't be possible without all the entries, going back to Stage One - all the paintings submitted have, in some way, been part of our conversation, shaping how we have worked together as a jury. So I hope that this show will capture for the public something of the spirit of those painters working in 2016, whether exhibited or not, whose work I have had the privilege of seeing during the selection process.