All art is made with reference to that which precedes it. The Young Masters Art Prize seeks to unpack this tendency, celebrating contemporary artists who place this referential process at the centre of their practice. The phrase ‘Old Masters’ describes the premodern figureheads of the arthistorical canon. While the Old Masters were undeniably remarkable, in today’s globalised world the canon is reflected on as overbearingly European, white and male. In contrast to this legacy, this Young Masters shortlist is the most diverse yet, featuring more women than men, and artists selected from all around the world. Whereas women and minorities were historically relegated to the status of Old Master subject matter, for example Ingres’s odalisques, bathers and concubines, Young Masters proves that today, the tables have turned.
This shortlist features female artists who critically engage with their position within the history of art. Iranian artist Azita Moradkhani’s delicate drawings of women’s underwear are symptomatic of such efforts to rewrite the canon. By inscribing iconography from the works of Michelangelo, Gericault and Monet onto lingerie, Moradkhani calls us to question the authority of male creation over the female body. We also find feminist resonances in Liane Lang’s series of staged photographs; lifelike dolls masquerade as female Catholic saints and martyrs, occupying buildings designed by Gothic architect Augustus Pugin. Dutch photographers Isabelle van Zeijl and Laura Hospes place their own bodies at the centre. The forcefulness of Hospes’s black and white self-portraits lies in her Rembrandtesque manipulation of light and shadow. Van Zeijl announces herself as author and muse, subsequently readdressing the intrinsically gendered subject-object relations which typify the genre of portraiture. Assuming the painterly lexicon of The Dutch Golden Age, van Zeijl claims the camera and Photoshop as her tools to cast aspersions over the notion of “timeless beauty”.
Van Zeijl stands alongside other artists in this exhibition for whom the traditional canvas is an outmoded terrain for expression. These artists deploy advanced technologies while looking to the past for inspiration. Russian-American multi-media artist Asya Reznikov’s framed television screen animation Be Fruitful transforms Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve of 1526 into a witty commentary on the rebirth of painting. Reznikov trades in the perspectival trickery of Albertian perspective for animated zooms, and comically undermines the fixity of Biblical narratives by depicting her own baby daughter emerging from the fallen fruit. Israeli artist Liron Kroll also masters contemporary image-making technologies. Kroll uses digital layering techniques to create composite worlds with no clear anchor in time or space. With domesticity and the family as central themes, Kroll does away with the sense of devotion equated with da Vinci and Parmigianino’s Madonna and child portraits, to produce surreal scenes of reverie and estrangement.
Also exploiting the tension between subject and media, British artist John Phillips splices over 1,400 separate photographs together to create contemporary echoes of Dutch vanitas painting. Parallels can be drawn between Phillips’s studies and the Baroque still lifes of Jan Davidsz de Heem, in which flowers are a powerful expression of the impending slippage from life to death. Where Phillips’s images simulate painting, German painter Lars Reiffers uses the camera as a tool to interrogate natural forms, before bringing them to life in paint. Such a strategic representational process produces a virtuosic realism with a lineage all the way back to Giotto. Distorted by scale and colour, in Reiffers’ paintings individual petals are rendered monstrous and blindingly opulent.
Channelling renaissance chiaroscuro, French photographer Antoine Schneck dramatically offsets brightly lit hyperrealist faces, recumbent figures and suits of armour against stark black backgrounds. Not only is Schneck’s technical facility characteristic of the 21st century artist, featuring panoramic editing, multi-angle shooting and graphic palette retouching, his representations of African subjects are emphatically contemporary in that they are a far cry from the exoticizing tendencies of a colonial past. The criticism of colonial history also arises in Ghanaian-British multi-media artist Amartey Golding’s 15 minute film Chainmail. In this case, art-historical allusions lay beneath the surface. As cerebral as it is beautiful, Chainmail evokes Degas’s avant-garde approach to the ballet dancer, blurring the lines of performance, endurance and enslavement. Chinese painter Yuehan Pan investigates eastern and western representational practices, substituting the picture frame, with its western properties of spatial hierarchisation, for fine silk scrolls influenced by the ancient philosophy of ‘San Cai’.
Video-artist Tamara Al-Mashouk takes her own subjectivity as a queer Saudi Arabian woman living abroad as the starting point for her single-channel film . An architectural monument is burned to the ground amid heavy rainfall; an iconoclastic gesture which captures perfectly the contemporary instability of racialized histories. Iconoclasm is another common thread woven through this shortlist. British artist Sasha Bowles manipulates reproductions of well-known paintings by Masters such as Goya, Gainsborough, Frans Hals and Velázquez, giving male sitters new and absurd guises which sacrifice individual personas in the face of the artist’s own authorial signature. Sheila Rock’s photographic series The Spirit of the Horse is directly inspired by the great European horse painters: Stubbs, Delacroix, Gericault, Herring, and Franz Marc. Her black and white silver gelatin prints are not only indicative of her sophisticated command over the medium, but reflect a unique pictorial aesthetic, carved out within the context of a highly developed and mature genre.
In David Piddock’s landscape paintings, imagery is sourced from the past to inform the present. Monumental marble sculptures materialise in unexpected places: we see Giambologna’s Samson Slaying a Philistine bathed in light on the bank of the River Thames. Whereas Piddock’s scenes are often devoid of human presence, Canadian painter Carole Freeman makes clear the indebtedness of art to people. Taking her cue from iconic Old Master portraits, Freeman depicts contemporary artworld professionals in the style of Bronzio, Vigée Le Brun and Van Der Weyden.
American painter Lucy Beecher Nelson appropriates the formal devices of 15th century Italian marriage portraits to express relationship dynamics between present day couples. While Beecher Nelson uses the divisional form of the diptych to communicate emotional disconnection, British painter Stephen Snoddy creates diptych compositions founded on unity. Snoddy takes the window as a point of departure, a loaded art-historical motif with foundations in Renaissance naturalism; the ultimate task of painting as a “window” onto the world. Yet his work stands apart from this representational tradition, operating within the realm of the abstract. His colourful canvases are defined by clear continuations in line and form.
The eighteen artists showcased in this shortlist are significantly diverse, proving that the desire to blend the art of today with the art of the past has a global and cross-generational significance. As ever, the skills and art of the Old Masters are direct sources of inspiration. Whether these artists appropriate imagery, assimilate styles, or intervene in seemingly “closed” genres, they do so with critical intention. They honour and renegotiate their sources to produce art which is strikingly original and contemporary. While technological developments offer innovative new methods of image making, traditional media prove to be equally fruitful. More than ever, this year’s shortlist represents artists who engage with identity politics; personal histories are divulged to address wider issues of collective and universal importance. By mining the art of the past, the contemporary artist can rewrite history. The art-historical canon is but one history open for contestation.
By Millie Print, Co-ordinator and Curatorial Associate
Featured Image: Amartey Golding, Chainmail (08.16), film still, 2016.