In 2012, the curator of Swansea’s elysiumgallery, Jonathan Powell, established Beep Wales (the BiEnnial Exhibition of Painting), in an attempt to grant some high-profile recognition to a thriving Swansea art scene, and to promote contemporary painting in Wales. The idea was to invite submissions from painters the world over, to show a selection of the strongest paintings in Wales, and to award a new prize of £1,000 — the Beep International Painting Prize — to the best entrant.
This year the panel invited submissions to the theme ‘This must be the place I never wanted to leave’. The selected paintings are currently on view at the Swansea College of Art until the 3rd of September; the exhibition then moves to Undegun, Wrexham (7 October – 5 November) and Arcade Cardiff (16 November – 23 December). With Beep 2016 set to tour from early-August well into winter, we decided to chat to the founder-curator of the exhition, Jonathan Powell, and the winner of this year’s Beep International Printing Prize, Tom Banks, to find out a little more about the work on show.
Duncan: The BiEnnial Exhibition of Painting (Beep) is Wales’ only truly international exhibition of contemporary painting. I was wondering what the balance was between ‘international’ and ‘domestic’ submissions? Was this ratio preserved in the selection for the exhibition?
Jonathan: Well with ‘International’ call outs of this nature, the amount of home-country entrants will always outweigh the number of International applications. This is basically due to the logistics & costs of shipping work over to the UK. So this year the amount of UK submissions took up approximately 70% of proposals and this is roughly the same ratio with the 49 exhibiting artists, 15 of them coming from Wales.
Duncan: Did any general themes and preoccupations emerge from the Welsh or British entries that were not evident in works from international artists? What do the successful entries for Beep say about the state of painting in the British Isles?
Jonathan: No, not really, the themes were wide and varied across the board. The only thing I was slightly surprised about was the lack of self-portraiture. I sort of imagined that we would get some crazy depictions of the artists in strange places and scenarios, but there was none. To be honest, when coming up with concepts for exhibitions you always have in mind a picture of the type of work you think will be coming in… and you are always wrong.
The work entered from the UK was strong, very strong. One of the main reasons Beep was set up was to give a much-needed platform for contemporary painting in Wales. I knew there was already a very strong painting community in Wales, easily on par with the rest of the UK, but most non-commercial contemporary galleries were ignoring this and I felt this needed to be addressed. The ‘death knell of painting’ has been reported, boringly and predictably, many times over the decades and yet painting continues to flourish and evolve. This year’s Beep proves this and I am convinced we are about to witness a new renaissance in painting in the UK… and definitely in Wales!
Duncan: The theme for this year’s exhibition is ‘this must be the place I never wanted to leave.’ I wonder whether you could elaborate a little on why you chose the phrase, and whether it elicited the responses you thought it would.
Jonathan: There were a few reasons for this year’s theme. Originally it grew out of the feeling of community and togetherness that seems to be running through the Swansea arts scene at the moment, where local authorities, companies, arts education institutes, galleries and artists are working together to create this vibrant arts scene that is blossoming here. It is not just confined to the city; artist-led organisations are popping up all over Wales and working together to create a strong arts community, despite the financial limitations. Beep is one of the few free-to-enter, artist-led, UK-based international open competitions run without funding and made possible by the sharing of resources by various organisations and artists. There is a spirit in the running of Beep that comes from the energy of the Welsh arts scene. For many people, this is what makes it a place they would never want to leave.
Jonathan: There is also a large artist’s studio community here in Swansea, which meet every month to discuss the outcomes of an artist’s stay in one of the studio project spaces. These discussions also helped form the theme for this year’s show.
Each month an artist takes up residence in the space to test new approaches to their practices and at the end of their stay a discussion takes place between the studio artists. Many of the studio incumbents are painters and the topics of the discussions gradually began to veer towards the effect the chance to work outside of their usual studio environment was having on the artists. In most cases, the change in their painting styles was quite dramatic. Many of the artists’ studios had become cluttered over time with the usual mix of books, tools, ornaments, music systems, laptops and of course artwork. The realisation dawned that in some cases their usual working environments had become less about creating work and more of a place to retreat to from the outside world. It seemed that the chance to work in a place free of all of this clutter enabled the work to break free and soar.
Discussions began to turn towards what certain spaces and places meant to people and how this translated into conversations in paint; the painterly excavation of memories, emotions and ideologies to explore an understanding of place. What does one feel when painting? Are you impulsive? Are you meticulous? Are the worlds and scenarios you create formed from a historical context? Abstract imaginings of a possible future? Or painting as a state of mind; a meditation to remove oneself from the world and become absent from a place. These thought processes laid the foundations for this exhibition.
Duncan: I would have thought landscape painters could be more direct in their interpretation of the theme. Is that what you found, as a curator?
Jonathan: As I mentioned earlier, you can never second guess what work will come in, but yes, landscape has a very strong presence in the exhibition. Artists such as Lois Wallace & Tom Down depicted hideaways in remote places, while other artists such as Gordon Dalton, Ilona Kiss & Tong Zhang have created dreamlike landscapes. Daniel Crawshaw has created large, powerful, sublime mountain scenes that envelop the viewer whilst Andrew Ekins and Aaron Kuiper have constructed 3-D sculptural landscapes out of paint. In our minds, when turning to places we would never want to leave, it would seem inevitable that we would look away from the clutter and noise of everyday human life and yearn for a different place away from all of this.
Interview with the winning artist, Tom Banks.
When we first spoke to Jonathan, he was still in preparation for the opening night of the exhibition, and the winner of the Beep International Painting Prize 2016 was still to be declared. The following weekend, it was announced that the Hastings-based painter Tom Banks had been awarded the 2016 Prize. We took the chance to congratulate Banks, who will receive £1000 and a solo show at elysiumgallery Swansea in 2017, and to probe the issues which animate his work.
Duncan: Hi Tom – and congratulations. When I look at your painting and the type of architecture it depicts, the names that come to mind are Torness, Dungeness, Fylingdales, and Orford Ness. They aren’t the easiest places to get to. Do you undertake sketching expeditions, or are you working from memory and imagination?
Tom: I’m not very good at keeping sketch books. I’m more a hoarder of photos. I’ve been collecting photos of power stations that I have been passing during car journeys for years. ‘Meta Vita II’ is a distillation of a photo of a power plant in France. I can’t actually remember exactly where it was taken, but it feels like this disconnect with the image’s origin is a good relationship, in that it helps me to reduce the information on the canvas and in turn increases the surreal discomfort in the piece. I produced a painting of Dungeness a few years ago and it feels like the strong connection with the place is too marked in the painting. I want my paintings to be somewhere you might not recognise, but a reminder of somewhere that is vaguely familiar.
Duncan: ‘Meta Vita II’ is a very mysterious painting: it’s dark, unpeopled, and (as you say) geographically indeterminate. In the Beep catalogue, you write about the complex allure of the (post-)industrial landscape, relating it back to childhood memories of your father working at Dungeness in Kent. But what immediately struck me is how topical the sense of mystery in your painting is, given the continuing debate about Hinkley Point C and the renewal of Britain’s nuclear submarine fleet. Did you feel in dialogue with current events as you were painting ‘Meta Vita II’?
Tom: It is interesting how we associate the night with mystery, intrigue and a sense of foreboding. I suppose this is because we have evolved to exist in the daytime; we are not a nocturnal species. But I am not just ramping up the tension for the sake of the viewer. The incongruity of these man-made structures, seemingly dumped in the landscape, has always invoked a sense of unease.
All of my paintings, past and for ‘Meta Vita I’ & ‘II’, focus on isolation in a general sense — political, emotional and existential isolation — rather than voicing concern about one specific topic, such as the devastating effects industrialisation can have on the landscape. The use of these power stations is more of a personal reference to a time in my life when the notions of living in a ‘C.N.D. household’ — I was taken on C.N.D. marches as a child — were in complete conflict with the fact that my dad was working at Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. These contradictory events were never resolved, and were also occurring at a time when I was being bullied by a kid down my street to the extent that I didn’t want to leave the house.
So yes, there is a dialogue with current events, but the topicality with Hinkley C et al. and the Trident renewal issues is a coincidence. The fear of nuclear power has always been a concern; it became a part of my make-up at an early age, and is an issue that has stayed with me ever since.
Duncan: Are there any artists or writers in particular who have informed your recent thinking about industrialisation and its effects on uninhabited places?
Tom: Some of the artists that have been informing my work more recently are Rembrandt, Goya, Rothko. For the ‘Meta Vita’ paintings the surreal landscapes of de Chirico have probably had the most influence. But then cinema is also a huge influence as to where I am at the moment. Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ and Antonioni’s ‘Red Desert’ have direct parallels with ‘Meta Vita II’; films where the theme of isolation is probably more important than the post-industrial landscapes in which they are set.
Beep Wales runs from 6th August to 3rd September 2016 (Tuesday to Saturday, 11am – 4pm), at Swansea College of Art. The exhibition then moves to Undegun, Wrexham (7 October – 5 November) and Arcade Cardiff (16 November – 23 December).
The People’s Prize of £200 will be decided by a public vote and announced at the end of the exhibition at Undegun, Wrexham.