Tom Banks is the winner of the 3rd Beep Wales International Contemporary Painting Prize 2016, for his oil on canvas ‘Meta Vita II’.
The exhibition is on display at Swansea College of Art until 3 September 2016 and then touring to Wrexham and Cardiff. Curated by Jonathan Powell, the director of the artist-led elysiumgallery and studios in Swansea, it features the commended work of the 49 national and international contemporary painters selected from all the entrants to the prize.
Here Tom explores his craft, his influences, and the winning painting.
‘Meta Vita II’ is a painting of an assemblage of ominous buildings, possibly a power station, sat incongruously in a flat murky landscape. It’s oil on canvas, 60cm x 60cm. I think I actually started painting it in January, but I suppose the original seed of the idea came from seeing the [1957 sci-fi Hammer horror film] Quatermass 2 as a child and, in particular, a scene where a man climbs out of a large spherical building covered in black goo; which freaked me out at the time and has been lurking ever since. There is also ‘Meta Vita I’, but I feel number II is the most successful, and hopefully there will be more to follow.
There is an original photo, but you’d probably only recognise the shapes of a few of the buildings in the image. Over the years I had collected a few blurry photos of power stations that I had taken while passing in the car. This particular image was taken in France seven years ago.
I’ve got a number of other photos that have been pinned to my studio wall for some time, while I’ve been contemplating how to use them, and it was seeing the film The Red Desert by Michelangelo Antonioni that gave me the impetus to start this series of paintings. ‘Meta Vita’ being the Italian for ‘half-life’ is a nod to this reference.
The Red Desert is set in an industrial landscape, but one that is deserted, there are barely any actual workers to be seen. Really it is was the aesthetic of the film that I loved, the deserted streets, figures barely visible in the fog. Antonioni had large parts of the landscape actually painted block colours to increase the visual and emotional impact. But really the film was a kick up the bum to get me going rather than me painting a version of the film or one that was aping the style; the idea was already there. Although, the film was so visually arresting I’m sure it has crept into my painting at some level.
I originally used the term ‘half-life’ in a title for a painting I made in 2010 of Dungeness Nuclear Station (where my dad worked). It is a term of measurement for the rate of decay of radioactive elements, which I had remembered from school physics lessons. If something has a half-life of 100 years it takes 100 years for it to lose half of its radioactivity. So in effect it never loses all of its radioactivity, it just halves forever and ever. (Entertaining AND informative!).
Cinema and film has had a big influence on me and my work. When my parents moved from London to Hastings because of my dad’s new job I started getting bullied by a kid down the road, which meant I didn’t like going out so would lose my self in television and films. Quatermass 2,The Thing From Another World, and films like them became places where I would be scared, but safe. And likewise when the streets outside were dark they were safe because they were empty. From those films I graduated to Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers (the 1978 version), and to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. I’d like to get the social realism of Ken Loach and David Lynch’s menace into my paintings.
Apart from my last painting prize win, aged seven, of the class hamster I never really chose to paint. I would happily take myself off and draw. I think this was because I wasn’t confident in my abilities to control paint. I wasn’t interested until I started my foundation course at Hastings College of Art and Design, where after a few good lessons I felt I was able to move the paint on the canvas with a bit more control and create something that I felt was acceptable. After that you start to search for your own voice. By the time I finished at Kingston University I was pretty much a ‘Kitchen Sink’ painter, I was painting what was around me, literally the bathroom sink or the cooker.
The nocturnal themes started when I left university. I got a job at The Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, which was great for my film viewing, and then after finishing work I was cycling home through dark desolate streets, so I was still just painting the things around me. And then I started to associate this draw with past issues. Then, when I got confident in why I was painting these subjects, I could develop and expand the themes: ideas about isolation – physical, emotional and political.
I definitely paint for myself. But other people engaging with my paintings is a brilliant bonus. In his judge’s speech Jonathan Watkins (Director of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham) said of the piece: ‘I was looking for work that demonstrated virtuosity. It’s a mysterious yet confident painting that calls to you across the exhibition space in an understated way; the smart, quiet one in the room that deserved more attention.’ It was exactly the response I was hoping to get, and in all of my paintings really. It’s always a fillip to get good feedback from your peers, so to get some recognition from someone with the reputation and experience of Jonathan Watkins is incredibly gratifying. I don’t usually work from sketches so when I’m in front of the canvas a lot of the painting decisions are immediate and intuitive, but always considered. I’m always striving for my paintings to contain an unknown narrative, a drama, but I want it to be one that emerges after prolonged or repeated viewings.’
To be honest I’m not sure whether I had seen the theme [This must be the place I never want to leave…] before submitting to the Beep Painting Prize. This series of paintings would always have been my next project, so it was incredibly fortunate, I feel, that my work and the theme fitted so well.
I’m not sure I’m addressing any questions, I’m voicing opinion. It feels like there is a bit of a power battle going on between the few at the top and the rest. Control of information and how it is used feels the most important at the moment.
It is hard to list other contemporary painters that I rate, there will always be artists I will have forgotten, but they include Hannah Brown, Sarah Dwyer, Ryan Mosley, Simon Burton and last year’s Beep Prize winner Ruth Murray. All fairly different in their use of paint and the subject matter, but all have an underlying sense of unease. Now I’m starting to remember loads more, Paula MacArthur, Wendy Saunders, John Brennan, Kirsty Harris, Playpaint, Phil King, Miranda Boulton, and Lexi Strauss.
Painting will always go through periods of being unfashionable, but I think painting has started on its upswing at the moment. Whether this will be sustained, who knows.
I wouldn’t say I was an expert on what is going on in art schools at the moment, but you hear of universities not supplying the wall space needed for students to paint. The Turps Banana Art School is great, somewhere where the focus is painting. I’m really not a painting Nazi, but it’s a shame it takes an independent entity to see the value in that. They can offer an education, but not a degree or MA. Then other affiliated painting schools feel the need to become more ‘contemporary’ and lose that focus. But it’s the whole cost of being an art student that is the most depressing. The opportunity of an art education is being cut for so many people.
I suppose trends are cyclical. The art world has become an industry that needs to be manipulated by major galleries to keep the the bubble from bursting, so I’m guessing there will be fashions and trends that will be focused on. But then more independent galleries will be keeping things fresh.
The range of paintings in the Beep exhibition is really diverse and exciting, which is such such a great conformation of what Jonathan [Powell], elysiumgallery and Beep are trying to do in exposing this talent.
This must be the place I never wanted to leave… is open until 3 September at Swansea College of Art, 7 October – 5 November at Undegun, This Project, Wrexham and from 16 November – 23 December at ARCADECARDIFF. Visitors to the Swansea and Wrexham exhibitions can vote for the winner of The People’s Prize which will be announced at the end of the Wrexham exhibition.
For more information on the prize and their associated programme of painting exhibitions, events and artist residency visit their website: www.beepwales.com
elysiumgallery celebrate their 10th birthday next year and the Beep Painting Prize will return in 2018. www.elysiumgallery.com