Welsh Artist of the Year 2013

St David’s Hall, The Hayes, Cardiff


In her statement concerning the Welsh Artist of the Year 2013, the judge Kathryn Campbell Dodd distills the whole selection process into a succinct yet telling sentence: ‘A single work from each artist has a brief moment to speak for itself and represent an artist’s entire creative practice for the year.’

The winning piece, Sarah Ball’s ‘Gang Member’, does a lot of speaking, so it is easy to see why it was made the overall winner. The original image is sourced from a mugshot from 1920s’ New York, where a young woman with a blank yet defiant gaze stares back at the viewer. Appearing in only the bottom half of the frame, she is further emasculated by her grey clothing and complexion, which subtly complement the stronger and slightly darker background.

All we know is that she has committed a crime and was caught. Maybe the fact that she appears to have a severe cataract in one eye didn’t help when it came for the time to get away. Maybe the slight red hue in her cheeks hints towards some type of embarrassment or heightened emotional state. But speak for itself the picture does, and for Ball’s recent creative practice, based around ‘found’ photography. In a painting category which was notably strong this year (with good entries from Penny Hallas, Luke Barker and Alexander Green), she is to be congratulated for pushing out so many able artists to win both the painting and overall prize.

It’s also always interesting to note who else the judges talk about and what they have to say about them. In the WAotY 2013 catalogue, Richard Huw Morgan says that there are some ‘real gems’ on show, with ‘David Barnes and John Abell to name but two.’ At the announcement of his award of overall runner-up, the host, Nicola Heywood-Thomas, said that the judge Neale Howells called Abell’s work ‘the boldest use of the print technique.’

I find myself slightly troubled by this quote. If the judge thinks an artist has pushed a technique to its limits and yet the piece of work submitted didn’t win, it seems that the judging was made as much on the medium as it was on the merit of the work. There should be no hierarchy in the various techniques used in a competition such as this – after all, with a different set of judges, the video artist Gemma Copp won last year – but this year’s winner certainly didn’t make the ‘boldest use’ of the paint technique, as Matisse and Pollock have in the past hundred years.

As for the work itself, it is everything you would expect from a large John Abell woodcut – a jagged edge where the artist had to drag the MDF down the street after finding it discarded in a skip, an urbane background of a built-up area (perhaps at night or dusk as a streetlamp shines tall and proud above the level of the street), and a highly feminine centrepiece to balance out the overwhelming masculinity engulfing her (or in this case them, as the Three Graces are here in the middle of a river, perhaps in a city centre).

Richard Huw Morgan’s other ‘gem’ is David Barnes’s photograph ‘Swan’, which won the photography award. I love the ambiguity in this piece. Two men underneath a bridge are trying to either rescue or drown a swan. The swan in question could be already dead. The unexplained story, perhaps captured as Barnes walked past, is brilliantly composed, as the head of one of the figures is outside the frame, thus rendering the emotion displayed in his face to be unseen. This further adds to the ambiguity and unsettling feeling that the piece conjures up.

Further evidence that the judging was hard this year can be found in the sculpture award. Unlike last year where there was no winner, the judges were unable to choose between Sean Olsen’s ‘Paint-Bot V-2’, a scurrilous-looking yet ultimately unmoving robot which would imaginably operate in the manner similar to a Roomba but with paint, and Jon Anderson’s ‘Dark Anomaly’, a blackened spiky assemblage with seemingly equal potency for movement, much the same in feel to Thomas Heatherwick’s ‘B of the Bang’.

As for the artists who were highly commended by the judges, Jo Berry’s ‘Untitled’ sticks out as a strong piece in particular. Berry works in the same way that Gerhard Richter did when subverting the photorealist movement. Her unfocused image makes you want to take a step or two closer or further away in order to see what is going on. For once, the title ‘Untitled’ on a picture actually feels justified. And for the artists commended by making the show but not recognised as Berry was, the work of Penny Hallas and Becky Adams stood out. There will be a hiatus next year while the St David’s Hall space gets refurbished. I look forward to seeing Welsh Artist of the Year return in 2015. No doubt Berry, Hallas and Adams will do well for themselves in WaotY if they keep on entering.

For pictures of the winning entries, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-22841887

Welsh Artist of the Year 2013 runs until August 6th.