Sunday, 25 May 2014

Catlin Art Prize 2014 at Londonewcastle Project Space

From a foreboding waxy chamber to repetitious Alpine vistas, Joe Turnbull surveys the spectacle of this year's Catlin Art Prize and finds the prospects to be tremendously pleasing.

Installation View, Neil Raitt's Catlin Prize exhibition

Now in its eighth year, the Catlin Art Prize is a showcase event for seven recent graduate and postgraduate artists, selected and curated from the Catlin Guide 2014 by Justin Hammond. The standard of work is so ferociously high that it could induce vertigo on even a seasoned veteran of multi-artist shows. The curation allows the art to speak for itself, successfully compartmentalising and arranging a series of immersive environments,  taking you on a weaving journey through each artist's own little world, and making excellent use of Londonewcastle's impressive gallery space.

The judging panel of Turner Prize winner Mark Wallinger, art critic and writer Coline Milliard, and gallery director and curator Will Jarvis opted to give the £5000 prize to Neil Raitt, for his repetitious alpine scenes. They were impressed by the 'effectiveness' of Raitt's work which 'needs no mediation' and applauded his 'quiet maturity'. 

Neil Raitt, Fade (Triptych), 2014

It's true, his almost geometrically precise paintings – which play tricks on the eyes like those optical illusion books from your childhood – are technically astute, belying his inexperience. His giant alpine air freshener, coated with fragranced paint in a nonchalant nod to the subject matter of his other paintings shows he has a sense of humour too. But for me they have little beyond their beguiling, mesmeric aesthetic, and it is the sort of work covering the sort of themes you've probably seen dozens of times before.

Lara Morell, Saint Anthony, 2014

Lara Morrell was the winner of the £2000 visitor vote with her mildly unsettling Renaissance-inspired photographs. One shows a pig's head in a bell jar seemingly on the surface of the moon, whilst others depict crucified wicker characters; from the sublime to the ridiculous. All of her work on show is haunting, slightly macabre and pleasingly idiosyncratic. However, I think both prizes overlooked some of the most original and thought-provoking work on show.

Dennis J. Reinmüller's Echo Chamber, for instance, is a bizarre room plastered with pixelated  wallpaper depicting himself in a sort of '80s eight-bit arcade aesthetic. The room contains a red-faced life-sized cartoon character, apparently sporting the artist's clothes; a cosmic, off-beat video installation; an unwinnable 'snake' style computer game; and, most striking of all, a telephone that provides a direct line to the artist. 

Installation view, Dennis J. Reinmüller's Catlin Prize exhibition 

The exhibition notes remark that this telephone line comes complete with a lifelong contractual agreement with the artist, that he can be reached at any time by the purchaser. Available in an addition of three. The room captures the inane banality of our digital world, and Reinmüller actually pulls off the postmodern irony with panache, where so many artists often fail.

Jakob Rowlinson has created 24 individual short videos – one for each day of the exhibition – the one on the launch night depicted people pulling some extreme faces, seemingly influenced by the movements of the moon if the accompanying sketches are to be believed.

Jakob Rowlinson, An Arrangement of Gestures After Ptolemys Terabiblos, 2014 

Sarah Fortais's room has a space-age coffin hanging from the ceiling as if floating, and a drum kit jutting out vertically from the wall as if to defy gravity. Both sets of works for me, could have done with a bit more context, without guidance, they are a little perplexing.

An oppressive, foreboding room covered in wax looks as though it may cave in on Virgile Ittah's  arresting figurative sculptures. Two almost identical waxwork female figures hang from austere cast-iron bedframes, seeming to melt away into the floor. Their twisted, deformed bodies look riddled with aberrations, boils and sores as they dissolve, whilst their faces remain almost untouched, with fixed, intense expressions. The beds and the pervading whiteness, not to mention the acrid smell from the wax gives this a clinical, quite unpleasant air. Ittah also has work on display at the Saatchi Gallery at the minute, and just like in that exhibition, her pieces stand out for the right reasons.

Virgile Ittah, Echoué au seuil de la raison, 2014

Husband and wife duo, Mr. and Mrs. Philip Cath arguably have the most bombastic pieces of the show. Their bizarre portraiture featuring balloon figures has an old-world bourgeois air of decadence, debauchery and decay. Their absurd balloon people evoke both a children's party game and condoms, making for a disconcerting juxtaposition. The farcically staged scenes range from lurid sexual encounters to a faux-glamorous female figure who has fallen out of her stilettos onto the floor leaving a pile of bills beside her.  

Mr and Mrs Philip Cath, Massacre of the Innocents, 2013

The hollow, fragile nature of the balloons hints at a critique of our vacuous culture. The paintings are excellent, witty and assured, but in fact, they have better pieces in a similar vein which are not on show at this exhibition. I can see big things for this pair in the future.

Of course, art is notoriously subjective, but it's a credit to Justin Hammond that each of the artists has presented very accomplished work, with far more polish than your average degree show. I'm looking forward to next year's prize already.

Joe Turnbull

Catlin Art Prize Exhibition
2 - 24 May 2014
Londonewcastle Project Space, London E2

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