Laura Gascoigne

Figuration fights back

Among privately sponsored painting prizes figurative art is dominant. Laura Gascoigne reports

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As art prizes go, the Jerwood Painting Prize is scrupulously even-handed: over the past nine years since its establishment, its shortlists have been models of inclusiveness. In particular, they have managed to strike a balance between figurative and abstract art, and this year's shortlist of six is no exception. It's split between three abstract painters in very different styles – John Hoyland, Marc Vaux and Suzanne Holtom – and three figurative painters ditto – Shani Rhys James, John Wonnacott and Alison Watt.

As the UK's most prestigious painting prize, with the biggest pot, the Jerwood is an interesting index to swings in fashion between abstraction and figuration. An analysis of the past six prizes since 1996 (no award was made in 2000) shows that the winners of the first three – John Hubbard, Gary Hume and Madeleine Strindberg – were all figurative painters, while the winners of the last three – Prunella Clough, Katie Pratt and Callum Innes – were all abstract. This year, with the announcement last week that Shani Rhys James has scooped the £30,000 jackpot, the swingometer has suddenly swung back in the other direction with the sort of jerk that sends Peter Snow into a spin on election nights.

Shani Rhys James is not just a figurative painter; she is a figurative painter of the most passionately personal kind. Her predecessors Hubbard, Hume and Strindberg all use representation in their different ways as an artistic means to conceptual or abstract ends; Rhys James uses it unapologetically to express emotion: 'If you're going to be personal, you may as well be personal' is her view. Does her windfall signal a change in the wind? The market weathercock certainly points that way. Economic downturns usually hit avant-garde art first, and then abstraction. When the ship goes down, good old solid figuration is the spar the doggy-paddling art market clings to.

If figuration is the coming trend, it is trickling down quite slowly to the Tate, whose triennial of contemporary British art, which closed this week, included seven painters among 23 artists, five of them figurative. Stronger evidence is to be found among the privately sponsored painting prizes, which are proliferating. This year the major big money awards – the Jerwood, Hunting, John Moores and BP Portrait – have been joined by the £30,000 Lexmark European art prize and the £20,000 Daily Mail's Not the Turner Prize. Have independently funded prizes become the most accurate measure of the state of contemporary painting in this country?

Not in the view of the art historian Norbert Lynton, who served on the Jerwood judging panel for the third time this year. He feels that personal bias carries too much weight: 'When you choose the jury, you've more or less predicted the prize.' He'd like to see more attention given to painting, but doesn't believe that prizes are the best way of directing it. The buzz they generate in the press is quickly forgotten and 'the more prizes there are, the quicker the forgetting'. But he does admit – despite his dislike of distinctions between abstract and figurative art – to having noticed a resurgence of narrative painting among the younger generation. This is confirmed by Brendan Neiland, Keeper of the Royal Academy, who has witnessed a sudden surge in applications from figurative painters to the Academy Schools. Like Lynton, he attributes the revival to the influence of electronic imagery: 'For years figuration was "dead", painting was "dead". Now among these top young artists figuration is coming back very strongly...It's come in without people being aware.'

As chairman of the judges for the Lexmark, which attracted a majority of young painters, Neiland estimates that 80 per cent of the entries for the prize – whose shortlist will be announced in June – were figurative. What's more, these were the strongest and most creative. By comparison, the abstract work submitted 'didn't have the same conviction: it looked dated, as if reverting to the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties'. Neiland is not convinced that the state of contemporary art is best reflected by public galleries where 'too often dictates are made by curators. Curators are not artists, they follow fashion.' He thinks the Turner Prize 'has lost its validity; in time it'll be dropped'. But he values the input of critics and artists as selectors. Independent prize jurors, unlike gallery curators, are free to exercise their artistic judgment without the need to account for public money or predict the future course of art.

In the public sector there are bound to be conflicts between the obligation to present new developments in art and the need to persuade the public that it's money well spent. When the public is not persuaded, there are howls of protest. It was in response to these howls, and Howells, that last December the Daily Mail launched its Not the Turner Prize for traditional figurative art, or 'for want of a better word, real art', as the Mail's Eric Bailey puts it. If there were any doubts that the prize filled a void, they were swept away in the deluge of 10,000 entries that swamped the selectors, delaying the announcement of the winner until this Saturday. But the prize's claim to represent 'real art' should be treated with caution. The sunlit view of a Proven’al villa by James Hart Dyke and the study of Indian tigers paddling by Alan Hunt – two of the four artist selectors – published in the magazine as examples of 'real art' suggest that we're in the realm of realism rather than reality. Saddam, like Hitler, was a big fan of the former, and I'm ready to bet that among the rejected entries was a fair proportion of images that would have fitted nicely on the walls of his Baghdad love nest. (Alan Hunt's tigers would not have looked out of place.)

Griff Rhys Jones, whose championing of 'intimate, unpublic, non-gallery, bourgeois painting' at last year's Discerning Eye exhibition had Art Review calling for his head, sat with Norbert Lynton on this year's Jerwood panel. As a collector of contemporary painting and a first-time judge, he was surprised how many of the entries were derivative and how easy it was, 'facing a quantity of paintings that didn't register', to single out those with 'something interesting to say'. He blames the 'big dichotomy between public gallery and personal art' and the fact that 'the figurative tradition, to be buyable, has to address itself to being decorative'. He would like to see 'a return to demanding and intelligent figurative work', free of the prettifying pressures of the domestic market.

Prizes can do their bit for contemporary painting by bringing the best of it before the public, but unless it is purchased by public galleries it will be thrown onto the mercy of the domestic market. Artists have to live – though the best ones, bless them, don't let that consideration cramp their style. Shani Rhys James confessed to me before winning that she quite liked 'being out of fashion because that way you're given total freedom. If you were chasing a tail the whole time you'd be so paranoid you probably wouldn't do anything at all.' Is she about to become a victim of a change in fashion she has helped to start? I doubt it. Judging by the raw energy of her work, it'll take more than paranoia to stop her.

The Jerwood Painting Prize is at the Jerwood Space until 18 June; the top 40 British entries to the Lexmark European art prize will be at the Royal Academy Schools 2-3 July; and the Not the Turner Prize shortlist of 400 will be at the Mall Galleries 6-14 June.