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Martin Greenland – the earlier years

24 August 2018 by Andrew

Martin Greenland’s Before Vermeer’s Clouds, winner of John Moores 24, 2006.

Cumbria-based artist Martin Greenland won the John Moores Painting Prize in 2006 with his painting Before Vermeer’s Clouds. It was not his first time in the exhibition, having been selected for the John Moores several times before that. Here, Martin tells us about those earlier paintings, and how it felt to get through. His thought-provoking blog is an insight into the emotional responses an artist can face, even upon selection.

“My painting RICH was my second attempt to enter the John Moores and it was with the 1989 exhibition in mind that it was painted. It was worked on from May to August, after which it was physically taken in to Liverpool for judging, to an enclosed ‘concrete bunker’ in Canning Place, Liverpool. The four successive exhibitions in which I was successful, from 1989 to 1995, were all entered in this way. I remain nostalgic for this time when one sent in one’s painting to be judged. The cool, concrete, fluorescent-lit warehouse of Canning Place had a calm bustle and it was intriguing seeing other works stacked and being stacked. Occasionally one could see well-known names scrawled on the back of sometimes huge canvasses. I have subsequently wondered whether the success of what would become my four consecutive successful entries was down to the fact that the judges could actually see my paintings from the outset, rather than a projected image.

I was thrilled to get into the 1989 exhibition, which was the 16th John Moores. I had wanted to be part of it since my first visit whilst on my foundation course back in 1980. It was the place for ‘the professionals’, the serious, big one. Having got into the exhibition, perhaps naively, I thought that my future was secure, that I was on the map for ever. I did have interest, some of which went further and some of which came to nothing. I was disappointed not to sell RICH and when it was returned I didn’t like to look at the work, thinking that something must be wrong with it. Most of what I do involves attempting to make real the very specific but very elusive mental images which dart, unexpectedly, in and out of my mind. I attempt to plan but even with planning, paintings become spontaneous improvisations, gradually evolving so that I often lose sight of those initial mental images. I used to be very despondent when a work didn’t match these things and I wondered if that was the case with RICH. I still aim for these things but I don’t become disappointed, enjoying the unexpected developments, often found as a reaction to the way the paint simply lies on the surface, prompting me to consider a different course.

However, RICH hadn’t matched my expectations, despite its success in getting in to the exhibition. Over the next few years it was changed, several times, and I have shown in a sequence of images how these changes happened. I was pleased with the end result. It was closer to what I originally intended but was still far from it. In retrospect I know that I should have left it alone entirely.

RICH was followed by THE MINOTAUR’S PALACE in the 1991 John Moores, a painting which attempted to do again what I had failed to do in ‘RICH’. I was excited and surprised to get it into the show again. Alas, like RICH it didn’t sell and garnered mentions in only a handful of reviews. However, when it was returned I left it alone. It wasn’t the painting I set out to do but I was happier with the result and was finding that this was more important, more satisfying; to end with something unexpected yet successful.

RELEASED, in the 18th exhibition in 1983, contained much of what I was trying to say in the previous two entries. Once again I was very pleased to be in the exhibition. I was also more cautious as to what the outcome of being in the show would be. But I confess that I also remained frustrated at not being selected for a prize when I felt that I was painting at my absolute best, not just technically but in what I was actually saying in the concept of the painting. Even now when I look at the flower meadow, the translucent cloth suspended in the air and the metallic gold, all of which is invented, I surprise myself. I remain very satisfied with this work. I was delighted to sell the painting at the exhibition to someone who would become a good patron of my work.

By the time I painted LANDSCAPE WITH RUINS (INCIDENT), which was exhibited in John Moores 19, two years later, my life had changed somewhat. I was still exploring landscape but whereas the first three paintings had been celebrations, this painting was much more post-modern, much more a cynical look at landscape. It was a look at more intimate, neglected pockets of landscape which were very real, very much of the moment. Even though the painting is entirely invented, it was intended to look like a real place, even with a (flash) photographic appearance, a look I had been working with for a year or so before it was painted. It is full of perpetual nature and the detritus of human life. I was both disgusted and intrigued by the junk tipped or left by mankind and I thoroughly enjoyed making paintings about it. I was again disappointed not to be amongst the prizes; even more than before, I felt that not only had I made a technical and visual breakthrough in this painting, it was making landscape painting relevant, up-to-date.

Landscape With Ruins (incident) by Martin Greenland

Having had these four successive acceptances into the John Moores Painting Prize, an exhibition that I still regard as ‘the big one’, I was more than disappointed for my next entry in 1997 to be rejected. I had become used to being somewhat of a fixture at the John Moores. Even though we become more stoic as we age, we cannot help but gnaw away at ourselves inside when confronted with rejection. Perhaps it was the case that what I was producing, and how, wasn’t the flavour at all any longer. Perhaps, rightly, changes to the look of the show were wanted. I would attempt to be accepted for the exhibition for the next three times without success. Then, in 2006, something rather remarkable happened…”.

Before Vermeer’s Clouds is currently on display at the Walker Art Gallery alongside other past John Moores prize winners – read more about the painting here. You can also see the current John Moores Painting Prize 2018 exhibition, on now until 18 November.

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