In 2008, gallerist Cynthia Corbett had the idea of establishing the Young Masters Art Prize with the aim of celebrating artists who pay homage to the skill and traditions of the past. Practitioners are selected for their appropriation of an element of the established art-historical canon; either through technique, imagery or subject, whilst establishing an undeniably contemporary spin on highly revered paintings. Corbett discusses this year’s entries and thematic connections in the shortlist.
A: With the prize now in its fourth edition, what did you envision for the competition, and what has it achieved in terms of talent development?
CC: I had felt for a long time that there was a strong need for the art historical canon to be reflected in the voice of contemporary art and artists and this is what inspired me to launch the Young Masters Art Prize. I felt that an art prize was the best way to introduce this concept as it would bring together artists working across different genres who were united through the same theme. It’s a celebration of all aspects of art history through the eyes of international contemporary artists.
The prize really is an important opportunity for artists who are at the cusp of success and who need an international platform to take them to the next level; you could say its a barometer for future success. One of the finalists of the first Young Masters Art Prize, Lluís Barba was very well known in Latin America and Spain when he entered the prize but was unknown in the UK. Following his exposure, the value of his work has increased five-fold. Matt Smith, the winner of the ceramics strand of the Young Masters Art Prize in 2014 has since gone on to do a residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum and his work is sought-after by many international collectors.
A: How were the entries for this year’s competition different to previous editions, and why do you think that is?
CC: We had more entries than ever with over 800 artists applying for the main prize and the ceramics prize combined, which is more than double the number of entries we had for the last edition of the prize in 2014. These entries came from all four corners of the world, consolidating the prize’s reputation for being truly international. The entries gave an incredible snap-shot of young international artists’ thinking today and the judges were very interested in this. The profile of Young Masters has grown significantly since its launch in 2009 and the 2017 edition marks a very exciting moment for the prize.
A: Do you think that there were many similar dialogues or discussions being raised by the entries in terms of socio-political turbulence?
CC: We live in very complicated times so I think it’s inevitable that artists will respond to socio-political issues. Multimedia artist Amartey Golding addresses subjects like sexism, racism and intolerance in his work. In his video piece, Chainmail, which is on show in the Young Masters exhibition, he throws light over cultural behaviours towards race, gender and sexuality whilst channelling the darkness of El Greco and Goya; it’s a very powerful piece.
Azita Morandkhani uses the beauty of the female body – and specifically its exposure to different social norms – to communicate complex socio-political points in a way that is aesthetically approachable. Azita Al-Mashouk’s work speaks to issues of social politics, global movement and the hierarchy of citizenship. She uses performance, video and sculptural-based installation to explore the movement of people across both societal and national borders, with specific focus on young gay Middle Eastern women. Her pieces challenge systems that define the place of women in modern society by critiquing the male gaze that dominates not only the canon of art history but also contemporary society today.
A: Some of the shortlisted works carry topical themes such as race, gender and sexuality; how do you think that these are now being observed in contemporary art in general, and why do you think that they are becoming so relevant in terms of art as an antithesis for global issues?
CC: The strongest themes in the entries are around the place of women in modern society and the male gaze – themes that very much dominate art history and contemporary society. This is particularly evident in the work of video artist Tamara Al–Mashouk, for example, and in the work of Persian artist Azita Moradkhani and Dutch fine art photographer Isabelle van Zeijl. This is so interesting to me as, for the first time this year, we’ve launched a Young Masters Emerging Woman Art Prize, which is specifically intended to address the gender inequality that still exists in the art world. People are really questioning why this inequality still exists and it’s crucial that women artists are given a more prominent voice.
A: How are some of the other shortlisted artists responding to the sense of tradition versus digital methods?
CC: What’s wonderful about the prize is that it’s so multi-disciplinary; there are artists who work in very traditional media but then others who are using the most contemporary techniques and are really embracing digital technology. John Philips, for example, creates these incredible still lifes of flowers that refer back to the Vanitas tradition in Western art but that are actually experiments in very contemporary media and techniques. Each of his prints combines as many as 1,400 separate photographs to create an eerie hyper-reality. Isabel van Zeijl digitally composes her photographs like a painter, blending techniques and idioms of the Old Masters with present-day aesthetics and technologies to her create self-portraits. She’s the creator, object and subject in her work.
A: There are also a list of 10 artists shortlisted for a separate award – the Grand Ceramics Prize – what do you think this competition does for an apparent renaissance in traditional materials?
CC: Since the beginning of Young Masters we have always celebrated ceramic artists. Over the years we saw how much this creative medium was evolving so felt it deserved its own platform and prize to reflect the quality of work being produced in ceramics. Although it’s a traditional material, the artists shortlisted for the Young Masters Maylis Grand Ceramics Prize prove that it can be used in the most contemporary, experimental and forward-looking ways – and in a way that consolidates the position of ceramics in contemporary art.
A: Who are your judges for this year, and what do you think they were looking for in each artwork?
CC: We have three judging panels for the three different strands. For all of the prizes, they are looking for artists who embrace art history in creative and innovative ways and who demonstrate immense technical skill. The main Young Masters Art Prize is being judged by art historian Godfrey Barker (Chair) with Melanie Gerlis, Art Market Columnist at the Financial Times and Editor-at-large at The Art Newspaper; Daisy McMullan, Curator; Hannah Rothschild, writer, filmmaker and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the National Gallery, London; Charles Saumarez Smith, Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts and Jean Wainwright, Art Historian, Critic and Professor of Contemporary Art and Photography at the University for the Creative Arts.
The judging panel for the Young Masters Maylis Grand Ceramics Prize comprises Janice Blackburn, former Curator of Arts and Crafts at Sotheby’s; collector Preston Fitzgerald; collector and philanthropist, Maylis Grand and the Crafts Council’s Daniella Wells.
The Young Masters Emerging Woman Art Prize will be selected by Beth Colocci, Chairman of the Trustees of UK Friends of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Sylvie Gormezano, Chair of the Association of Women Art Dealers; award-winning designer and art collector Ronnette Riley, FAIA and Nadja Swarovski, Member of the Executive Board, Head of Corporate Branding and Communications and Chairperson of the Swarovski Foundation.
A: How do you see the future of the prize?
CC: I think the prize will continue to grow in both profile and reputation internationally. A big part of this will be achieved through the international Young Masters exhibition tour programme, which I plan to expand and develop over the coming months.
An exhibition of work by the Young Masters shortlist and is on show at Gallery 8, London, until 24 June. A selection of shortlisted artists will be shown in an exhibition at the Royal Overseas League from 28 June to 8 September 2017 and at the Royal Opera Arcade Gallery from 2 to 14 October during Frieze week.
For more information: www.young-masters.co.uk
1. Amartey Golding, Still from Chainmail. Courtesy of Young Masters.