Illustrators’ prize winners are a revelation

The Association of Illustrators Awards 2013 exhibition tour features some of the most exciting artistic material I’ve seen this year.

After its Somerset House debut, the show is visiting Swansea (11 November – 13 December, 2013), Blackpool & Fylde College (TBC), Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery (12 April – 18 May, 2014) and Guildford Museum (7 June – 19 July, 2014).

I am becoming a big fan of graphic art and increasingly see its strengths as holding their own against “fine art”. I understand well enough why painters sometimes disparage David Hockney as “merely” an illustrator, on the grounds that his work is decorative and has a light touch. And I can see why illustrations can seem sketchy, childish, or didactically programmatic, especially since they are designed to have an immediate impact and only a slight expectation of prolonged viewing.

In defence of this “shallow” art, one can say that it is seldom pretentious, since it usually wants to gain our attention, sometimes “merely” to please and often to inform. It can seldom afford to alienate, whilst much modern art insists on being shocking or ugly, and gets away with it on the emperor’s new clothes principle, or the ancient cry to dissidence.

There is plenty of tough and troubling material in the AOL’s winners’ show, but nothing ugly and almost all of it is intended to reward prolonged exposure and exploration

I would name several artists as knock-out (but almost all the dozens of works were engaging):

Steve Wilkin simply pencil-drew his fellow commuters on a regular train journey. It was as though one’s own journeys had been recreated, including one’s speculation as to what that sleeping nurse, or that tap-tapping teenager or business woman was really like.

Anna Cattermole did palimpsest watercolours of boat-builders’ yards, each fit to be a poster or a large page in a book. Evocative stuff, which allowed her brush and our eye to zoom from a sense of the activity of the whole workshop into the detail of this or that spar. Justly celebrated, this is a theme of her wider work of “reportage drawing”, often with a maritime topic.

Brandon Lodge’s “Ghosts of Gone Birds” delivered brush and ink drawings (or were they paintings?) of birds, extinct or threatened (it isn’t made clear), and they were works (here is a cheeky snatch of Red Rail from the web) which would have satisfied  a Chinese or Japanese imperial court or, now, the British Library print room. These were large, plain, pieces which were very powerful – mournful but vigorous – in their simplicity.

Mitch Miller produced a simple idea, what he calls a Dialectogram, simply executed, but it was great to look at, a delight to explore, and surprisingly serious in intent: very moody. The piece was a poster called “A Showman’s Yard in the East End”, and it was first and foremost a sketch plan of the yard. But as one looked longer, a mind-map, and a sort of genealogy, was revealed. I should perhaps say that when I pass such places on a train, I am always drawn to making a visit. And I am equally drawn to images and especially maps and plans, and especially of confined places which are nonetheless somehow empires, as in Mr Miller’s Matt’s Room, which – being derived from a novel – is in the illustrators’ heartland (like those maps in Arthur Ransome’s books, but much more intense).




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Publication date

23 November 2013


Mind & body; On art