Peter Davis is currently showing his painting Wetin dey in this year’s John Moores Painting Prize exhibition. This is one of the UK’s most celebrated and well-known painting competitions, with past winners including Patrick Heron, David Hockney, Euan Uglow and Peter Doig.
The 2020 pieces were selected by a diverse group of creative influencers and artists including Gu Wenda, Hurvin Anderson, Michelle Williams Gamaker, Alison Goldfrapp and Jennifer Higgie. You can view the exhibition online here: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/jmpp/john-moores-painting-prize
Tell us a little more about your involvement with the John Moores Painting Prize exhibition?
‘I am thrilled to have been selected, there were over 3000 entries this year and it’s an honour to participate as it showcases the best of what British contemporary painters are doing. I have been visiting the John Moores exhibition for over 30 years and have always loved the breadth of painting in the show – and this year is no different.’
‘My painting Wetin dey is a portrait of Solomon Onaolapo, a music producer and co-founder of Rising Stars North West. He supports disadvantaged young musicians to record their work and we met in Stockport at a networking event. At the time I thought he would be fabulous to paint because he had a striking look and I emailed him after the event. I went to his rehearsal space to talk to him, do some initial sketches and photograph him. When I first arrived he was on his phone, listening to some music, he stopped, moved his headphones up and looked directly at me. I knew that was the pose that I wanted to capture. The title of the work comes from a Nigerian phrase meaning, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’
‘Organising the exhibition has been very different this year because of the Covid pandemic. This is the first John Moores exhibition to be online and visitors can walk around the spaces virtually as well as vote for their favourite artwork on the Visitor’s Choice Wall. This year, all judging was carried out digitally, an action taken for the first time in the history of the Prize following Liverpool’s move into Tier 3 Lockdown. The judges were allowed to experience the detail, scale and texture of the works in real-time through the use of high spec cameras, screens, speakers and AV software. Judges were also able to confer and discuss the works remotely through this system and staff formed a bubble to be able to facilitate the filming/photographing of the artworks.’
Peter, you see yourself as a social realist painter, why do you think that this type of art is important?
‘I am fascinated with the speed of change brought about by technology, how it effects our lives and our behaviours. In the last 15 years smartphones have become integral to our way of life. Our phones are never away from us and I am interested in how they have changed our physical and emotional behaviour. This shift first caught my attention standing on a platform waiting for a train. Everyone around me had their heads down and were looking at their devices. It occurred to me that this was a monumental shift in society. We may not notice or register it now but when we look back in 100 years’ time we will see that digital innovations have changed us forever.’
The American writer, Henry Miller, encapsulates the need to capture this change: ‘What the painter sees he is duty-bound to share. Usually, he makes us see and feel what ordinarily we ignore or are immune to.’
‘I have always been fascinated with situational paintings and what they tell us about the period in which they were painted. My inspiration has come from artists such as Edward Hopper, who documented the industrial changes that were taking place in New York during the first half of the 20th Century. The rise of the skyscrapers, cutting of railroads through the urban landscape and vast wastelands cleared to make way for new buildings. At the time of these changes it often feels as though it was ignored – people became immune. It was part of people’s everyday lives to walk passed construction sites and see workmen lunching on the girders. However as we look back we see what an extraordinary glimpse of history this type of social documentation is and how important it is to capture these moments.’
Where are you going next with this body of work?
‘I have been looking at VR and have started to paint people using headsets. I believe Mixed Reality gaming is the next step for us in terms of personal technology. In the next decade we’ll see this type of technology incorporated in our spectacles, clothes and other physical devices.’
‘I have recently begun to focus on capturing people within their environment interacting with technology. My work still focuses on individuals on their devices but places them within the context of their surroundings. Stood at bus-stops, sat on steps in front of graffiti or standing by a landmark waiting for a friend. Manchester has changed immensely over the last decade – there has been a gentrification of certain areas such as the Northern Quarter – which has long been known for its creativity and street art. This has created a dichotomy within the city. It is important to document this evolution.’
How has Covid affected your work?
‘At the beginning of 2020 I started work on 5 commissioned portraits. I usually meet sitters in their own homes and get to know them a bit, have a chat about their interests, do a few sketches and take photographs which I then take back to my studio to work on. During the first lockdown I worked on these commissions and also took part in Portrait for NHS Heroes. However by summer 2020 these commissions had been completed. I was unable to work in close proximity or meet with people to initiate new portraits so I began to focus on urban scenes within Manchester. I explored different city locations and that is what I have focused on throughout autumn and winter.’
‘Being creative is important to your mental health; I find the act of painting is an escapism– at my easel I have a sense of solace and I can be completely absorbed. Putting music on and getting lost in my work is the best place to be in the world. The pandemic has changed my patterns of working; I often start painting early, about 7.30 am, and can work all day. Lockdown has meant that the dynamic of the house has changed as my wife and youngest daughter are working from home. It is lovely to spend time together but in some ways it’s been harder to focus as there are more opportunities to get distracted, having a cup of tea and a chat.’
‘In many ways technology has been our saviour during the Covid pandemic. We’re able to stay in touch with loved ones, hold meetings and work from home. The online John Moores exhibition will also allow more audiences than ever to view this show and see the pieces on display, including Wetin dey. However I am looking forward to The Walker reopening after lockdown so I can actually see my painting on the walls of the gallery with my own eyes.’
The John Moores Painting Prize exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery runs until the 27 June 2021. Visit the Walker Art Gallery website for more details: https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker-art-gallery
Posted: March 16th, 2021