London Art Critic, Tabish Khan is next expert judge we have the pleasure of welcoming to the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2021 expert panel. Since 2013, Tabish has been visual arts editor for Londonist contributing reviews, previews, news, experiences and opinion pieces. Here, he shares some of the artworks from his own collection or from his exhibition highlights of the past year and he also provides some excellent insight into the judging process for art competitions.
Above image: Celine ii, 2018, David Wightman, Acrylic and collaged wallpaper on canvas, 80 x 100 cm
Clare: Can you tell us how you became an art critic and what is your approach to this role in the contemporary world, particularly London?
Tabish: I had very little interest in art until my late twenties. Growing up I was always more drawn to the sciences and graduated in Biomedical Science and then fell into a career in energy, which is still the career that pays the bills.
While commuting to my office job I would spot advertisements on the Underground for major exhibitions and this got me interested as I had no knowledge of art, and no family or friends with any interest in art either.
I started to visit some exhibitions and found it eye-opening and exciting. This interest accelerated and I started visiting more exhibitions, wherever I could find them.
After a few months a cousin recommended writing a blog so I did and that got very little traction. When looking for a place to promote my writing I stumbled across Londonist who were primarily volunteer led at the time. I pitched myself to them and now eight years later I’m still with them as visual arts editor. I also ran into Mark, from FAD magazine, at a gallery opening shortly after I’d started writing for Londonist and he proposed a weekly top five – and the weekly top exhibitions is a feature that’s still going.
My reviews for Londonist now get mentioned on those same posters on the Underground that were my original inspiration, and it’s very rewarding to see my story come full circle.
Clare: As someone who visits hundreds of art galleries a year, what are your favourite in London? Are there any hidden treasures that you would like to share?
Tabish: Asking me to pick a favourite gallery is like asking a parent to pick a favourite child. However, I will say that I regularly enjoy the commercial exhibitions at James Freeman Gallery and Gallery Rosenfeld. I’ll also mention Block 336 in Brixton and Arebyte on London City Island as two spaces that produce ambitious exhibitions.
As for museums there are so many great free ones like The Wallace Museum, the Grant Museum of Zoology and Museum of London Docklands that many Londoners may not have been to.
I love the fact that I’m still discovering new museums and galleries even after writing about them for over eight years.
Clare: What have been your exhibition highlights in 2020? What do you make of the 3D virtual galleries that gained popularity online during lockdown?
Tabish: While it’s been a year affected by the pandemic there have still been plenty of great exhibitions. Notable blockbusters I’ve loved include Artemisia Gentileschi at National Gallery, Among the Trees at Hayward Gallery and Tantra at The British Museum.
One small wonder is Edmund de Waal’s Library of Exile at The British Museum – it’s a library full of books that have been banned in certain countries with the names of destroyed libraries around the outside of the installation. With the books to be donated to the new University of Mosul library (the original was destroyed by IS) it’s a beautiful gesture that brings together the power of both art and words.
Online exhibitions will never be able to fully replace physical ones but they were a great outlet during lockdown and I hope they continue even post-pandemic as it helps bring art to those who aren’t physically able to visit exhibitions.
Even for a regular gallery goer like me it was a chance to see exhibitions in places like New York that I wouldn’t be able to visit for a single exhibition. It’s also a way to reduce carbon emissions and that’s an important goal given the art world is known for racking up the air miles.
I’m a trustee of ArtCan, a not for profit supporting artists, and it’s been great how they’ve pivoted to online exhibitions including holding their annual postcard fundraiser over Zoom.
Clare: Can you tell us about some of the artworks you have provided here? Are these from your personal collection?
Tabish: I come across hundreds of talented contemporary artists both as a critic and when judging prizes and so I’m always looking for artists who bring something unique to their artistic vision. So here we can see Michelle Loa Kum Cheung who burns the landscapes into the wood with pyrography, Vic Heald who uses a gold background that’s normally associated with pre-Renaissance Italian paintings and David Wightman who creates his paintings using textured wallpaper – I have works by all three artists in my home collection.
The Jessica Ballantyne painting was based on an inkblot she showed me and I told her what I saw in the inkblot which she interpreted into a painting. So it feels like a combination of both my own thoughts and her knowledge of my practice, so it feels that much more personal to me.
Of all the many wonderful paintings in The National Gallery it’s Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmarte at Night that I’ve always been drawn to. As a born and bred Londoner it captures the vibrancy of city living. Yes it was painted over a century ago, and of Paris, but it still rings true for me today.
Clare: How important do you think awards and competitions are for artists today?
Tabish: One of the most important elements of being a successful artist is being visible – people can’t buy your work and support your practice until they know you exist. Prizes are a great way to get on the radars of the selection committee and, if selected, a wider audience through an exhibition.
Also the more you see of an artist’s work the more time you have to build a relationship with it. If you ever keep seeing the same advert over and over it’s because the advertisers know it often takes more than one look to get you to invest in something. It can be very similar with art as people sit up and take notice of an artist who is regularly selected for prizes and competitions.
Clare: What will you be looking for in the entries submitted to the competition this year?
Tabish: Nearly every artist I see in a competition is talented and the fact it’s a difficult decision is a sign of the quality of entries I’m likely to see. I’m always on the lookout for an artist who does something unique or differently – this doesn’t mean it has to be too radical but something that makes the work stand out from the others I’m likely to see.
When you’re viewing hundreds of entries a judge often has seconds with each work so it needs to have an immediate visual impact that resonates with me in some way. Sometimes it can be as simple as triggering a memory of an important time or place in my life.
Clare: Do you have any advice for artists out there thinking about entering Jackson’s Painting Prize this year?
Tabish: Firstly, enter. A lot of artists lack self-confidence or are worried about being rejected. It’s a natural fear we all wrestle with but you can’t win if you don’t enter.
Secondly, given judges will have minimal time with your artworks, try to select one that’s going to grab someone’s attention. If you don’t know which work that is likely to be, ask a trusted friend or family member to help. Artists have a personal relationship with each work which can make it hard to look at them objectively.
Thirdly, if you don’t make it into an exhibition never take that rejection personally. All judges are human and they have particular tastes and flaws just like everyone else. Art is hugely subjective and just because you don’t meet the tastes of a handful of persons isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of being an artist – and who knows they may change their minds as your work evolves. There are over 7.5 billion people in the world and to be a successful artist you only have to appeal to a tiny percentage of them – they are out there, you just have to find them.
Clare: What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
Tabish: I’m looking forward to the ING Discerning Eye exhibition where I was one of the judges and we’ve all curated our own wall of small works based on artists we know and those we selected from an open call. It will be online this year so we had a record number of entries and will be showing a record number of works.
I recently voiced the guide to this year’s Mayfair Sculpture Trail and gave a talk for the Association of Art History on writing about art. I love that even during and after lockdown new opportunities have been springing up for me.
It’s also great to see new exhibitions opening this Autumn and it’s great to be back to writing reviews for both Londonist and FAD magazine – long may it continue. I feel very fortunate to be doing a job that I absolutely love.