Young Masters Juergen Wolf and Matt Smith Push Art History into the Future

The Young Masters Art Prize was established in 2009 by Cynthia Corbett Gallery to recognize emerging artists making innovative use of established techniques, and is joined this year by the inaugural Young Masters Maylis Grand Ceramics Prize. The 2014 winners—painter Juergen Wolf and ceramist Matt Smith—apply traditional art historical practices to contemporary visions. As art historian and head judge Godfrey Barker explains: “We believe we have the best agenda of any art prize in the world—to build 21st-century originality on inspiration from the past.”

German artist Juergen Wolf inserts contemporary elements into his landscape and still life paintings. In an untitled work from 2014, Wolf uses vibrant colors and broad brushstrokes to render a broken-down house that is situated on a patchy yellow-green field. The graffitied tag “SHOW ME YOUR SINS” appears scrawled across one wall, as if to remind viewers that this is not a 19th-century landscape painting but instead a modern representation of an abandoned structure.

In another untitled work, from 2013, Wolf builds up what would be a classic tableau of sculptural busts if not for the bright red soccer ball that pops up in the foreground. The combination of objects in the frame—a bull’s head, a buddha sculpture, a Greek-seeming bust, the soccer ball—reads like a cabinet of mismatched curiosities. It’s as if Wolf has grabbed the tradition of still life by its horns and flipped it on its head, revealing a new, absurdist underbelly. He describes his process as looking “ironically at icons, moments of luck, [and] sadness” to reveal “impressions of historical and political reality and fragments of the mental abyss.”

British ceramist Matt Smith makes functional and nonfunctional objects with an impressive attention to detail. Pair of Wall Sconces (2014), glazed in white and poised in perfect symmetry, presents two figures surrounded by large animal heads and miniature gorillas. Candle-holding components sit at the heads of both figures, rendering each faceless and void of any specific identity. With Feast Part I (2014), a minimalist palette of charcoal black sweeps over objects arranged on a silver plate stand. Sculpted bottles, high relief frames, and two diametrically-opposed birds fit into each other like an insignia or three-dimensional family crest. Despite its name, there is a conspicuous lack of any actual food items. As viewers we are left to wonder whether the exotic birds and decorative fixtures are the suggested consumable goods, or if the feast is of something else entirely.

Wolf and Smith are currently showing their work in London, along with a set of shortlisted artists, as part of the 2015 Young Masters International Tour. Works by a number of highly-skilled artists are featured on the tour: Alice Palmer, who created a technicolor, knit textile rendition of Michelangelo’s David (1501-04); Elisabeth Caren, who made a series of photographs in the spirit of Sir John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851-2); and Chantal Powell, whose striking peacock-feathered work references tapestry-making.

Anna Furman

Young Masters Art Prize” is on view at Lloyd’s Club, London, Sept. 16–Dec. 5, 2014.

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