Painting is back in the frame … and the rising stars are mostly women

Forget the Young British Artists. The YBAs of the late 1990s and 00s, made notorious by Damien Hirst with his pickled cow and Tracey Emin with her unmade bed, are now being supplanted by a youthful new artistic movement.

It is now the Young British Painters who are grabbing the attention and the cash, with some of their work fetching more than £1m a canvas. And not only are they young – around 30 – but most are women, and quite a few are black.

In the past few days, I’ll Have What She’s Having, a painting by 31-year-old Flora Yukhnovich, sold at auction for £2.3m. Yet its guide price was just £80,000.

Yukhnovich is inspired by 18th century Rococo-style artists. “I want people to have that ‘a-ha’ moment – a familiarity which offers you access to a work,” she says.

Another painting, Myths of Pleasure, by the 28-year-old black artist Jadé Fadojutimi, went for £1.2m, while her The Barefooted Scurry Home was purchased for more than £800,000. From April 2022, two dozen of her works will be displayed at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery, where she will be the youngest artist at the Yorkshire space to be given her own exhibition. “Of course, prices at auction now are staggering,” says Pippy Houldsworth, who looks after Fadojutimi through her Mayfair gallery. “The market is crazy, with, it seems, no upper limit for collectors with deep pockets. It’s also virtually been impossible for the past two or three years to get hold of a work by Jadé .” The waiting list runs into the hundreds.

The Pippa Houldsworth gallery represents mainly women. “They have been ignored and under-represented for too long,” she says. “But now they have powerful voices. Just look at the recent auction records for young painters, and they are nearly all women.”

It is not just collectors who are keen on paintings. Witness the success of two major shows currently running in London – the RA’s annual Summer Exhibition (held this autumn, post-Covid) and the Hayward Gallery’s Mixing It Up, where 31 contemporary UK-based painters have their work on display. Both exhibitions, which are full of vibrant colours, have been critically lauded and are attracting large numbers of visitors.

Some at the Hayward are well established artists like Peter Doig and Rose Wylie, but most are less known, like Fadojutimi, as well as other thirtysomethings including Louise Giovanelli, who works in Manchester, Kudzanai-Violet Hwami, who was born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Afrcia from where she came to the UK, and American-born and now London-based Issy Wood, one of whose works, Eggplant/Car Interior, sold this month for £327,000.

Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward, points out that more than half the paintings at his exhibition are by women. “Yet, if I’d put on this show 30 years ago, it would mainly have been of white, male, English-born artists. My feeling is that the public and buyers like what I’d call the magical quality of painting – the relationship between colour and scale.”

Eliza Bonham Carter, head of the Royal Academy Schools, concurs. “Maybe there is a yearning for something bright in the times in which we live. Also, during lockdown people have been going online to see art, and found it easier to look at paintings.”

Rachel Jones, who was on the RA Schools postgraduate course and is one of the Mixing It Up artists, herself speaks of “the emotional opportunities of colour, and how colour communicates”.

Yet, it is intriguing, adds Rugoff, that many of these young artists were discouraged at school and art college from drawing and painting as these skills are often regarded as rather bourgeois. “They have emerged against the odds.”

It is also interesting that, despite the woes of Brexit and Covid, so many talented young painters are working in the UK. Rugoff makes an analogy with the pop music of the 1960s in Liverpool and in Manchester a decade or so later.

“Like then, this is one of those moments in time when individuals seem to congregate in a place, and then inspire and encourage other similar talents. This generation of artists have all the tools of painting and know about the relationship of colours. They also treat the canvas like a landing pad.”

Ironically, with Covid having weeded out some smaller galleries, it is the larger ones with clout and cash that have often been picking up and promoting much of this young painting talent.

But is this renaissance in painting a passing trend? “Well, painting has been declared dead many times before,” says Bonham Carter, a painter herself. “But then it has always been resurrected.”

Tell that to the Turner Prize judges, who, for the past decade and more, have largely ignored painting. This year, they have consciously chosen five different collectives for their much derided shortlist. Are they unaware of the current huge success of the Young British Painters?

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