Preview: Northern Art Prize

This year’s Northern Art Prize features work that inhabits the environment and, as Sophie Haydock discovers, places no limits on age or experience

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The Northern Art Prize has undergone something of a makeover this year. The annual award for artists living and working in the north has changed its exhibition dates from winter to spring, and the organisers say this year’s show is bolder, with plenty of surprises in store.

Now in its sixth year, the prize aims to celebrate northern talent. The shortlisted artists include Carlisle-based Margaret Harrison, Liverpool’s Rosalind Nashashibi and Emily Speed, and Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, who work together in Newcastle. Each is competing for £16,500 prize money.

One twist is that works will, in a way, interact with the space at Leeds Art Gallery. Some will intersect doorways, walls and corners, making this year’s prize particularly distinctive.

Tatham and O’Sullivan, for example, constructed painted wooden portals framing entrances to two galleries. And Harrison’s The Last Gaze draws upon a painting from the gallery’s collection, The Lady of Shalott, by John William Waterhouse. Rear-view mirrors will offer strange glimpses of her work.

The shortlist has also broken the mould by including the work of an artist over 70. The Turner Prize has a cut-off point of 50, but there is no age limit for the Northern Art Prize. Wakefield-born Harrison has made art in the north for several decades and at 72 years old, her nomination is an unexpected boost.

“I was surprised to be nominated. These prizes are usually only open to under-50s. I did send them an email asking whether they’d made a mistake. It is refreshing that it’s non-ageist.”

Harrison will exhibit sculpture, painting and drawings. She studied at the Royal Academy in 1961. “Being an artist has been a lifelong pursuit – I’m very experienced,” she says.

In 1970 she co-founded the London Women’s Liberation Art Group, and a 1971 exhibition in London, which included a depiction of Hugh Hefner squeezed into a bunny girl costume, was closed down by the police. She now has several works on show at the Tate.

There is certainly a strong focus on female artists in this year’s prize. The shortlist is nearly exclusively women, but, as Harrison points out, “the previous one was nearly all men and nobody commented on that”.

Liverpool-based Nashashibi’s nuanced work questions masculine versus feminine identity. Part of her submission shows a close-up of a man’s denim-clad crotch. She also uses video: the installation Lovely Young People (Beautiful Supple Bodies) features ballet dancers engrossed in rehearsal when members of the public walk in and stand awkwardly around them.

Speed is “interested in bodies and buildings and how those forms come together and cross over”. Her sometimes surreal works incorporate human figures, framed by pieces of architectural sculptures (a person’s legs poking from beneath a mattress, for example, or from a tower of desks). For the exhibition, she has created a piece that can be “inhabited” by visitors. Another will be animated by performers. “My work certainly owes a debt to the Surrealists,” she adds.

The judging panel includes the Turner Prize-winning artist Tomma Abts, Jennifer Higgie from Frieze magazine and Sarah Brown from Leeds Art Gallery and the winner will be announced on 23 May.

Last year, Liverpool’s Leo Fiztmaurice won the prize, and he helped attract a record 130,000 visitors to the exhibition. This year, the Northern Art Prize has moved its dates from winter to spring in the hope that even more people will be able to attend.

Those involved certainly think the prize helps to celebrate artists working outside the capital. Speed agrees that artists “make work in a different way outside London”. She says: “Regional is the future. It afforded me a lot more opportunities. People don’t look at what you’re doing in the same way, and that allows you creative freedoms. There’s certainly no need to moan as a regional artist.”

Northern Art Prize, 28 March-16 June, Art Gallery, Leeds

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