The problem with portraiture is the people. You have to ask yourself if you care about any of the faces staring out at you at this annual portrait painting prize exhibition, and the answer almost overwhelmingly is ‘no’. Do I want to see James Martin from ‘Saturday Kitchen’ in his fucking bootcut jeans? Am I interested in Timothy Spall looking like he wished he was literally anywhere else? Nope. Do I want to see Simon Davis’s wife on the bog, Gary Sollars’s dad with his top off or Melissa Scott-Miller’s self-satisfied-looking teenage son and his trainer collection? Nope.
So you hunt around for a face you might want to know more about – a story that might pull you in more than Parmen Daushvili’s painting of his mate Dave on the couch for example – but they’re hard to come by. Wayne Clough’s Degas-like depiction of his nude partner has a restraint and decrepit tension to it, while Maria Carbonell’s grimly classical painting of her dad in bed feels full of impending and inevitable sadness. Edward Sutcliffe’s portrait of art forger John Myatt, coupled with a distorted duplicate image by a Chinese artist commissioned by Sutcliffe, is cleverer and more involving than most images here, though it’s still pretty ugly.
There’s some fine skill and clever ideas on show. Stunning photorealism (if that’s your kind of thing) in places, nifty composition in others, but it’s just not enough. Especially when you see the works that won the prizes. Thomas Ganter’s homeless man on a gold background isn’t particularly involving and has surely won largely for the ‘aw’-factor.
The problem is that the artists here have painted their mates or family members because they like them – but should we? It’s pretty hard to find a reason to. They’re not your friends, and you’ve got your own bloody family to deal with.
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Does Eddy Frankel think there's still life in the genre of the portrait painting? Is it a form for him that should just be discarded in favour of edgier works, or works with different conceptual underpinnings, or can it be revived and yield interest and meaning in the right hands? His review seems to suggest that the problem with the paintings in the exhibition is that the sitters are uninteresting. But how interesting they appear is surely a function of the portraitist's whole treatment: the composition of the painting, the pose, the handling of the space in which the subject is sitting or standing, the style and texture of the paint. Saying a subject is uninteresting is tantamount to saying a specific painting hasn't worked.
I know Mr Frankel has a good eye in that five of the six paintings he singles out as bad are as he describes. The other is a soft target--the artist's wife half-seen through a cheerfully cluttered bourgeois-suburban space through an open door on the lavatory. I actually thought this was good in opening up a three-dimensional interior volume. I agree about the prizewinners--though surely the reason the winner won was that the judges credited the ethical force of painting a homeless person in the manner of a religious icon.
One thing I found interesting about the exhibition was that I could usually tell the relationship between the painter and subject before reading the caption. Parents and children were distinguishable from models in those age ranges the artist knew slightly or used to begin with as a model. Close friends were distinguishable from acquaintances; and even long-term partners or spouses from shorter-term partners. The implication is not just that artists who love, or who have deep and complicated feelings about, their subjects can draw out their psychological depths. It's also that sitters relax in the presence of family members--it's not possible to give up your close relationship to someone just because you're posing as their model. In a sense, all the best portraits are portraits of a relationship.
What a strange review. Do you only want to read books and watch films about people you already care about? Isn't part of the beauty of a lot of art post Dickens that it looks at the obscure and beautiful in the ordinary? "Why should I give a sh*t - I don't know them" just sounds like something my teenage brother would say.
Another stunning collection of paintings awaits at this year's BP Portrait awards. In an improvement on last year, the number of celebrity subjects has decreased (possibly the most famous subject, and least attractive portrait, is TV chef James Martin). Another improvement, at least for this reviewer, is the shift away from the ultra-photorealist pictures seen previously. Technically impressive? Yes. Interesting? No. Take a photo and save yourself the trouble.
A range of subjects are featured, but artists' friends and children seem to appear more often than professional commissions. This gives many of the portraits a warm familiarity and touching intimacy that makes this exhibition particularly special. While the prize winners are all highly deserving, visitors get to vote for their own favourites. Coupled with the free entry, this makes for an enjoyable and highly accessible viewing experience.
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