Immediately on entry to the 39th year of the Portrait Award, you’re faced with a photorealistic painting – it’s amazingly impressive, and a bit dull. Exactly what you’d expect from the Portrait Award. But this year’s prize isn’t entirely filled with the usual same-y works, the ones we all gawp at for their makers’ ability to use paint like a camera. It feels like this time the judges have loosened up a bit and thrown in some wildcards in an attempt to give us a broader view of what a portrait can be.
‘Time Traveller, Matthew Napping’ by Felicia Forte is a scene-stealer. It’s personal and provocative, a portrait of a figure, faceless and laid up in bed with the red light of his room shining on our faces. The bigger works like this understandably demand attention, but it’s in the smaller ones that you’ll see some of the most experimental stuff. ‘Ako’ by Nikita Sacha is about video-calling and replaces a face with a frustrated abstract blur. ‘Charlie Masson’ by Alvin Ong feels like a trippy take on Van Gogh’s post-impressionist aesthetic. ‘Dad’s Last Day’ by Nathan Ford is a heartbreaking part-sketched, part-painted scene of the artist’s dying father. Upstairs, Caspar White uses scrap envelopes, record sleeves and brushed steel to capture the moods of the Berlin and Mallorca club scene. His works move between nights raving and days hanging – an unlikely but welcome narrative in the NPG.
Forte’s painting took second place to Miriam Escofet’s ‘An Angel At My Table’. Featuring Escofet’s elderly mother enjoying a pristine high tea, the work seems pretty normal at first, until you notice parts of the old lady’s tea set are blurred in motion. It makes you view the whole thing over again as about the passing of time, rather than the capture of one single, perfectly rendered moment. It’s also a clue that the portrait award might be shifting (albeit slowly) in a more interesting direction