Went to see the BP Portrait Award at the Scottish Portrait Gallery when I was over in Edinburgh. I always try to see the exhibition when it comes up here and the standard as usual was amazing. One thing I noticed, however was the number of photorealistic works. There were quite a few, and while I can appreciate the detail and skill that’s gone into them, I prefer the ones where it’s obvious that a human being has made it with their own hands. I want to see brush-marks and unfinished bits rather than a highly polished finish that is unrecognisable from a photo.
That being said my favourite works in the exhibition where those pieces so I’m kind of arguing against myself.
The first favourite is the winner of the travel award: Petras by Laura Guoke which is a huge monochrome close up of a man holding his hands up to his face. Each individual hair is described in great detail. Standing below it it creates quite an interesting effect. The focus is not on the gentleman’s face but rather on his hands, wrinkled and ingrained with dirt. Due to the size and the placement of the work (along a corridor rather than at the end where you would look from a distance) the viewer has to crane their neck and stand back to peer over the top of these great hands and then suddenly you are arrested by the eyes which are incredibly piercing and lock you in. They sit right at the top of the canvas, the top of his head cropped off. This unusual composition gives you a bit of a start, as if you’ve been caught staring and you didn’t realise he was looking back. I think The Portrait Gallery has cleverly made the best of this effect in their positioning of the work.
This work is incredibly photorealistic, right down to the unfocused t-shirt, but it’s size and composition really makes it quite arresting. The viewer wonders about the subject of the painting. We are given clues to his life, the dirty fingernails, the stubbled chin and weathered face. Why is he holding his hands up in this way and what is the artist telling us about him? Covering the subjects mouth like this, gives him a vulnerability, taken away his ability to speak and tell us.
My other favorite was Jean by Jean-Paul Tibbles. This is also a large piece and verging on photorealism in the boys features but the neck and forehead are finished in a more painterly way, while the background is unfinished. This is an interesting method to focus the eye on the boys features in the centre of the painting.
There are areas of unblended colour such as the yellow left of his forehead and his left ear appears to have been corrected, which I feel really add to the overall effect. I love features like this in paintings, they add a certain rawness to the work and anchor the artists physical presence in the work.
In contrast to the painting of Petras above, this portrait conveys no emotion. The face is expressionless and the direct gaze is quite challenging, very different from the pose in Petras. Whether or not this was intentional we don’t know.
Jean by Jean-Paul Tibbles, oil on canvas
There were many other wonderful portraits that caught my eye, the emotion conveyed in Silence by Bo Wang (runner up) http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/bp2016/exhibition/exhibitors-entries/silence.php and dynamism captured in Regis by Christophe Therrien http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/bp2016/exhibition/exhibitors-entries/regis.php were also highlights.
Interestingly I didn’t really like the winner of the award this year. I don’t for a minute think that the wrong decision was made, I assume this is because I’m not privy to what the judges were looking for. Girl in a Liberty Dress by Clara Drummond is a small, pale unassuming portrait. Next the huge, arresting pieces competing with it, you could walk past and not notice. Perhaps this was the reason it was a winner though. It is tremendously subtle, from the medium used, it’s small size, the colours and lack of shading and the sitters pose. No direct stares and piercing eyes in this portrait. Instead the sitter looks to the side and averts her eyes. Very reminiscent of a Rossetti muse.