Sunday, 17 July 2011

BP Portrait Award 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery

I’ve been enjoying the annual BP Portrait Award for some years now (see previous blogs). Knowing what the exhibition is about, and what kinds of works it often celebrates, and so from this, I also ought to be able to identify what was distinctively 2011, new and groundbreaking, about this year’s selection…

Entering the usual National Portrait Gallery room, I saw something very usual. It wasn’t the sense l had the first time I saw a Tim Okamura in 2009, but with the models of 2010 featuring in 2011, suddenly his portraits feel too known. Too aged. As I continued on, by a few portraits in I had decided around one quarter I could identify as being the work of an artist I’d seen before, just by looking at their technique. I could recall where I’d seen it before and whose face had been replaced in a similar looking background. Oh.

The winner, ‘Distracted’ by Wim Heldens, I personally think isn’t as show-stopping as its title would suggest. In a gallery context, with its dulled tones, it isn’t exactly dramatic (is drama all we’re after, maybe not). Certainly it’s not so enigmatic when compared to the second-prize winner ‘Holly’. Where ‘Holly’ feels like it would be suitably set in a church whose worship is to classical art and the cult of beauty, ‘Distracted’ would be most complimented in a home, so maybe there I’d like it more. The painting depicts an unpretentious young man peering around a door with a pencil in hand. It would be in a home that the subject’s real presence, and thus the painting’s real presence would be felt.

Self-taught Dutch artists, Heldens was included in 1998, 2008 and 2010’s exhibitions. Could this have become about congratulating the artists on the journey they’ve taken over the years they’ve been included, and less the individual portrait itself? Are the judges just getting nostalgic as they track the lives and works of their favourite portrait painters? Is the prize designed to be about the artist or the painting? (I had thought the latter.) Is the real impression of this exhibition that the presence of the sitter or the presence of the artist greater and more worthy of reward?

Considering all this, ‘Holly’ by Louis Smith - a contributor in 2009 – is something quite out of the ordinary. And like nothing I’ve seen in contemporary portraiture, like nothing I’ve seen since… Da Vinci. Consequently, this painting has provoked quite some discussion. Disguised as an altarpiece, the content is…surprising. The nude ‘Holly’ is cuffed by her wrists to a wall, and thrusts her beasts out in full shameless exposure. The rocky wilderness provides no comfort, except for a flourishing white plant of hope. Suddenly style has come to the forefront of the show’s considerations, and the question: is the painting of a nude, or is it a portrait simply because it’s called ‘Holly.’

I also greatly approved of the BP Travel Prize winner. This, a grant given in advance of a proposed portraiture project, was wisely awarded to an artist who delivered. The wall-wide painting of a nudist beach in Corfu is one of a place yet it does remain a portrait. For, it doesn’t just include people, it brings together portraits due to the characterisation, individualisation and idealisation of people pictured.

I also enjoyed the variety across: the discotheque of a portrait of Boy George by Layla Lyons; ‘Venus as a boy,’ which was one of few to that tapped heavily into art’s history (and it still achieved surprising results); and ‘Six decades’ which triumphed in concept, execution, and impression, but despite this description was modest in size leaving us positively yearning for more.

And so I’m once again left questioning: is it the presence of the painting, or of the person the portraitist paints, that makes an award-winning portrait? What I could glean from this exhibition was that the presence most felt was that of recurring artists and their works. Though I still left with the images in my mind of many great portraits I'd seen there.

Pictured: Holly, and Six Decades

BP Portrait Award 2011 is at the National Portrait Gallery until September 18

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape, at the Tate

I gulped entering the exhibition – Miro was described as “the most surreal of us all” by the very founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton – and I thought, oh dear, I don’t like surrealism all that much and nervously turned to the back of my booklet to discover there was thirteen rooms filled with the stuff. But, I’m not one to close myself off to the possibility of a change of heart with art. And the first room was to surprise me with its content. (You see the Tate curators made this super decision to put the introductory text outside of the exhibition space to ease overcrowding around art works, and I would guess also to tempt people in through a literary taster – very smart.)

It starts with half a dozen pieces from c. 1918 onwards of his home in Catalonia. These rural scenes are painted with a much greater attention to detail than is known of Miro, and the overall impression is of patterned patchwork quilt. ‘The Rut’ is such an example, and in this painting is evidence that Miro has a great understanding of colour that he would later exploit and/or purposefully ignore in his move towards the more surreal and abstracted. These early paintings of scenes familiar to the artist are interesting because they highlight the two-sided debate in the visual voice of the artist across his life (, and thus this exhibition).

In ‘The Farm,’ 1921-2, the largest and most important of this period, (not least because it is his home that he paints,) features a range of objects, of which those that are particularly habitual to him are partially enlarged. Miro depicts what vision naturally does – it draws you nearer, so that you take further notice of that which you already recognize. Yet, in the next room, when Miro is settled into surrealism, and it is now since the Surrealist Manifesto (of 1924) has been published, he declares, “I don’t think it makes sense to give more importance to a mountain than to an ant.” This is reflected in his approach to drawing a scene and in his choosing of subject matter – he no longer is looking for what is known, but searching the subconscious.

The artist switches between these two things throughout his career - acknowledging the familiar, and rethinking what was visually familiar in contemporary art. Still, this is always done under the pretense of escaping into creativity. His abstract pieces of the 1940s+ were influenced by the expressionists and so are much more rhythmic. For example then, it could be argued that in ‘The Passage of the Divine Bird’ from 1941 (in room 7), that rhythms provides a sense of reassurance – a reassurance that is found in the consistencies of daily life – in what is familiar.

The impact of Miro choosing not to give more significance to a mountain than an ant, is obvious in the scale he allocated items across a composition. In ‘The Barcelona Series’ (named after the city in which it was printed), 50 lithographs shout aliens ahoy! – What I think appear like aliens, are probably only the distortions of a figure according to an artist who is readdressing priorities. Suddenly beady eyes, grasping hands, and killer jaws become what are significant in these pieces. This attitude is hardly surprising as these pieces, exhibited in room 6, were completed during the time of the Spanish Civil War. And here we discover one of the reasons Miro might have repeatedly wished to escape into creativity across his lifetime, via, The Ladder of Escape (as the exhibition is fully entitled). The time of war was when Spain’s cultural identity was under siege. Who’s art could show a greater grappling with a new cultural identity?

Saying that, sometimes my only assumption when I look at a Miro is that I’m looking at a painting made of a Dalmatian rolled around in a fauvist palette. It’s true that much of his work feels playful - something I don’t often associate with surrealism. His ‘Painting (head)’ of 1927 in the second room just made me smirk, not because I think it’s crap like so many assume of Miro’s emptier paintings, but because who couldn’t giggle imaging a Spaniard with whiskers such as he painted. It seems so obviously humoured.

I have to credit again the curators, because I believe my favourite part of the exhibition is very much due to their great curatorship. In the final third is two great octagonal rooms displaying paintings as large as the walls. They are his most simplistic paintings but his most stunning, positioned as they were they are utterly overwhelming. I watched joyfully as others entered the rooms and saw their expressions – the exhibition was worth it just for this (oh and I had a rather nice chat with a middle-aged mummy who’d gone back into art history education with an enthusiastic bump). The great acclaim that these massive murals to colour received when they were exhibited in Paris has lasted. The sensation of colour is a continuation of that early sensitivity, but with a shot of shock. Imagine: bursts of the brightest colours you can consider, splashes of cooling oases, spots of attention homing, and streaks of evening out. This has to be the best of Miro…

The key piece of summer at the Tate, check Miro out before 11 September 2011. See it as part of late night at the Tate as I did!

Friday, 8 July 2011

A Feast for the Mind - Hilary Jack

Hilary Jack’s art has been brought my attention through her current exhibit ‘And Scent of Pine and the Woodthrust Singing,’ in Manchester. These installations in Castlefields Gallery, compose a narrative are the best of Britain’s woodland creators and wildlife, wittily composed in 3D collage. A favourite of mine is 'Almost Sleeping Fox', which epitomises traditional British taste. On a floral settee (that reeks of my Grandmother), a pre-raphaelitic redhead dozes. She’s nestled within a bed of wild, waterside foliage, that screams of the foxy Elizabeth Siddal bathing as for Millais’ ‘Ophelia.’

Her tongue and cheek pieces could quite easily be a parody of ‘The Wind and the Willows’. The conscious titling of the exhibition to include the phrase ‘a scent of pine’ draws attention to the knowledge that pine evokes memory. These sculptures are nostalgic of a childhood spent in books about talking animals, but in light-hearted humour we are prompted to the absurdity of that thing we once so believed in.

Jack combines taxidermy, throw-away materials, and rejected old furniture into sometimes sinister, but mostly whimsical sculpture-come-installation. Quite sinister, I’d like to rename the piece ‘Stag Woman in a Blue Dress Holds Yellow Flowers’, ‘Evil Eyes.’ - The sloping stag horns, leaning neck and lifted dress are all uncomfortably on the lurk. Paradoxically ‘Women with Sage Bush Hair’ is only comic, and could quite easily be a reinvention of Wuthering Heights. An agreeable and temperate [ceramic] lady carries her basket across the windy moor, where her hair, blown about by the strength of the gust, becomes conditioned to brittle. Though the ceramic somewhat places it within a time of England past (when village-life ruled), the unruly windswept hair is as true to Bridget Jones, and so to us, as it is to Wuthering Heights.

While I’m not suggesting that the artist’s work relies on these associations, certainly an atmosphere of Britishness, and of a society ridding themselves of old possessions and memories, is at the core of these recycled composites. Jack transforms things of no use to things of vital purpose within the new creation. And the result is witty, and most of the time, attractive.

Catch Hilary Jack at Castlefields art gallery in Manchester, before 24 June

Thursday, 7 July 2011

A Feast for the Eyes - Hector de Gregorio

Hector de Gregorio’s exhibition - New Work - at the Opus Gallery in Newcastle looks to be spectacular. His portraits are so heavily a product of art past; yet pose the most creative solution I’ve long seen to art future.

Could the heritage of portraiture be more blinding? – the realism of Caravaggio, the elegance and beauty of the Renaissance artists, the overindulgence of the Baroque period, the grotesque of Hieronymus Bosch, and then (inevitably in such a varied composite) the surrealism of Dali. These stylistic influences are blended delicately, and yet the result is far from subtle. It’s edgy, and it is in fact very contemporary, proving a valuable point - that to reference what has past, is not to be stuck in the past yourself.

Partially the appearance is subtle because of the artist’s confidence in and exploration of a mixture of mediums. It starts with a photograph, which is taken of the sitter, then, he or she is dressed in digital and physical (oil paint) layers, adorned in golf leaf, waxed and varnished. Partially it is much more…

‘Queen’ is perhaps my favourite. A serpent Queen Lizzie I, has acquired a Gaga quiff, a dress fitted with 80’s shoulder-pads, a 50’s waistline, and cut from 16th century material, yet she is poised as a Hindu goddess...? Then there’s the suggestion of lust AND chastity, which cause a tension that continually teases and perplexes the viewer. Her cherry red lips, and yet her porcelain blemish-free skin, her devil’s tail that could strike one deathly swing; and yet her hair is the red of the Virgin Queen’s. Who can she mean to be?

Certainly, so contrite, she plays a role. This is Cindy Sherman’s 1980’s masquerading pieces and then some. The sitter has been hidden amongst numerous identities, which is a point Sherman very concept. Cindy Sherman dresses herself one by one as a series of female personas, which she records in photographic portraits. De Gregorio dresses his sitters as many identities in one image.

This is an even more contemporary concept – that individuals carry not one, but many identities all within one body. The subtlety in which the artist combines what is contradictory in ‘Queen,’ illustrates that his portraits are not to be read as montages in which elements are placed along side each other but do not become one. They are one, diverse individual.

A bold blending of mediums and styles makes de Gregorio the new de Chirico.

De Gregorio’s new works opened at the beginning of the week and remain in the Opus Gallery until the end of July: