Terry Grimley finds a fine crop of portraits dominating the RBSA's Prize exhibition.
The next exhibition coming up at the RBSA Gallery in July is dedicated to portraiture, but as it happens portraits also dominate its current free-ranging Prize Exhibition.
It's difficult to remember as impressive a concentration of them, and apart from their unusually high standard they are wide-ranging in style and subject.
Unusually for Birmingham, they include an example of the celebrity portrait, in Keith Turley's painting of the veteran actor Leslie Phillips with his bullish cat, Mr Big. It's a large painting, showing Phillips at his fireside surrounded by faithfully recorded books and other clutter, and if you're a Phillips fan you can actually buy it for £5,000.
Though it's a vigorous painting and captures the essence of the man - well, I say this having once spent a couple of hours in his company - there may be a few technical quibbles to be had with it. Perhaps this is why the judges decided to give one of their commendations to Turley's other painting, a more modestly-scaled painting of a middle aged man identified only as John.
The main RBSA Prize went to David Lawton's Stephen, the runner-up for last year's BP Portrait Prize. It's a portrait with an undoubted edge to it, in which various elements are held in tension.
On the one hand this is clearly a contemporary young man (the sitter is actually a friend of the artist, a graphic designer from San Francisco), yet the painting has an Old Masterish atmosphere, while the glazed eyes and slightly parted lips make the subject difficult to read psychologically. There is at least a hint of possible menace, accentuated by the way the illuminated face looms out of the shadows.
Lawton's other painting, The Egyptian Girl, is less ambivalent but has a similar refined sheen.
Steve Dinsdale, on the other hand, goes in for something altogether more in your face, with his two large -scale paintings of wildly dissimilar subjects. One is the gangsta rapper 50 Cent, while the other is an elderly man, unidentified by name. Dinsdale wins a prize for first-time exhibitors, as does Nigel Whittaker who also shows a penetrating portrait of an old man, Bill.
There are two strong portraits which put their subjects into a context of earlier art - Emily Porter-Salmon's Bernard Butler Boy in a setting of Glasgow School art nouveau and David Gleeson's Imagining Rothko, in which the foreground figure is set in the context of resonant colour in a painting by the American artist.
Despite the prominence of portraiture this strong exhibition offers many other pleasures, ranging from Mo Lancaster's vibrant linocuts to the jewellery by Michael White. The RBSA is also well worth a visit for its Craft Gallery display Silver:Wear, including Grant Braithwaite's pieces which mix silverware and wood-turning, as well as interesting jewellery by a number of makers. It really has established itself as Birmingham's leading venue for contemporary craft.
* RBSA Prize Exhibition until July 5, Silver:Wear until June 20 at Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, 4 Brook St, St Paul's Square (Mon-Fri 10.30am-5.30pm, Sat 10.30-5.00, Sun 1pm-5pm; admission free).