Terry Grimley reviews the RBSA’s open portrait exhibition.
Portraiture, once the central medium of British art, became relatively marginalised during the modernist era.
When a catalogue of art in Birmingham public collections was published a few months ago it was interesting to see how the official portrait – for example, the commemoration of leading academics at the city’s three universities – became polarised between a trudging traditionalism and various attempts at delivering something fresher.
Meanwhile, back in the mainstream, artists like Hockney and Freud have kept the portrait at the centre of their work. The National Portrait Gallery, once the last word in dustiness, reinvented itself – principally by recognising that the photograph is now the principle medium through which the appearance of the famous and notorious is preserved.
In its first open exhibition devoted to portraiture the RBSA hasn’t included photography, but it’s not difficult to see its influence in paintings which follow what has probably now been going on long enough to call the photo-realist tradition.
You see it, for example, in the up-close and personal portraits of two young women by Caroline Rudge, which stare in forensic detail at the surfaces of their faces. One of these has been highly commended by the judges, but the trap of photo-realism is illustrated by David Lawton’s Obsessive Compulsive, which succeeds in being too purely photographic to be interesting. The subject, a man clasping his head and screaming, has none of the edgy subtlety of the same artist’s portrait which won the RBSA’s recent Prize Exhibition.
Although there are some weak paintings at the margins, and some which are little more than accomplished exercises in pre-digested styles, the exhibition as a whole is quite strong, revealing a fair amount of fresh thinking about the portrait in the 21st century.
Perhaps what attracted the judges to their choice of winner, Gordon Faulds’ Somewhere Before Now Later, is that it adds an extra psychological dimension to the standard three-quarter length portrait.
It shows a woman in a jacuzzi at night, arms outstretched on the edge of the pool, her face lit by reflected artificial light. Behind her a naked man is gazing out through an impressive range of windows at dark surrounding parkland.
You have to wonder, who are these apparently fantastically rich people? Perhaps while suppressing a pang of envy.
Meanwhile, back in a domestic environment perhaps more immediately recognisable to many of us, there are two interesting paintings by Mark Lippett.
One shows a woman sitting on a pile of cushions, the other two men in a computer work-room. Both contain the familiar clutter of the moment, painted in a restricted but distinctive colour-range of greys, browns and ochres. The compositions are disrupted by slight but abrupt shifts of perspective, as if they had been created by pasting together photographs taken from slightly different perspectives.
More minimalist, and initially easier to miss, are two interesting portraits by Celia Berridge in blurry monochrome, one of them showing the journalist Julie Burchill
Emily Porter Salmon has come up with something arresting and strangely archetypal in Sisterhood (Lesley Chan), in which a young Chinese woman with an alert expression but her head turned away, hands clasped, is profiled against a gold background, so that the painting becomes a decorative object in the manner of Gustav Klimt.
Many of the artists have used themselves as models, and I particularly like the clenched-palm intensity of Rebecca Molloy’s self-portrait. Christopher Jinks’s Gaz (in the style of Perugino) playing the art history joker card, places a full-length contemporary male nude on a classical terrace, leaning against a pillar with a luminous Italian landscape behind him.
By contrast, the most up-to-date image is Peter Smith’s giant digital print which creates a portrait of Albert Einstein out of seemingly random lines of letters.
Interestingly, a similar effect is created, but on a much smaller scale and in pencil handwriting, by Anne Marie Wright. Her Walking with Music creates the pale image of a young man shouting or screaming? which, seen close to, is composed entirely of handwritten song lyrics. I spotted lines from Tomorrow Never Knows by The Beatles and All or Nothing by the Small Faces, but I’m sure buffs will find many more.
David Gleeson’s jewel like painting of Keele University curator Marion Gidman in front of a painting by Rothko (one painting recycling another is always a pleasing in-joke when it’s well done) and Vikki Hargreave’s clay figure of “Wendy” proudly reclining in all her ample flesh are two other examples of exhibits that stood out for me.
* Imaginative Portraits is at the RBSA Gallery, 4 Brook Street, St Paul’s Square until August 30 (Mon-Fri 10.30am-5.30pm, Sat 10.30am-5pm; admission free).