Birmingham graduate Oliver Jones paints big works and has a growing reputation. Terry Grimley reports.
The term “face-painting” used to be a denigrating way of referring to the portrait painter’s craft, but Oliver Jones is one young artist for whom the human face holds seemingly limitless fascination.
The 23-year old from Shropshire, who graduated last year from Birmingham City University, draws close-up and personal studies in coloured chalks of the kind of people you might not care to glance at twice in the street.
In itself, that might not seem so remarkable. But what is remarkable is the scale on which Jones works – his drawings can measure up to six feet by seven feet.
Now his ambition seems to have paid off. Having been selected from hundreds of recent graduates to be one of just six showcased in the exhibition Best of the UK at London’s SaLOn Gallery, he has now been chosen as the overall winner to be included in an exhibition called UK’s Future Greats, opening in June at the White Box Gallery in New York.
This is the third year that the Notting Hill-based SaLOn Gallery has organised its competition for fledgling artists, and this time it hired a film crew to record the whole process with a view to making a documentary which can be shown on the internet and pitched to television stations.
The London exhibition, which has just finished, was opened by Sarah Maple, the controversial Muslim artist who was discovered by SaLon last year and has since received considerable attention for her provocative work on the themes of Islam and sexuality. Even the British National Party has an article about her on its website.
This year’s competition was a gruelling process.
Oliver Jones recalls: “The entries were whittled down to 100 and then a final 20 who were asked to take their work down to London. Then we went to an interview where we presented our work. From that there were six who were to be in this exhibition, and of those one was to be selected to exhibit in New York, and I’m that person.”
On leaving the fine art course at Margaret Street he wasted no time in finding his own studio space in Harborne: “It’s the career path I want to go down, so I hit the ground running,” he says.
“This body of work, it’s looking at people you might have some angst about looking at. For instance, there are two Big Issue sellers. They may be people you would be inclined to look at but there’s this difficulty in doing so, or people who ask you for money in the street so people avoid talking to them. All of my portraits are quite confrontational.”
While some artists are eager to embrace new technology, at one level at least Jones’s work is a reaction against it. He points out that we live in a world where digital techniques make it all too easy to adjust nature towards a supposed ideal, and these are usually the giant faces which bombard us through advertising.
“The cliché that the portrait is the window to the soul – I don’t really think that’s so any more, because it’s too easily covered over these days.
“Especially with digital photography now, people can see what a photograph looks like straight away and it can be discarded or manipulated. I go through a process when getting the image where I ask the sitter to pose for some photography, and basically I have a conversation with them and get a natural expression. I don’t manipulate the image at all when I’ve taken it.
“The pose is a snapshot of a particular moment, and in the most recent series I’ve been trying to get as intimate as I can with people.”
An earlier series devoted to people with facial disfigurements owed a debt to the series of forensic studies made by Henry Tonks, also in coloured chalks, of soldiers who suffered facial wounds in the First World War. Jones also acknowledges the “quite obvious” influence of Chuck Close, the American photorealist whose giant studies of the human face gradually moved away from a slavish emulation of photography.
“At the moment I’m working with chalk and coloured chalk, because the way it’s applied and the delicate way you have to handle it has quite an obvious resemblance to the way we handle our own faces and apply products to them. I’m directly handling it as though I was handling my own face.”
His portraits focus rigorously on the sitter’s face – no head and shoulders and, more recently, no neck either.
“I include nothing but the face – it’s just the face on brown paper. In the series before this one I included a neck, and I remember having a group discussion about my work and just by having a neckline, a plain black neckline, people were seeing a social context to the work. So now I have as little as I can get into the picture. There’s nothing like it when they’re on that scale. Somebody said to me they’re more life-like than photographs because they have a depth photography doesn’t have.
“I don’t really see myself as a photorealist because the application is quite gestural, rather than just transferring exact information from a photograph.”
So these giant, isolated heads are Oliver Jones’s speciality for the time being, but who knows for how long?
“I don’t want to get into a process of just churning them out because I don’t think there’s any point in that. But I’ll keep doing it until I think I’ve exhausted it.”