Exhibition visit: BP Portrait Award 2012

It’s not often I have the opportunity to get to exhibitions – certainly nowhere near as often as I would like.  This is partly due to living where I do (in South Devon, away from the big cities where the majority of exhibitions are held), and partly due to health reasons (documented with both the OCA and my tutor). However, recently I was able to visit the BP Portrait Award 2012 exhibition as it came to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.  Not having any experience of writing about exhibitions, I hope readers will bear with me as I takes my first tentative steps…

I deliberately chose to visit the exhibition at the end of the day, thinking that would allow me to stroll around in splendid isolation.  Far from it, though.  Everyone else seemed to have had the same idea.  Therefore I didn’t have quite as much time as I would have liked to absorb the paintings – most of the visit was spent glancing at them briefly and scribbling in my notebook.

I began by taking a fairly brisk walk around the room, to get a feel for the exhibition.  The thing which struck me was what The Independent referred to as ‘the forensic glare of photorealism‘ (Pritchard, 2012).  Such exactitude.  Impressive precision dominated at the expense of expression. Works such as Silent Eyes by Antonios Titakis were quite breathtaking in their near-photographic detail, yet my response was solely cerebral.  I couldn’t fail to admire the range of tones the artist had achieved using only black and white acrylics.  ‘Broadening the spectrum without adding a third colour has been a challenge’, Titakis said.  Skillful, undoubtedly, but it didn’t touch me.

Silent Eyes by Antonios Titakis, 2012

Silent Eyes by Antonios Titakis, 2012

Rather more classical in its manner, Isabella Watling‘s The Importance of Being Glenn held echoes of Velazquez, whose portraits the artist had seen on a recent trip to Spain.  She said she hoped to evoke the timelessness of the Old Masters by ‘quoting’ rather than imitating their style.  I liked the understated palette here, and the simple but characterful gesture.

The Importance of Being Glenn by Isabella Watling

The Importance of Being Glenn by Isabella Watling

A similarly subdued, albeit far cooler, palette could be seen in Alex Hanna‘s Alex Side View. Despite featuring the artist’s son, Hanna said he wanted the portrait ‘to be an objective image of a boy. The profile view helps to emphasise this objectivity.’  The mood of this picture reminded me strongly of some of Vilhelm Hammershoi’s figures (see below for an example).

Alex Hanna, 'Alex Side View'

Alex Hanna, Alex Side View

Vilhelm Hammershoi, Seated Figure (Anna Hammershoi), 1884

Vilhelm Hammershoi, Seated Figure (Anna Hammershoi), 1884

There was colour to be had here, though.  Three pieces stood out for me for their colourful, graphic style.  First of all there was Tim by Tom Dewhurst.

'Tim' by Tom Dewhurst

Tim by Tom Dewhurst

This triggered a memory for me of Peter Blake’s work from the 1970’s, such as the one below.

Peter Blake

Peter Blake

A similarly flat graphic style.  It even had the van and the stripes.

Then there was Swallow by Alexandra Gardner.  Here, the artist took the swallow motif from her subject’s jewellery and tattoos and used them to create a bold pattern.  The overall effect was highly evocative of the Nickolas Muray photographic portrait of Frida Kahlo shown below.

Alexandra Gardner, 'Swallow'

Alexandra Gardner, Swallow

'Frida on Bench' by Nickolas Muray

Frida on Bench by Nickolas Muray

A further shot of colour was provided by Erik Olson‘s, The Skateboarder.  The thick directional brushstrokes and flat colour background (and rather magnificent beardage) in evidence here brought to mind the work of American artist Aaron Smith.

The Skateboarder by Erik Olson

The Skateboarder by Erik Olson

Aaron Smith, 'Pommie', 2012

Aaron Smith, Pommie, 2012

It was a notable feature of the exhibition that many of the portraits featured subjects set against largely empty backgrounds.  Indeed, this emphasis on negative space loomed large in both the first and second prize winners’ paintings.  In addition, both pictures featured older subjects – one man, one woman.

El abuelo (Agustín Estudillo) by Ignacio Estudillo

El abuelo (Agustín Estudillo) by Ignacio Estudillo

El abuelo (Agustín Estudillo) by Ignacio Estudillo was the winner of the Second Prize.  A portrait of the artist’s grandfather, Estudillo said he felt it also revealed part of himself.  The judges awarded the prize because they thought it was ‘intensely atmospheric, thoughtful and focused’.  Atmospheric, I can see.  It’s a large painting, and its broad expanse of black space is striking – indeed, it jumped out at me from the opposite end of the gallery as soon as I walked in.  I was interested to note the divergent qualities of El abuelo and the painting that won the First Prize, Auntie by Aleah Chaplin.  Estudillo’s piece is dark, melancholic.  Unlike Auntie, there was no sense of contentment, no invitation to engage with the subject, whose gaze was fixed firmly on some point beyond the viewer.

In contrast, Aleah Chaplin’s portrait radiated warmth, dignity, beauty and humour.  Both subjects manifested experience, but in widely differing ways.  The light negative space of the background here and the darkness of Estudillo’s painting set their respective subjects in clear contexts, each with the full focus on the central figures.  In Auntie, the judges commented on the ‘controlled light, colour and tone.’  To quote Chaplin, ‘Her body is a map of her journey through life. In her I see the personification of strength through an unguarded and accepting presence.’

'Auntie' by Aleah Chapin

Auntie by Aleah Chapin

This ‘journey through life’ appears to have brought the subject to a place of self-acceptance.  Facing the viewer directly, with substance, I felt she was saying, ‘Here I am.  This is me.’  No apologies.  Simply a statement of assertion.  Critic Brian Sewell took a different view.  Referring to ‘this ancient crone’, with ‘the ghastliness of ageing flesh’, he held that ‘this painting stimulates revulsion’ (Sewell, 2012).  Coming from another perspective, The Independent maintained that ‘her nakedness is incidental to her personality, merely a form of comfortable clothing…  A worthy winner indeed.’ (Pritchard, 2012)  I was inclined to agree with the latter.

There were touches of mixed media in some of the exhibits.  Peter Goodfellow‘s All Dressed Up For Mam and Dad featured collaged photographs of the artist’s parents inside his outspread overcoat.  The use of old photos is something in which I’m interested, so I was curious to see how he had incorporated them here.

Peter Goodfellow, 'All Dressed Up For Mam and Dad'

Peter Goodfellow, All Dressed Up For Mam and Dad

Assemblage formed part of Timothy Gatenby‘s Mary Waiting To Go Roller-skating.  In it, the artist looked at three phases of his grandmother’s life – the past (represented by a photograph), the present (represented by a painting), and the future (symbolised by a skull, ‘representative of her fragility, her own pre-occupation with death and my own anxiety about losing her’).  Both the photo and the skull were displayed in a roughly-made wooden box.  The artist was on a ‘quest to uncover silent stories that hide among timeless moments.’  The notion of ‘silent stories’ was one that struck a chord for me, in ways I have yet to unravel.

Timothy Gatenby, 'Mary Waiting To Go Roller-skating'

Timothy Gatenby, Mary Waiting To Go Roller-skating

Two further portraits captured my attention.  Colin Davidson‘s, The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley) was one.  This portrait of the Irish poet was one of the few overtly ‘painterly’ pictures in the exhibition.  Heavily textured, complete with drips, it made me want to touch it.  (I didn’t.)

Colin Davidson, The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley)

Colin Davidson, The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley)

Finally, I want to mention Emma Wesley‘s, Nick In Tartan Trousers. I haven’t quite pin-pointed why this had an impact on me, but it did.

Emma Wesley, 'Nick In Tartan Trousers'

Emma Wesley, Nick In Tartan Trousers

I saw something of Stanley Spencer in it, which could account for it.

Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait, 1959

Stanley Spencer, Self-Portrait, 1959

There’s a clarity and a particular quality of light that appeals, as well as a strong narrative sense.

I wish I’d had more time at the exhibition.  I stayed until they were locking up.


Pritchard, C. (2012) ‘BP Portrait Award 2012, National Portrait Gallery, London’, The Independent, 24 June, [Online], Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/bp-portrait-award-2012-national-portrait-gallery-london-7878476.html (Accessed 17 March 2012).

Sewell, B. (2012) ‘Wrong on so many levels: Brian Sewell on the BP Portrait Award’, The London Evening Standard, 12 July, [Online], Available at http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/exhibitions/wrong-on-so-many-levels-brian-sewell-on-the-bp-portrait-award-7938256.html (Accessed 17 March 2012).