This week I had the pleasure of visiting the BP Portrait Award 2011 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery with my good friend James. I loved this exhibition last year, and this year was no different.
One thing I love about it is that it’s open for anyone to enter. And that means you get a wide variety of artists and a wide variety of styles side-by-side. So one minute you might be looking at a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters one minute, and a recent art graduate the next. And portraits of the famous and influential share a wall with parents and children and ballroom dancers. I have to resist the temptation to rush to find out who’s coming up next. As it is, I have to go round twice.
The winner of the 2011 award was Distracted by Wim Heldens. The portrait is of a young man the artist had known since he was a boy, and Heldens had painted him several times. Distracted captures him as a thoughtful-looking philosophy student, hesitating in a doorway. In some ways, the portrait could be considered unremarkable – the subject, the setting and the pose are nothing spectacular. But among this year’s exhibition, that’s probably what makes it stand out. I felt like a lot of entries wanted to be making a point about something or add more significance to their work, beyond simply capturing something about their subject. Although Heldens’ portrait is straightforward in some respects, there’s an intensity in the simplicity of it that I’ve grown to really like (and, I’ll admit, I wasn’t really convinced on the day!). I’m also really intrigued by the light switches on the side of the painting. The artist could have easily removed them, but he chose not to. I wonder why? He might have been thinking of the composition – a blank wall would have left the picture a bit lop-sided. But there may also be more to it. Maybe something to do with enlightenment and the study of philosophy? Or maybe they balance out the solemnity of the young man, dressed in grey and black, but with the possibility of brightening things up?
My favourite painting in the exhibition was slightly more colourful. I really liked George O’Dowd by Layla Lyons. O’Dowd is better known as the singer Boy George, and this painting captures him sitting at home in a thoughtful pose. There are lots of reasons I like this portrait, not least the title. The title deliberately refers to him by his real name, rather than his far better known alter ego. The portrait isn’t of the celebrity, but of the man, although the two sides of his identity of clearly on display. He’s wearing his trademark hat and flamboyant outfit, but his crossed legs bring his ankle tag right into the front of the picture (O’Dowd was sent to prison for the false imprisonment of a male escort in 2009. He was released after 4 months, but was required to wear an ankle monitor for 90 days).
The chair he’s sitting in adds something interesting to the portrait too. While we were in the gallery, I lingered while a few other people looked at the painting, including a mum with her daughter, and some old ladies who were obviously on an outing. As far as I could tell, no-one else realised that the arm of the chair is a massive penis. Or they were just too polite to mention it… It’s a cleverly subdued shock element, which you don’t really notice to begin with, and then you can’t help but notice it! And it’s a clear reference to O’Dowd’s sexuality, but I think it’s more than that. Although the portrait is of an older, perhaps calmer Boy George, there are still plenty of surprises left…
I love the use of colour in the painting too – it’s painted in bright colours, but Lyons managed to give the painting a thoughtful and serious tone – perhaps another reflection of the different sides of O’Dowd’s life and personality? And surely it can’t be a coincidence that it’s mainly painted in red, gold and green?
I think I should also give a mention to Six Decades by Matthew Schofield. This small work, almost dwarfed by some of the other entries, features six small portraits of the artist’s father from 6 different decades. The first 5 were painted from photographs, the sixth from real life. With a portrait, you’re restricted to capturing a single moment (without some complicated trickery). But here, Schofield has taken a collection of moments and presented a whole lifetime. The warmth of the painting also stood out for me. Having painted my own Dad already, I think I’d like to try something like this.
On a similar theme, James’s favourite was Father and I, Life Size by Elie Shamir. The painting depicts the painter and his father on their family farm in Israel. The two men are very physically similar, and they are similarly dressed too. On one hand, there’s something here about the inevitability of growing up to be like your parents. But the younger man has become an artist (and his studio is in the background) – he’s become his own man. And although the two men stand apart, you can still feel something of the bond between them, the artist proudly painting his Dad, and the older man (perhaps slightly grudgingly) indulging him.
If you’re anywhere near the National Portrait Gallery (just round the corner from Trafalgar Square), you should definitely check out the BP Portrait Award. Admission is free, and it’s on until 18th September.
Also, can I recommend the Japan Centre for lunch? Amazing. You can thank James for that one.