The man in front of me it’s wearing a white Urban Outfitters t-shirt, with a faded pattern of a man stuck on a desert island. His hair is brown and untamed, and his eyes are hiding behind circular sunglasses. Around him, a frame cuts his world from mine, allowing me to see him through a rectangle. The man in front of me is me, and I am in front of a mirror. I take my glasses off, and come closer to the cold surface. The movement inside the mirror resembles mine, yet it is different. Life from a different angle, from a different viewpoint.
You see, the man in front of me might look like me, but is not me. It is a reflection of me, an representational image of myself. It is a depiction, instead of a portrait.
I remembered that moment as I was standing in front of the winning portrait of the BP exhibition. A portrait for me should not be a mere replica of the person; it should pierce through the resemblance and reach a level of truth that is raw and refined in the same brushstroke.
Going to the BP Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery has been a yearly tradition since I first came to London. For a few months, the room at the far end of the ground floor hosts the pictures, portraits, stories, technique, craft and heart of some amazing artists that hang their work.
For me, this exhibition has many points of interest:
From the moment you walk into the room, you realise that it is not only the portraits of the people that are hanging on the wall, but also the ones of the people that are standing in front of them, looking at the picture on the wall. It always fascinates me to see how people interact with the painted image. Large groups are sitting in front of the more realistic ones, give second glances to the picture they thought was rubbish after taking a look at the famous name of the artist that drew it, talk about how life-like, appealing, appalling, unattractive, or powerful an image is as they nod their heads, squint their eyes, and then walk to the next one.
In my mind, the portraits are divided into three categories:
The ones that aim for various degrees of realism (from the hyperrealistic to the life-like) are the ones that collect the most oohs and aahs from the crowd. This year’s exhibition has some amazing examples, like Robin by Lesley McCubbin, Devan by David Eichenberg, Today you were away by Ian Cumberland, Silent Eyes by Antonios Titakis, LE (Salmakis Num 3) by Ivan Falco Fraga).
Then, there are the ones with a difference in theme or technique. The technique might he pushing the boundaries, from incorporating different material and forms (like Lindsay Lohan by Ben Ashton, About Time by Tonny Mulligan, Pasha Triptych by Ismail Acar and Tessa and the Clay Heads by Ruth Murray), to encapsulating alternative themes and aesthetics (The Skateboarder by Eric Olson is a good example of putting the Skater culture and style in the actual painting). The theme might hide a background story, (like All Dressed Up for Mam and Dad by Peter Goodgellow, a self portrait with collaged pictures of the artist’s family on the inside of his coat, carrying the memories with him), social comment (Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar in Tokyo by Carl Randal, where anonymous strangers are eating alone but separate in a familiar form of urban isolation), sitter’s personality (swallow by Alexandra Gardner, trying to be something else by Edward Suitcliffe, and Irish Frank by Ray Richardson are three great examples of that), or a moment of love (Wes’s Dream by Erin Wozniak), fear (Bruised by Nathalie Beavillain Scott where she documents her son’s car crash) or both (92 years by Tim Benson, where he depicts his grandmother that was suffering from dementia in such a painfully honest way, in an electrifying lay ambiguous light that makes us think that she could be either in the middle of a conversation, or in a state of agony, fluidity of mind seeping on the body).
And then there are these that have something more than acrylic mixed with water on canvas. The ones that contain a raw emotion in each brush stroke, a story behind each curve, a feeling of truth hidden in the corners of the sitter’s eyes. The first prize, Auntie by Saleah Chapin, is a testament of the human female form, the skin as a trail, the body a map, a personal history document. Similarly, El Abuelo by Ignacio Estudillo has a ghost-like quality, a portrait that is there but is absent, a picture that is not an analytical description as much as a glimpse of the human condition his sitter belongs to. Joachim by Nathan Ford stirred something strong in me, and made me stop and examine it closer. The half completed portrait was holding a secret, and it was truly captivating.
My personal favorite was Mary Waiting to Go Roller Skating by Timothy Galenby. A chiaroscuro portrait of his grandmother standing next to a glass cabinet, in which pieces of her past (a picture taken when he was a child), present (a painting) and future (a scull) are kept safe. The scull gives away her fragility and preoccupation with death, as well as the artist’s anxieties about losing her, however when seen as a whole, it has a truly heart warming effect.
On my way out, I saw a woman staring at me with a truly unnerving look. I gasped as I realised that it was actually a portrait, Still Waiting by Antonio Barahona. It was not the most realistic of the lot, but it had a truly unnerving quality in it, a captured humanity.
I passed from it smiling, and made my way out. I passed from revolving doors, catching briefly a glimpse of myself on the glass. And then the sun.