Review: ‘BP portrait award 2012’ at the National Portrait Gallery • 21 June – 23 September 2012

There weren’t too many stand-out portraits for me at the BP Award at the National Portrait Gallery this year and as usual it seemed that in an extreme photo-realistic style was favoured by both the selection committee and the judges. There’s no denying the technical skill of these artists and I didn’t mind the winner: Aleah Chapin’s expressive Auntie, a nude study of a middle-aged friend. However the three portraits I liked the most were all particularly stylized and obviously painted. They all seem to create a deliberate sense of the artifice of painting rather than trying to pretend to be photographs.

‘Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar’ by Carl Randall

This was my favourite portrait (below), and not a typical one, with its many subjects in a very specific noodle restaurant setting in Tokyo. But there is something so isolated about each of these urban figures with their limited interaction, that it makes each seems like an individual portrait. Maybe the picture is a portrait of urban modern society as a whole. Each subject in the portrait, either cook or customer, is completely separate and making no eye contact with one other (two of them are texting, or on their phones) with just one exception – the woman at the centre receiving her bowl of noodles has her hands clasped by the cook as he hands the dish over to her in a gesture of connection that gives the painting real pathos and prevents a sense of total alienation. Everyone is tired and self-absorbed and a little impenetrable, a feeling exacerbated by the monochrome colour and the way their faces are brightly illuminated by the artificial lighting. The customers are not really relaxing  – their sinews and muscles on their arms tensed and exaggerated as much as those of the cooks who are serving them – and there’s a feeling of silence in the image, that everyone is busy slurping their noodles but not conversing. One’s eye is drawn to the very brightest area of tone in the painting, which is the screen of the phone of a woman at the foot of the image.

Mr Kitazawa's Noodle Bar by Carl Randall

Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, © Carl Randall, 2012, Photo © National Portrait Gallery

I also like the way that the deliberately skewed perspective mimics the naive style of early Italian paintings (below – a ‘Last Supper‘ by Agnolo Gaddi, c. 1395), creating a flat space and a deliberate, stiff artifice that serves to arrest our attention and defamiliarize us with what we are looking at. There’s also a degree of claustrophobia in the way that the picture plane appears to loom up towards us. It did also occur to me that in the case of Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, that this same high viewpoint would also be the high viewpoint of a CCTV camera in the restaurant, which makes sense of the black and white colouring (although Japan – one of the safest countries in the world – may have little need for security cameras!). That impression makes the figures in this busy noodle bar seem even more isolated.

Last Supper by Agnolo Gaddi

Alexandra Gardner’s ‘Swallow’

I liked this bright, expressionist portrait (left) of the artist’s hairdresser, Laura, which reminds me of a Gauguin (right) or Van Gogh painting. Gardner took the motif of a swallow from Laura’s necklace and hidden tattoos and built it into the decorative background, to express something of her personality and fascination with the bird. I also like the way the bright flat colour brings out the red of Laura’s dyed hair and her vibrant dress sense and makeup.

Alexandra Gardner's Swallow

Swallow, © Alexandra Gardner, 2012,  Photo © National Portrait Gallery

‘About Time’ by Toby Mulligan

I think that this painting of the artist’s daughter Anais is a particularly good child portrait – full of life and with a strong hint of personality but without being overly cute. He seems to have started off with a dark ground/undercoat and added his lighter colours on top. It’s very confidently and boldly handled and I like the colours reflected in her skin. It was painted in acrylic rather than oils so much have been achieved quickly because acrylics dry so fast.

About Time by Toby Mulligan

About Time, © Toby Mulligan, 2012, Photo © National Portrait Gallery


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