Face|Time, a new group exhibition at Dellasposa Fine Art, argues that in these Selfie obsessed times we need painted portraiture more than ever. But are they right? This post takes a closer look at the artists featured in the show to see how their work is more powerful and relevant than ever, and tells us more about ourselves than a selfie ever could.
When we look back at the twenty-tens in years to come, we will no doubt reminisce about the time when Facebook, Twitter and Instagram ruled – and in particular the popularity of the selfie; the ubiquitous photographic self portrait found plastered all over social media sites. Thanks to the smartphone, anyone can take a selfie and share it with friends, family and even strangers to show the world how they look today, where they are, who they’re with and so on. Selfies are a child of the age of information overload. Via the internet we can receive and transmit information (in most cases) without censorship, and in these times where the novelty hasn’t quite worn off, huge swathes of people are keen to share a carefully considered representation of their identity. A staggering 1.71 billion people use Facebook on a monthly basis (a 15% rise from last year), and so if it’s part of your culture to share your news and views via Facebook and all your friends and family do so, that alone is a lot of information to be keeping up with. Status updates need to be regular and succinct if you are ever going to stand a chance of being remembered, let alone respected by your peers. This is why the selfie is such a vital tool in today’s modern world – it’s a quick, low-skill mode of expression that we can all master, and the maker of the selfie has pretty much all the control he or she could desire to communicate exactly what he/she wishes – indeed, your selfie doesn’t have to be as ‘truthful’ as it’s casual mood suggests.
You can dismiss selfies as being a narcissistic, low brow, pointless waste of time all you like, but is the phenomena actually the dawn of a new artistic revolution? Picasso and Matisse dedicated their whole lives to proclaiming that there is an artist within all of us, and now all of a sudden, unapologetically, people of all ages and walks of life are getting their smartphones out to create images that are a mode of expression about who they are. Unlike a holiday snap, a selfie is more than just documentary evidence. Unbeknownst to them, and like a child with a set of crayons, there is a playfulness to taking selfies that stops their creation from ever becoming intellectual – something that Picasso always strove to avoid for fear it would kill the creativity. A selfie is all about playing a game with one’s own notion of identity. And what’s more you can take hundreds in a day if you like!
I don’t think anyone could argue that now smartphones exist we no longer have a need to create painted portraits, but how has the information age influenced contemporary portraiture? It seems that so many of us are now wedded to our phones and are constantly seeking a new hit of information or approval via the internet, and so many of us seem to instinctively do all that we can to keep up with the pace as it ever increases – arguably the cause of a lot of status anxiety. When we spend so much of our time sat in front of ever changing images, constantly updating newsfeeds, advertisements and selfies, are we not inevitably impairing our attention spans and therefore changing the nature of how we might respond to or create a painted portrait?
A new group exhibition, ‘Face|Time’ (Dellasposa Fine Art, Piccadilly, 4-9 November) reconsiders the role of the painted portrait. The show features work by contemporary portraitists Sabatino Cersosimo, Simon David, Emma Hopkins and Isabella Watling. Each artist in the show has a very individual, distinctive approach to how they paint their portraits. While some of the work could be mistaken for being painted 100 or more years ago, others combine painstaking detail with occasional splodges of expressionistic painterliness, or explore textures and negative space in unusual ways, challenging our notions of what can and can’t be included in a contemporary portrait. As the press release states, the show ‘references the faded memories of the Old Masters while at once pushes the subject into the 21st Century…among the issues explored in the exhibition are the artist’s sources of inspiration, the ways in which portraits engage with identity as they are perceived, represented, understood and constructed and how portraiture represents a particular occasion that transcends a single moment in time’. While the artists in this show are fully aware of today’s selfie culture, their work presents to us craft and contemplation, and each artist demonstrates to us the power of individual perception in painting.
Isabella Watling’s sight size paintings have a Rembrantian quality to their stillness. She uses a rich earthy palette to depict her subjects, ‘using the same methods and materials as the great portrait artists of history from all the way back to Titan in 17th century Venice’. The background is understated, usually just a plain single colour adorned with subtle shadows, so that the viewer’s eye is naturally directed to the eyes of the subject. Watling usually works to commission and says ‘it is important that the sitter likes the portrait, however I will never falsify, I look for the truth in each subject. I paint under high natural light and do all my looking from a distance using the sight-size technique. Sight-size is a method whereby the image and subject are placed alongside each other and viewed or compared at a distance so as to see a unified image to the scale and proportion of life. It is not just a measuring technique but a philosophy of seeing’. By using this technique she is more easily able to see her subject as a whole and edit out superfluous information. The result is that the portraits have a feeling of being stripped of time or anything incidental – when you look at a portrait by Isabella Watling you feel as if you are faced with the essence of the sitter, and the result is quietly powerful and emotive.
In Sabatino Cersosimo’s paintings there’s a feeling of excavation – unearthing the essence of the subject, as well as exploring the materials with which he works. He sees his work as the embodiment of anti-selfie culture: ‘Sometimes I receive messages of people writing “when will you paint me?” or “why haven’t you painted me yet?” I always tend to escape from these requests, ‘cos a portrait for me is very far away from narcissism. I very often paint people with not so much self confidence, or at least with a moderate ego, this is what fascinates me, like a lack of awareness of your own beauty.’
His paintings are made on a steel substrate on which he pours water and other liquids to cause areas of it to oxidise; he uses the rusted areas as the ground for his paintings. The parts of the steel support that remain unoxidised also often remain unpainted, and so the paintings appear fragmented, and bring to mind damaged paintings that have been pieced together for the purposes of exhibition. These ‘gaps’ within the portraits also create a distance between the viewer and the subject – a visual reminder that we are all isolated beings that can never fully fill the shoes of another; gaps in our seeing, gaps in our comprehension. Unlike Isabella Watling’s commissioned paintings Sabatino Cersosimo’s paintings tend not to be commissions, and the artist selects his sitters by identifying certain ‘emotions, state of minds, fears, attitudes…and when I meet somebody who I think might fits with this complex “ensemble”, then I simply ask him/her to pose’. So although these works are not self portraits in a literal sense, Cersosimo clearly uses his work to find himself in others, and to communicate the emotions that he hopes his viewers will most respond to, as they are the ones he can portray with the greatest conviction.
Wanda Bernardino’s paintings are the least conventional of the show – she portrays figures in historical dress, sometimes alone or in groups and in both formal and informal poses. Every face is obscured with a brutal and careless looking application of white paint, completely at odds with the delicate meticulous handling of paint that is used to render the clothing and limbs of each subject. The resulting tension stirs up intrigue – who are these people and what is their story? Clues are given only through the gestures that hands make and the clothing that they wear – the effect is just like looking at a damaged found photograph. It is surprising how uncomfortable the effect is of looking at these paintings with the faces blocked out – almost as if these people have been gagged, and the fact that we are left to make assumptions about who they are largely through what they are wearing somehow makes our set of judgements seem more superficial than if we were able to gaze into their eyes. These are paintings of frustration and yearning, and highlight our natural need to connect with others, even when the other is a painted image of a person long deceased.
In stark contrast, Simon Davis’ portraits delve deep into the experience of the shared time between artist and sitter, the thoughts and feelings of both, and a sense of the temporary made permanent. Many of the poses and compositions that Davis paints are animated and dynamic, so the sense of a fleeting moment of time being captured in the solidity of an oil painting is heightened. The subjects (often women) appear both vulnerable and defiant, often gazing straight out of the canvas at the viewer, honest, naked not nude, challenging us to accept and admire the strength born out of their honesty.
‘If you are being asked to paint a portrait, then you must remember that you must try to be true to how you paint and have integrity in what you do. Sitting for a portrait is an exercise in trust. I have done it a couple of times and it is a valuable lesson in seeing things from another point of view’. The intensity brought about by this unguarded, intimate moment between artist and sitter is reflected in the fresh and bold brush marks and the distinctive individual poses. By viewing and contemplating these paintings you not only glimpse into the unique relationship between this artist and this sitter but inevitably a mirror is thrown up which causes the viewer to recognise themselves in the picture too – ‘it is this that fascinates us and gives portraiture its’ durability’.
Emma Hopkins’ majestic, painstakingly detailed portraits find beauty in the courage, frailties and strength of the human form. ‘The purpose of my work is to explore everything that makes us what we are, which does include the skin that we are within, but I hope that the interaction with thoughts of a deeper level speak for themselves’, says the artist. This deeper level is unearthed in the uncompromising poses of each subject – often nude, often humble and vulnerable, but the act of the subject allowing the artist (and therefore the viewer) into witnessing this intimate world is so powerful and thought-provoking.
It causes us as the viewer to find compassion for these subjects…by examining their frailties we admire their honesty and bravery in opening up to this degree, and as humans our natural response is to empathise. In some of Hopkins’ paintings, she plays with how she renders her subjects – allowing paint to spill and stain and juxtapose with the meticulous control she enforces in other areas. At times this is a device to instruct our eyes to move to the parts of the subject that demand the greatest attention, and at other times it seems to nod to a recognition of how fleeting our existence is on this world.
The diversity of the work in this show proves that something alchemic occurs when a painter has the ability to translate the connection they make with their sitter – when they find the conviction and power to empathise and are able to render this using a sophisticated comprehension of the craft of painting. These paintings delve so much deeper than plain likeness or recognition. Each in their own distinctive way demonstrate the need in this selfie obsessed, information overladen world, to slow down, to make space to take in how vulnerable we feel as human beings, how anxious we are about who we are, and to make connections with others. A selfie is a shield; it’s a disguise to show the world how beautifully sorted we are. These portraits reveal to us that the experience of being human is so much more complex than that, and that life is all the richer when we pause to contemplate this.
‘Face|Time’, a pop-up show by Dellasposa Fine Art, is on show at 90 Piccadilly, London W1J 7NQ from 4th – 9th November. Full details can be found on Facebook here.
Header image: ‘The Importance of Being Glenn’, Isabella Watling, oil on canvas, 90cm x 120cm