Saturday, 18 June 2011

BP Portrait Award, National Portrait Gallery

The BP Portrait Award is the most consistently rewarding exhibition that London offers annually. It's also free. It has the additional attraction of being an exhibition that offers no prejudice by featuring 'name' artists. Although the awards have already been distributed and the winners are known, there is no sense of having to understand some sort of philosophical or contextual basis for the art. With the exception of the work produced under travel bursary, the work is exhibited under its own merits in the relatively specifically category of portraiture.

For me, there is a steep gradient of quality in the exhibited entries. I couldn't quite see why the jury had gone for Wim Heldens' Distracted as the laureate. For me the best of a good shortlist would have been Fiona Scott's self portrait (right), a conventional piece in which she examines herself in a leopard-print coat and through a beautifully nuanced hair-frame. There's a narrative in this picture I found I was missing from many others. The mood isn't simply an emotional miasma but offers something more substantial to the imagination. A second self-portrait that's just as effective, if heavier on the melodrama is Angela Riley's Departure. For all out melodrama, one cannot fault the second prize winner Louis Smith, with his Promethean-romantic conflagration Holly.

There are two fine hyper-realist canvases: Jakub by Jan Mikulka shifts the focal point upwards with the light and Harriet White's Wanderflower is a disconcerting, outsized, flamboyant but careful study. Three fine paintings in a familiar lineage of style caught my attention: the post-early Freud distended lines of David Carter at home by Richard Brazier and the more general Englishness of I Could Have Been A Contender by the art tutor Wendy Elia (intriguing that she shares a name the director from whose film she takes the title of her portrait). The third is Daan van Doorn's sepia-monochrome portrait of Courtney Pine whose carefully executed facial contours contrast successfully with the abstracted grid of the Mondrian backdrop.

Two fine pictures of children caught my eye. The first, a pale but highly charismatic picture of Katherine (and Millie) by Barbara Skingle defies its own etiolated palette. The second, Despertar - Awakening, would be a contender for my favourite. Manuel Ferrer Perea shows a small girl waking up from directly above. The crisp fresh linen of the bed and the lightness of her limbs lend the picture a surreality upon sustained viewing that isn't there to begin with. The beauty and inscrutability of the child herself brings the picture a subtle, beatific quality.

I found I was also tickled by a picture of Boy George, Gorge O'Dowd, by Layla Lyons, a Maggie Hambling-psychedelic portrait from a low perspective with the focus of the symbolic peripherals - clothing detail and an armrest carved as a rugged phallus. Finally, I found a great deal to admire in the miniature but deftly rendered Abi by Nathan Ford, centred around the only finished body part (the eye) and the double-portrait that advertises the exhibition, Little Sister by Tim Okamura is worthy of its high profile.

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