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BP Portrait Award 2015

ByLeonora Rae

Oct 27, 2015

Scottish National portrait Gallery: until 28th February


The BP Portrait Award returns to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery after exhibiting in its London counterpart and includes the works of its three winners and other notable contestants.

Once again the judges of this year’s Portrait Award favoured works that emulate photography on an almost unbelievable level. Michael Gaskell’s ‘Eliza’, winning second prize, is supposedly inspired by the work of fifteenth century artist Hans Memling. Unlike the Netherlandish painter, the presence of Gaskell’s hand is unfelt: his magic is not once revealed. The portrait of the artist’s niece cannot fail to draw in viewers with its striking photographic likeness but this also creates a façade under which the acyclic paint hides. The girl’s torso has such a piercingly photorealistic quality that it could almost be comprised of miniscule pixels, as opposed to brushstrokes, inspiring both admiration and frustration in the viewer. Similarly, prizewinner Matan Ben-Cnaan’s portrait, ‘Annabelle and Guy’, looks more like a film still than an oil painting.

Gaskell’s is not the only portrait, which demonstrates an interest in both photorealism and Early Netherlandish art. Leslie Watts’ ‘Charlotte and Emily’ and Nancy Fletcher’s ‘Hamish and Sophie Forsyth’ are both diptychs with meticulously detailed compositions.

The influence of Lucian Freud is also felt. In the background of both Benjamin Sullivan and Dani Trew’s portraits are painted nudes undoubtedly in the style of the German-born British painter. It is somewhat surprising to find these repeated motifs when exploring a body of work created by such varied individuals from all over the world.

Perhaps the most striking and under celebrated work in the exhibition is Sophie William’s ‘Just After Noon’. Unlike the photorealistic works where the medium seems almost invisible, this work reminds us that we are looking at a painting, a hand crafted work of art. Indeed there are still areas of intense detail that pull us into the composition but the deceptiveness of the photorealistic works is abolished in favour of broad brushstrokes and vibrant colour.

Williams masters the ability to capture a snapshot, a fleeting moment in time. The highly detailed faces of her grandparents contrasts with the ambiguous electrical appliances in the background. One views the work in paint as one would in real life, as our eyes select focus points with the surroundings remaining blurred. The same applies to Ian Cumberland’s mesmerising ‘Sink or Swim’. A greater visual experience is had from looking at these more painterly works. One can get lost in the layers of paint and create narratives for the figures.

This year’s BP Portrait Award is a must-see, even if to merely play the antagonising game of ‘spot the brushstroke’.

Image: Sophie Williams.

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