The genre ‘portraiture’ is as open ended as the limitless expanses of landscape, history painting, still lifes, and abstract: yet while on paper the BP award is as thematically open, and democratically open to everyone to enter, whether amateur or professional, the selection, style and favouritism remains curiously conservative and hideously prescriptive.
I’ve been several years in a row, and the same artists pop up year in, year out, doing the same style, same pose and sometimes even with the same sitter. All papers have noted Michael Gaskells appearance as third time runner up (surely more obvious notice than ever that quite nice but not quite enough!?). While open to amateurs and professionals, the judges somehow always manage to select the already successful professionals: the style is very much Art-School realism with a handful of the embarrassing but strangely fashionable naïve works thrown in. Occasionally the odd self-taught true original shines through – you can spot a self-taught a mile off as the style is refreshingly new and organically grown independently of boring neo-hyper-photo-realism – yet of these there are even examples which have truly ‘made it’ in being comfortably selected each year. Check out the guy whose USP is tempera. Good, but it was good the fifth time I bloody saw it.
This is not to argue against technical skill. Anyone that reads Artbytch regularly will be bored to tears of my constant flag waving for the dying art (haha) of keeping one’s hand steady and applying hard graft and good draughtsmanship. The point is, in this genre of portraiture (which incidentally is specified in the BP rules to not be from photographs), to simply replicate with photorealism a sitter completely undermines painting as an art form in that it gives no expression to artistic vision: we know nothing of the painter or sitter through brushwork. Why not just have a fucking photograph? (And come on, one look at this year’s winner: it’s quite clearly been done from a photograph, just like most of the other hyperreal pieces, with the gradation of focus included.)
Of course, one guaranteed way to get selected is to paint someone famous. Year on year we’ve had Boy George, Michael Rosen, Peter Capaldi, Bob Geldof. When you’re sponsored by greasy behemoths BP, this – along with the most easy to understand type of skill: “OMG it looks like a photograph, this must be the most talented artist” – is a sure fire way of demonstrating funding well spent. The appearance of celebrities, above all other factors including skill, narrative (i.e. story vs straight portrait vs mugshot) demonstrates an outdated dinosaur of a competition in which the playing field is not so much level as a slippery oil slick.
Image: Bob Geldof 2015 Nathalie Beauvillain Scott BP Portrait Awards image courtesy of the artist