The National Print Gallery in Fitzrovia opened a solo show this week of twenty-three works by British artist Darren Coffield (aka "Darcoff", b. 1969). The exhibition is dominated by a series of fourteen large drawings in Indian Ink (‘Face Off Heads’), as well as a handful of other works in different media, including a plasticine maquette and 2 sets of prints (an essential aspect of the remit of the National Print Gallery). All of these works explore a recent strand in Coffield’s oeuvre, a part of his extensive ‘Dead Famous’ series, exploring neuroscience’s fascination in how cognitive process are affected when facial features are turned upside down within the ‘framing’ of the head (which, if you think about it, gives each artwork two frames, as it were). Scientists have discovered that our cognitive processes are different for analysing faces, so therefore while it’s easy to recognise an object turned in any direction, the brain finds it hard to understand the reorganisation of faces. This explains why, when you see someone smiling upside down, the effect is at once both disturbing and hilarious, presumably as your brain attempts also to synthesise extremes of happiness & misery.
Added to this, Coffield chooses iconic images, mainly from the golden age of Hollywood, so there is a further cognitive obsession in figuring out whom the various movie personalities are, and in some cases the subject matter deliberately remains out of the reach of recollection. The show also includes a skull (which can be bought as a limited edition stencil print), which, given the Face Off treatment, easily adopts Prince of Denmark overtones and the swift path to the post war dramatic language of Beckett and Stoppard concerning the psychology of identity.
The ‘Face Off Heads’ are executed in brush and ink reminiscent of the technical perfection of post war commercial artists, and this combined with the subject matter and the exacting hanging of them in the gallery, gives a strong flavour of the look and collectability of cigarette cards. The brushwork is deftly executed, not a hair out of place, with, clearly, a carefully planned technical process which leads up to that point when the brush hits the paper, almost as if delivered by sleight of hand.
Also on display is a significant work, a beautiful, slightly spectral-coloured, canvas of Dirk Bogarde, taking pride of place above the mantelpiece. But I have to say it is the smaller acrylics, on both canvassed & uncanvassed panels, that I’d like to take home with me to add to my own collection (number 2: Paul (Newman?) would do very nicely). I admire Coffield’s soupy background colours, the green and blues. In this sketch format, the paint, though delivered with equal swiftness, feels more relaxed as it catches the grain of the canvas, satisfyingly oversized in proportion to the domestic scaling of the panels.
© 2011 Dody Nash