Peter Blake, Portraits and People, now in its final week at Waddington Custot, was on my priority list for my last few visits to London. I finally made it down! On entering the first room, which consists of portraits of famous people, famous to those who know their names and faces, of note: the Queen, followed by actors, musicians, and denizens of the art world – executed in a style that could be called realism capturing the sitters’ likeness with delicacy and aplomb. As the assistant behind the desk in the gallery kindly explains, they are mostly done from photographs.
The next room contains a series of portraits of professional wrestlers, many tattooed, some in masks, with their fictitious stage names written on the bottom, executed with delicacy and aplomb in a style that could be called realism. These, too, are famous to their fans who are familiar with their fictitious personae that throw fake punches and roll around the ground in feigned pain. The gallery assistant behind the desk again kindly explains that the faces are modelled on a composite of photographs of other people’s faces, and that the wrestlers do not exist at all. Professional wrestling is fake, the portraits are fake, and I think, this is realism void of reality.
Images of images of things that don’t really exist in the first place, and I wonder what it is that I’m seeing here. Then I return to the first room, and wonder what it is that I’m seeing there, realist portraits of people, or paintings of photographs of the masks of public personae, and wonder if there is much difference between the two.
Later that evening, Celebrity Big Brother is on television but I don’t recognise any of these so called famous people, currently more famous than most of the portraits of those who have made significant contributions to our culture. As I watch their tears and tantrums, they remind me of those fake, composite portraits of wrestlers in masks throwing fake punches and rolling around on the ground in feigned pain, and I think, Peter Blake has really nailed it.
Peter Blake: Portraits and People: Waddington Custot Galleries 11 Cork Street, London W1S 3LT Until January 30, 2016
Zev Robinson is an artist, filmmaker, and writer currently working on The Art and Politics of Eating project Here