AUGUST CHALLENGE DAY 7
For the Silly Season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of the month and blogging about it.
Friday 7 August
Exhibition: Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Prize 2015
Place: Piano Nobile, King’s Place
A self-portrait prize is a good way of taking the temperature of the nation’s painters, a sort of straw poll of their mood and in particular their levels of confidence. From the pervading glumness among the 100 entries for this year’s Ruth Burchard Prize you would think, in this age of conceptual art, that it is not very high. I only noticed one, a triptych by Darren Coffield, in which the self-sitter is laughing and showing his teeth. In many others a blank, slightly stoned look prevails, but where emotion is evident, it’s mostly plain misery.
But perhaps it is nothing to do with the relegation of painters in the artistic hierarchy, but something inherent in self-portraiture. Rembrandt is the gold standard and his self-portraits are as much meditations on mortality as anything else. That means that the self-portrait is in its nature a deeply serious, even perilous project in which truth is looked at in the eye and the self-image is exposed to the vulgar gaze. To say this in a slightly different way, the self-portrait is distinguished from portraits in general because it should not be done to please the market. You don’t paint yourself to make money but to put on record who you think you are.
There is exact gender balance in the show at King’s Place: 50 female artists and 50 male. As for gender difference there is some ammunition for a feminist reading. On this evidence men, are more likely to exhibit hubris and use their painting to big themselves up. Perhaps the most egregious example is Tai Shan Shierenberg’s Self-Portrait as Max Beckmann, in which the tuxedoed artist displays double hubris, since he fancies himself not only as the German Expressionist, but also as James Bond. An equally risk-taking canvas is that of Craig Wylie, who paints himself photorealistically nude from the viewpoint of the floor. This is how Narcissus saw himself in the reflecting pool, a beautiful bollock-naked specimen.
Is it also hubris in David Caldwell to paint himself in competition with Van Gogh, the artist perched just below Rembrandt in self-portraiture’s ladder of excellence? Caldwell’s style is nothing like Vincent’s, and nor would the Dutchman have used the artistic conceit of showing three still-life mantelpiece objects reflected in the mirror in which Caldwell is also scrutinizing his own reflection. Caldwell seems to be quite pleased with the versatile way in which he can absorb and show off his artistic influences.
Not all the men feel this good, though. Marco Livingstone expresses how he feels about himself by using a dartboard for a canvas, Simon Davis takes refuge in male eccentricity and disguise, with his flying helmet and waxed moustaches, and Adam Birtwhistle suggests that he doesn’t even begin to understand what he finds when he looks in the mirror.
But it’s the women who really specialize in low self-esteem. In one or two cases they’re actually self-effacing. Nora Walker and Lisa Stokes look frankly damaged. Rebecca Harper shows herself on her knees with arms outstretched, Tabitha Steinberg’s fragmented vision of her face is as disturbed as it is startling and Jackie Edwards’s forehead has the word MUG printed on it.
In Cherry Pickles’s full-length, she is reflected in a mirror which (like Velazquez’s in Las Meninas) shows the back of the canvas she’s working on. But she lacks her hero’s steady gaze and confident posture. Half-naked, perching precariously on a stool and swigging straight from a wine bottle, she is drunk and vulnerable. But the self-pity is tempered by defiance, and I like that.
A question this exhibition prompts is whether the would-be self-portraitist is better served by a mirror or camera. The selfie is certainly more convenient, and offers a wider possibilities in terms of pose and viewpoint – not to mention the not unimportant detail of enabling you to get your face the right way around. But still it’s the mirror that produces the most thoughtful and intense responses, not only reflecting but making the artist reflect. The selfie is instant, momentary, throwaway; the mirror is with you all your life.