Still life with chair (and Sophocles), Oil on Canvas, 48 x 30 inches
Just before Christmas I was asked to talk to The Attic, part of Obelisk Legal Solutions, about my portraits. The talk ended up being much more philosophical than I had envisioned, and made me ask myself why I paint portraits at all. But before I dealt with that question, I had to answer another one: what exactly is a portrait? In my head at least, portraiture is a very broad category, the reason for this is that I’m very anthropomorphic when I paint still life. Often, my reason for painting a still life is that I don’t have a model – in other words, I’m trying to replace a human being. This painting of a chair is a good example: it’s an inanimate object, but rich in human associations. I found it on a rubbish tip behind my local library (no doubt the library has replaced it with a nice plastic chair). After I brought it home, I did what I often do with props: I let it sit in my studio for a very long time before I painted it.
Studio props need time to settle in. I have a collection of favourite props. The blue dressing-gown is one. I’ve painted both my father and myself in it. The vases on the windowsill have been hanging out in the studio for at least a decade. The plant is relatively new, but has shown itself to be tough and durable (both necessary qualities for surviving under my plant-care regime). The bust of Sophocles belonged to a friend who kept it outside on his balcony (I salvaged it when his flat was being cleared after his death). I had had the bust for many years when one day I happened to turn it over and discovered that there was a bird’s nest inside it. All these ‘human’ factors’ make me feel as though I’m painting a portrait – or even a group portrait – rather than just a still life.
Although I tried to convince my audience at Obelisk that a still life was just a portrait in disguise, they weren’t having it; so I put that argument to one side, and asked them whether they thought a painting of a person which did not show that person’s eyes was a portrait. They had a good answer: that kind of portrait is voyeuristic, and therefore not really a portrait – a portrait is a picture of a person where the artist and the sitter are engaged with each other. That’s why it’s often important to be able to see the sitter’s eyes.
I agree with all of this up to a point. One of the first things I have to decide when painting someone is whether to have them looking at me or looking somewhere else (e.g. out of the window). If they are looking at me, there is an automatic engagement, but getting them to look elsewhere can be a good way of making them less guarded and self-conscious, all of which is good, because ultimately my aim is to see behind any social mask, to see the human factor.
The discussion about the importance of eyes, gave me an excellent segue to show them the portrait I did of my friend George Amponsah, a documentary film-maker, which featured in the BP portrait awards back in 2003. The eyes were particularly important in this picture. Not long before I painted it, I had watched the Woody Allen film ‘Broadway Danny Rose’. I found it intriguing that Mia Farrow played the lead role without ever removing her sunglasses. When I painted George I let his eyes be almost completely obscured by the reflection on his glasses. I felt that having a partial mask could, far from hiding a person’s true nature, be in itself an expression of human vulnerability.
George is himself a great exponent of ‘the human factor’. His latest film, The Hard Stop, recently nominated for a National Film Award, follows the lives of two friends of the late Mark Duggan in the aftermath of his killing (the killing, by police, that sparked the Tottenham riots). The film was partly criticised in the Evening Standard for being one-sided (‘…this fascinating, well-shot, strongly committed and wholly unbalanced documentary on Duggan’s death and his friends and family in Tottenham’). But to me this was missing the point. The film was openly, deliberately one-sided. This gave it time to focus on the job of humanising a part of society that is too often de-humanised. This seems to me to be the hallmark of all George’s films. Not a kind of PC ‘let’s not be judgemental’ – more a willingness and an openness to see beyond superficial appearances at the struggling human being underneath.
You can see a trailer for The Hard Stop here.