Saturday, 5 July 2008

The BP Portrait Award 2008

The BP Portrait Award 2008 is the worst yet, a dismal array of photo-realist images: if they were not executed with a spray-gun, they look like it. This annual show at the National Portrait Gallery in London used to be one of the few places left where those still engaged in the skilful use of brush, oil and canvas were recognized. In 2003, this ceased to be the case. I wrote at the time in the Daily Mail:

'This annual show, now in its twenty-second year, performs the invaluable task of reminding us that each generation is bursting with young people still determined to paint people, and to find fresh ways of doing so.

These are the hardy souls who survive the scorn of their supposed teachers at the art schools, where they are often forbidden to draw from the model, and sneered at for painting the world as they see it.

Naturally, they are ignored by the likes of Charles Saatchi and have to scrounge a living without the massive subsidies of the state-sponsored art of the Tate and its Turner Prize parade of charlatans.

And yet… this year I smell a rat. I arrived full of optimism and carried out my usual exercise of spotting the works I admired without looking at the labels or knowing which had won the four awards. The nominations – my four nominations – were: Eddie by Jack Scouller; Jack by Toby Wiggins; Self-portrait, postman by Jason Walker; and Libby Sheldon by Emma Wesley. And my winner is… Emma Welsey for her portrait of Libby Sheldon.

Well, I was wrong, wasn’t I? At least so far as the official awards are concerned. Not one of my winners picked up any of the awards, from the £25,000 first prize to the £1,000 fourth. The trouble, I discovered, is that I was still judging the pictures on the ludicrously old-fashioned basis of how well they were painted.

Three of the official prizes all went to images of slick hyper-realistic trickery that look suspiciously as though they were painted with a spray-gun on top of a colour transparency projected onto canvas. Technically, it is clever, of course, just as spray-painting a stolen vehicle has to be cleverly done. But without the excitement of the brush mark on the canvas, it is all sterile stuff. Only the fourth prize looked as though it had any life in it, and there the brush had actually intervened.

This "snap, enlarge and spray" method is not a new trick, not by any means. And judging by the evidence of this competition it is the predominant technique now taught in the colleges, and approved by the BP judges. It has long been the only kind of realistic art approved by the Tate, and the winner adhered to that dubious formula…'

That was 2003. Now, in 2008, there are NO worthwhile portraits in this selection that have been made by traditional brushwork. It is not that excellent examples of this kind of painting do not exist. They still continue to be made, in the teeth of official discouragement. It is that they have been here, as everywhere else, deliberately excluded. Such artists are now 'non-people'. As a result, the once-marvellous BP Portrait Award no longer serves any useful purpose.