Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Worst Paintings in London

For as long as I can remember I have had a very physical response to art, and I sometimes feel overwhelming excitement in front of something truly thrilling. Take me to the Van Gogh room in the Musee d'Orsay for example and I'm wide-eyed with wonder and brimming with tears, with a fluttering of butterflies in my stomach and a breathlessness in my chest. Sometimes I have to steal myself: I get overwhelming urges to run around or shout, like a sort of artistic tourettes. If this wasn't bad enough, my face screws up looking at pictures, and I squint terribly, as though straining to read or connect (this is of course exactly what is happening), and sometimes rock to and fro, or hunch up and dance slightly. All of this makes me look mad and can occasionally mean security takes an interest.

Oh, and I get very impatient with crowds: I really hate those shuffing packs of tourists with their rucksacks and sound-guides, whose only experience of art is through the receiving end of a handycam lens. In fact, thinking about viewing really great art, I would go as far as to say that I can think of no other experience in life that can make my heart sing with joy but also turns me into a murderous fascist at the same time. But for me that's the signal of good art: my emotional alarms go off and the work affects me. The overriding feeling is the enjoyment of sharing in the thing that another person has created. The work has added something to my understanding of myself and the world. It's a joyful feeling and I feel richer for it.

Unfortunately I felt no such enrichment at the BP Portrait Award yesterday. I've been to loads of them now and they're always pretty dire, but this year's is car-crash awful. I should know not to go. It's almost like a little private torture I put myself through every year. Luckily i went thirty minutes before closing-time, so the exposure was shortlived, but it was enough to have me reeling round the room in a stupor of disgust.

Pretty much the first picture I was confronted with was a boring portrait of an artist in his studio, surrounded by motifs symbolic of the various stages of his artistic development. An idea so obvious it could have come off a GCSE syllabus. I began to spit blood... Then row after row of rather flat likenesses, dead-looking models and subjects wistfully gazing into the middle distance out of badly over-varnished canvases with too-big signatures (signatures!). All sort of flat, and bored and grey. One silly old fuck had even continued the painting onto the sides of the canvas for God's sake like something off the fence at Green Park (mind you in this show that's pushing the envelope). If you saw most of this crap in a provincial gallery in Godalming or Tunbridge Wells you wouldn't give it a second glance. The crowd seemed pleased, but 'the crowd' aways needs a collective shake. Cooing and Ahhing as they were over photographic copies, most even bearing the carefully studied sheen of the Snappy Snaps lab and, in one painting (Gabrielle Groves' 'Manuel'), the horrid glow of a photo taken under florescent light without a flash. Why paint something that mimics a photograph? To show how skillfully one can copy flat colour? Oh, and my stomach lurched when confronted with the double horror of Benjamin Sulllivan's triptych together with Lucie Cookson's 'Her Name is Rio': They are tributes to the sitters, but they do not remind us what it means to be alive. That, surely, has to be the point of art.

But it's not all bad. Well, actually it is, but there IS one picture worth seeing: It's by Arth Daniels and called 'WordtoMother'. It's a portrait of Arth's college friend Tom Park aka graffiti artist 'WordtoMother'. Tom has an intense, direct gaze; he is wearing a basball cap, with his jutting chin propped on a tattooed hand, gritting his teeth playfully at the viewer. He's set against a sketchy suggestive landscape painted in a stained oil that throws Tom's features forward. It's a very immediate piece. It also has a more interesting handling of paint than many of the other participants. Rather than being still and flat, or smooth and blurry and suffocating under varnish (see Craig Wylie's awful winning pink cardigan), the paint of Tom's face has a liveliness to it. It's probably the only alive face in a room full of dead ones.

But back to the dross, I just do not see the point of an art that seeks to recreate the quality of a photograph. Perhaps the museum should consider changing the show to 'The Realist Prize' or 'Annual Copyist Award'? Tellingly, in this month's Art Review, the sponsors BP have bylined their full-page ad with something like 'Snap up a Portrait', or 'Make it Snappy' or somesuch, which suggests to me that the overbaring photo bias has at long last seeped into the the PR's creative spins. 'The Annual Photo Painters' here we come!... Time was however when the Portrait Award banned the use of photography and you had to paint from life. The show was better in those days.

This show is so bad I was seriously considering leafleting it but the gallery has redeemed itself by opening Wyndham Lewis: Portraits. So if you want to see meaningful views of others go to that instead. But go and see Arth Daniels' picture. It's the only good thing there.