The Artist Revealed

Christmas Self Portrait Exhibition

December 22 - January 4 2013

The theme for this year’s annual group Christmas exhibition is self portraiture. Predictably, it initially presented some consternation for many artists, particularly those of an abstract, non-representational persuasion. But true to their innate creativity and enthusiasm for a challenge, the outcomes are immensely innovative and as diverse as individual styles of expression.

Although self portraits have been made since the earliest times, it was not until the Renaissance and the advent of affordable mirrors that artists frequently depicted themselves. Henceforth, the History of Art became synonymous with the History of Artists. The self portrait continues to be one of the richest and most fascinating of genres and the list of artists who have painted themselves is exhaustive.

More complex and meaningful than a mere likeness of the artist’s countenance, self portraiture is a manifestation of self-identity. It presents a ‘face to the world’ in which the force of a private personality exerts itself. The exhibition permits us a peek into our artists’ lives, surroundings and states of being. In celebration of the season, Martin Edge’s self portrait has him at the North Pole in a Santa Suit. To better express the sparkling quality of that magical, frosty realm, Martin experimented with the textural markings of a palette knife. His wide smile is painted pink instead of the usual red “on account of the cold.” That smile and the vibrant colours are evidence of Martin’s irrepressible humour and zest for life.

There is something strangely evocative about Corinne Lewis’s Untitled self portrait. Maybe it’s the pearl earring that triggers an indeterminate association? No, not Vermeer’s famous painting she tells, but Pino Daenio’s The Gift was the inspiration behind her work. It is not surprising, given Corinne’s fascination with bygone glamour and vintage costume. She has loosely portrayed herself in the attire and pose of Pino’s young woman who proffers a precious teapot. Corinne’s portrait differs in that she faces the opposite direction and an errant tress of hair tumbles from the turban. The teapot cupped in Corinne’s hands is similarly special having once belonged to her grandmother.

Contrary to the majority of her fellow artists whose portraits we can identify through style, Melitta Perry’s Staged Reveal is quite unexpected. It gives us insight into an aspect of Melitta that differs from her usual very capable, ‘khaki pants and desert-booted’ outback adventurer persona. “I have always loved the sound of Edith Piaff echoing out over the desert night through the torch-lit nylon of my tent,” she confides. “There is a beautiful, incongruous theatre to it. The portrait reveals this feminine side of me, gingerly taking the stage.”

Specific facial features have not been important for the artists who chose to reveal themselves through their practice and processes. Stephen Nothling is renowned for exquisite renditions of flowers in full bloom. His Rose Painting portrait depicts him in the stance and garb of a gardener cultivating his favoured subject. Personifying his total absorption in the creative act, Stephen’s face has assumed the form of a many-petalled rose. The focus of Steve Tyerman’s self portrait Headland, is not so much on himself as “the picture within the picture” he is making at Cabarita Beach. We cannot see his face, and there is no need, for he is too is depicting self-revelation through his imagery. The choice of subject and the means of capturing it, tells us a great deal about the person wielding the brush, or in Steve’s case, the palette knife. His distinctive thick, buttery textures are most evident in the picture’s easel-mounted painting while the scene it describes is rendered with a contrasting flat, washy treatment. The work cleverly demonstrates how the artist amplifies observed reality and turns it into Art. We instantly recognise Simon Collins in his portrait Self despite the obliterated facial features. The heavy blackness of the shadows and slashes are enlivened and counteracted by the utter confidence of Simon’s characteristic, exceedingly active application of oil and enamel onto board. John Cottrell’s approach to painting is completely different. To create a picture of himself that was consistent with his hard edge oeuvre, he ingeniously made use of modern technology in his Self Portrait #1. An app on his iphone provided the inspiration for the triangulated fragmentation of the image. 

Other artists have been even more reticent in portraying their actual countenances, preferring to let a body part allude to some aspect of themselves. In Jodie Well’s lusciously textured painting it is simply a shoulder. Perched most regally upon it is Ivy, the family’s pet cockatiel “who rules the house.” The bird’s bright colour and mood-disclosing crest parallels the artist’s alertness to all that is vital in one’s everyday surrounds. Cornelia Burless has also opted for the portrayal of just a body portion. She explains that her work Part of Me - Hand, represents that which is universal rather than unique about her. Cornelia’s ongoing investigation into Old Master techniques and subjects is evident in the pose and fine modelling of form. To illustrate the “idea of continuity and change” traditional realism is juxtaposed with a contemporary, highly expressionistic treatment of the background. The symbolism of the subtly embellished staff is manifold, denoting her roles as “artist, mother, herder, organiser and provider.”    

A melancholic, almost ‘vanitas’ air suffuses Margaret Ackland’s Still Life. It portrays her late father’s returned spectacles, minus a lens, placed inadvertently on a painting of a lifeless bird. Quite by chance she’d glimpsed her own image reflected in the single lens. Margaret speaks of that sudden encounter as prompting thoughts of the poignance of life’s fleeting passage, including her own. Christian Morrow’s The Pessimist presents a more direct ‘memento mori’ image. Tinges of sombre musings may also be discerned in Nick Ashby’s Portrait on Lightbulb Boxes. We see again Nick’s very creative use of “ephemeral media”. He describes depicting his multiple faces on discarded cardboard packaging as signifying the fragility of not only the outer material world, but also the interior world of psyche and memory: “Both are liable to break down and reconstitute over time to produce a different narrative.”

Perhaps the most intriguing manifestation of self belongs to Callum Douglas’s Dochira Sama Desu Ka? It is a profoundly revelatory work despite the barest trace of his physical presence. With a gift for the written word matching the delicacy of his visual image-making, Callum relates how the foreign language title is a means of introducing the viewer into his theme of the discomforting unknown. “We are constantly discovering things about ourselves that once lay hidden below the surface of a muddy pool. Upon wrenching them out, they are sometimes not what we expected and so must endeavour to understand them in a new light. Not monsters, but scary all the same - a mishmash of things that make up who and what we are.” With a smidgeon of wry humour Callum concludes, “The work’s title is the politest way the Japanese language allows one to ask ‘who are you?’ When confronting an unfamiliar beast it’s always best to be polite, and apprehensive.”

Space restricts an elucidation of the many more fascinating works in the exhibition, Peta Houghton’s ‘Geminian’ double portraits and Nick Howson’s Here’s Looking at You being standouts. There are even a few quite notable sculptural interpretations of Self. Suffice to say, it is a most interesting and intriguing experience to gaze upon the ‘face to the world’ each artist has chosen to reveal.


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