Among the exhibits this year, what touches me most is the set of commissioned work by Carl Randall, featuring modern life in Japan.
Having spent years in Japan, his paintings of Japanese city workers are marked by keenness of observation and his authentic interpretation of Asian lifestyle. Frequently using flattened images and creating crowds out of homogeneous faces, his paintings such as ‘Shinjuku’ recalls what it feels to live in Asia, or Japan: a pent-up feeling of isolation and homogeneity arising from the lack of personal space, as one dissolves into the crowd, into the world’s busiest metro station, like ‘petals on a wet, black bough’.
I am especially drawn to the figure of the contemplative young girl sitting by herself in the cafe, positioned in the top right corner of the monochrome painting ‘Shibuya’.
Wearing a striped t-shirt and holding a cup of tea, there is a dreamy gaze about her, as she looks out of the full-length window at the colourful skyscrapers and billboards. Around her, other city workers and a young couple are immersed in their own conversations, and yet this particular girl in the corner seems to be a pivot in the picture, a figure that represents the complexity of the hidden self, the suppressed loneliness and unspoken dreams within. The geisha-looking actress featured on the skyscraper billboard deepens the sense of nostalgia and the surreal. ‘Shibuya’ engages in a very interesting dialogue with ‘Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar‘, a stark portraiture of Japanese diners. The diners all look rather worn out and bored, and the bowl of freshly prepared ramen seems to become a poignant symbol, a comforting ritual, as food consumption becomes a welcome escape from sheer boredom and life’s worries.
As seen from his documentary made in Japan, his paintings are based on numerous close-up observation sessions and sketches of subjects in real life settings, rather than from photographs or replica:
As a wonderful contrast to his realist, caricatured paintings of city workers, the exhibit ‘Fireflies’ is perfect in form and technique. In the darkness of the night, far away from the built-up area of the city, the two girls look at the glow of the fireflies. The motif of the fireflies recalls the animation Grave of the Fireflies or ‘Hotaru no haka’ (1998), directed by Isao Takahata, which highlights the struggle of young children in wartime Japan and their unvanquished, persevering spirit. The faraway moon, the reflection from the glowing fireflies on the girls’ faces, and the mellow light coming from countryside houses, are imbued with a poetic sense of harmony, celebrating the value of innocence, tenderness and hope.
BP Portrait Award 2013 exhibition from now until 15 September 2013 at National Portrait Gallery London. Free admission