Musings on the BP Portrait Award 2013: Carl Randall

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’.

ShibuyaLRG

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.

Carl-Randall---Firefiles-LRG

BP Portrait Award 2013 exhibition from now until 15 September 2013 at National Portrait Gallery London. Free admission

Thoughts on Taylor Wessing portraits: framing the everyday

Among this year’s Taylor Wessing photography prize shortlisted entries, the portraits that draw me most are those that frame and articulate the offguarded moments of people, revealing the poetic quality in off-stage, everyday rituals. James Russell Cant’s picture Heather and Her Friends captures a candid moment of teenagers fascinated by online contents: the hypnotised looks in their eyes, coupled with the clever manipulation of light coming from the computer, reflect people’s attraction to mainstream consumption, to  readymade information… I am also very fond of Maru, a piece by Annie Collinge, showing a close-up portrait of a young Japanese girl. The character’s permed hair and flushed face combine with the inquisitive, dreamy look to conjure an impression of youthful adventure and self-fashioning, emphasising the power of individuality in a fast-paced, indifferent cosmopolitan society. It is definitely worth checking out the artist’s remarkable portfolio on her website, especially Scottee and The Underwater Mermaid.

Kamil Szkopi‘s portrait, Jenny, offers a refreshing interpretation of the offguard moment of a fashion model. The pure blue background is strikingly effective, and frames the model’s introspective and expectant gaze.  One can find an interesting dialogue between this portrait with Alice Pavesi Fiori’s Lola Smoking, an impressionistic painterly piece that focuses on self-narrative and history. Hilary Mantel‘s portrait by Michael Birt, however, is slightly disappointing. A lucid image of the Man Booker prize winner posed on the beach of Budleigh Salterton, Devon, the red hat, bright lipstick and chic cape are too distracting, making the portrait appear rather upstaged and deliberate.

The Ventriloquist by Alma Hasler, which has won the fourth prize, stands out as a strikingly original piece, with the unsettling intimacy between two people with identical haircut and similar facial expressions.

The Ventriloquist by Alma Haser © Alma Haser (4th Prize)
The Ventriloquist by Alma Haser © Alma Haser (4th Prize)

The winning portrait by Ruiz Cirera, a 28-year-old London-based Spanish photographer, features a woman in Bolivia seated in front of a kitchen table, looking directly at the camera, her gaze tinged with curiosity and uncertainty, her left hand partially shading her lips as if showing her reluctance to be photographed. While I find quite a few of the other portraits in the exhibition equally well-composed, this realist portrait requires an active response from the viewer, and conveys authenticity as a piece of photojournalism.

Image
Margarita Teichroeb by Jordi Ruiz Cirera © Jordi Ruiz Cirera (1st Prize)

I also adore the texture and storytelling in the work Christopher and Harriet by Laura Cooper. The self-assurance and expression in the young girl’s face against the home setting is powerfully rendered. There’s something in her inquiring, precocious look that generates mystery, and makes one curious about her childhood dreams and experiences.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2012 from 8 November 2012 – 17 February 2013 at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

images courtesy of National Portrait Gallery

Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize

On days when I work in the art gallery office, I like to prop the Taylor Wessing Photographic Prize postcard on my desk near the computer screen. Wafa by Felix Carprio, the portrait of the young Muslim woman fascinates me, with her embroidered green headpiece and her demure, timeless and placid smile.

Another gripping image is the artpiece Portrait of my British Wife by Panayiotis Lamprou, which won the second prize. Taken on an island of the Aegean Sea, it is a shockingly intimate portrait, with the woman only half dressed, revealing her private parts. The picture unsettles the viewer by giving one so much detail, exposing the highly intimate relationship between the photographed and the photographer.

The £12,000 award is presented to David Chancellor for an image on a young huntress with her prey. The sense of freedom glimpsed in the expansive landscape, coupled with the reserved, proud and almost heroic gaze of the young huntress, contrast with the irrevocable, disturbing stillness of the carcass. I admire the painting-like composition of the image, and the non-judgmental perspective of the photograph that seems to represent killing as a fact, neither romanticizing nor criticising the act.

 

A closer look sheds light on the relevance of professional practice and training in photography. While digital photography using auto function compacts has been made easier and more accessible than ever, one will notice many of the showcased photographers have worked in art-related roles for many years, especially in image production, submitting to magazines, competitions and photography salons from time to time. The value of experience. Meanwhile, the assessment for such prizes is questioned (for details, see FT’s article). I admit, though I like a handful of the entries, I find some not as riveting, perhaps even a little too casual in their efforts to represent a subject or person.

The collection of photos are exhibited from now until February 2011 at the National Portrait Gallery.