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BP Portrait Award 2011 - The Worst Year Yet?

Posted in Exhibitions / Openings / Signings by Suzanne on June 28th, 2011 | BBC Wikipedia

Holly by Louis Smith with help from Carmel Said (pictured without gilt frame), oil on canvas, 3.64 x 2.43 meters - click to enlarge

I wish I could say it nicely, but I really can't - I would have to lie. This year's BP Portrait Award was pretty shit.

I'm not sure whether it had to do with the jury being useless (probably, judging by the first prize winner. WTF?!), art supplies getting more expensive and everyone using shit paints with motives ending up looking very old and dusty or whether artists were just too busy with other commissions that actually made cash money and sent in that canvas they wanted to give grandma for her birthday.

Who knows? All I know is that it was the worst BP Award show I've been to in 5 years. And it wasn't just uninspired and rushed, the majority of the works on display also didn't impress in a technical manner when at least the photorealistic faction of painters always excelled in previous years. This year, even photorealism looked rather cheap and projected.

I spent a long time thinking whether it was me being in a bad mood or whether it was really the selection of works and after talking to many other visitors, I had to come to the cruel conclusion that it was indeed the works and I therefore blame the jury for this dreadful show, as surely, they must have gotten hundreds of submissions more exciting than what was displayed. That, or portrait painting is dead. (It's not, silly!)

There were a handful of works that managed to catch my attention for longer than 2 seconds, amongst them Nathan Ford's Abi (his small-scale works are actually a very nice exception every year) and Richard Brazier's piece David Carter At Home, which had both class and heart. It was also great to see Wen Wu's work again who was present with the gorgeous Venus As A Boy. Mary-Jane Ansell was sorely missed this year as her work would have set a welcome counterpoint to all the greasy hair and flaky skin (yeah, I get the "realism" and "documentary character" of it all, thankyouverymuch, but I can see that every morning when I look in the mirror and my T-Zone shines back at me.)

Amongst those mentioned above, there were two that stuck with me. One of them was David Eichenberg's Jade (below). He's clearly come a very long way since his last few submissions.

Jade (The Rehearsal) by David Eichenberg, oil on board, 48 cm (diameter) - click to enlarge

The other one, Holly by Louis Smith (top), won the 2nd jury prize - which I believe had way more to do with the actual size of the piece (3.64 x 2.43 meters), the enormous gilt frame and epic inscription H O L L Y, the Mark Rydenification of a mythological scene re-enacted in a superflat studio surrounding and the grotesquely exaggerated neo-romanticism of the subject. Even a person as kitschproof as I felt slightly sick inside when having to admit that this was indeed - and by far - the best piece.

Weird how the exhibition text and the artist kept underlining how it was all inspired by Prometheus when Andromeda would have been a logically and mythologically closer option. NEVERMIND.

Jonathan Jones (who was in the jury this year) goes a step further and states in the Guardian:

"The jury argued frenetically over this one painting but I wonder why my opponents failed to point out that it is the kind of painting Adolf Hitler might have loved. A nude, an eagle, a mountain vista – all that would have gone down great at Berchtesgaden."

I couldn't have found better words and you'd have to agree with him if you stood right there, dwarfed, in front of it.

For those interested in technique, the in-progress story of the piece can be witnessed here.

The exhibition continues until mid-September. Further details below.

On show: Jun 16 - Sep 18, 2011

Address: National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2H 0HE, United Kingdom, tel: 44 (0) 20 7306 0055 | Map

Gallery hours: Sat - Wed: 10 AM - 6 PM, Thu - Fri: 10 AM - 9 PM

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4 comments to " BP Portrait Award 2011 - The Worst Year Yet? "

  1. Gravatar

    Lori Field says:

    I was so frustrated trying to enter this portrait competition. They won't recognize paintings that aren't done in oil or acrylic. So, that left my medium of encaustic paint, ineligible. I wrote to them about it, and they apologized but said they have no plans on changing the rules anytime soon. I think egg tempera is also included.... but can't remember. Very short sighted, as there are brilliant encaustic painters out there and it is a painting medium that's been around for 2000 years, in use before oil paints were invented. Feh.

    July 14th, 2011 at 9:17 pm

  2. Gravatar

    Suzanne says:

    That's utterly ridiculous but I'm so glad you mentioned this as it finally explains the utter lack of more diverse genres, formats and media!

    I'm really sorry they have turned you down like that, Lori, it would have been amazing to see one of your pieces in the show. It would probably have made it into the visitors' choice, if you ask me.

    But honestly, the judges are ridiculous and it's probably mainly their fault. It'll never change. I've been going there since forever and it's one of the most conservative awards ever.

    Maybe try to get into "Dazed & Refused" next year - it's a show held for those whose work got... well... refused and it's a million times better than the Portrait Awards.

    What really saddened me this year was this incident: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/15/activists-bp-portrait-award

    It could have made such a difference to accept at least a few of those as a sign of open dialogue and chuck out one of the many shitty portraits, but no.

    I should really start boycotting it next year...

    July 14th, 2011 at 9:48 pm

  3. Gravatar

    Lori Field says:

    Oooh, 'Dazed and Refused' that sounds right up the old alley.

    I haven't checked out the saddened link above, will do now.

    I knew BP award was conservative, so is the National Portrait Gallery awards here in the US - I don't believe they accept encaustic either but I can't remember.

    Plus, didn't BP destroy the Gulf of Mexico - time to boycott them for that as well.

    July 15th, 2011 at 1:49 am

  4. Gravatar

    Suzanne says:

    Yes, that's what the article discusses. There have been protests against the BP sponsorship deal for many years outside the National Portrait Gallery now.

    July 15th, 2011 at 4:34 pm

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