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Posts tagged ‘BP Portrait Award’

Carl Randall steals the BP Portrait Show

Like so many of these annual open-submission art prizes, the annual BP sponsored National Portrait Gallery BP Portrait Award is very often a bit samey. Each year you get the same collection of oversized hyper-realistic magnified photo-like portraits, showing a person’s every vein and blood vessel, the sparkle in their eye and the grey in their hair. While these works undoubtedly demonstrate an often astonishing skill for painting photographically, the same does not automatically equate to a work’s having any artistic merit. Is it original? Does its composition have the power to move or inspire? Is the sitter’s story told in some original or dynamic way? Give me the coarsely applied brush strokes and unrealistic green-tinted skin of a Van Gogh portrait any day. If a painting looks like a photo, then in my view it should remain a photo.

This year’s BP show has its fair share of these oversized gormless faces filling the walls in all their unappetising detail, as well as a few rather questionable works – the kind which have been executed so badly that the old “my child could have done that” exasperated statement seems a little inadequate. But happily, this year’s BP Award also offers up some truly ground breaking and original work, paintings whose execution is so accomplished that you find yourself staring closely to find a single line of these meticulously detailed works out of place; works which have been composed with such imagination, insight and at times humour, that the entire collection of the National Portrait Gallery should be bypassed before first indulging in these paintings.

Hakone (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Hakone (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

Amusement Park (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Amusement Park (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

Sushi (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Sushi (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

I am talking about the works of Carl Randall, a British born and trained artist, but whose work is so immersed in Japanese culture, that my assumption for at least the first 10 minutes of being mesmerised by his works was that he originated from Japan. For despite his London Slade training, Randall took inspiration when spending time in Japan following his receipt of the prestigious Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation scholarship which he won in 2003. This enabled him to continue his painting career in Tokyo, during which time he was selected to be artist in residence in Hiroshima city (to document survivors of the Atomic Bomb) and he was chosen to represent Japan as artist in residence at the 2007 Formula 1 Races. From there continued what is quite evidently a love affair with modern Japanese culture, which he has since captured in multiple brilliant canvases and sketches which show Japan in all its quirky, colourful and inimitable character.

Shoe Shop (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Shoe Shop (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

Fireflies (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Fireflies (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

Electric Tokyo (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Electric Tokyo (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

I was first acquainted with Randall’s work at last year’s BP Portrait Award, when his black and white painting of some glum-faced melancholic city residents sitting up at a sushi-bar on a commonplace working day (Mr.Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar) won him the BP 2012 Travel Award. This enabled Randall to return to Japan, and undertake a new artistic adventure, painting a new collection entitled ‘In the footsteps of Hiroshige: Portraits of Modern Japan’, which are exhibited at this year’s show.

Mr Kitazawa's Noodle Bar (oil on canvas © Carl Randall)

Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar (oil on canvas © Carl Randall)

I urge all those living in, and passing through London to head to the BP Portrait Award just to look at these brilliant paintings which are both evocative of modern Japan, but also verge on the slightly surreal and idealistic, a sense captured by Randall’s portrayal of slightly deformed head shapes and frequently distorted proportions, as well as his use of vivid colouration and quixotic backdrops. This for me produces the perfect combination of compositional originality and skillful figurative narration. Some, like Randall’s cerulean-coloured Onsen almost remind me of Hockney but with, dare I say it, a more refined execution and altogether superior finish, while his homage to sumo wrestling (Sumo) contains an almost parodied exploration of light and shadow, the likes of which was so central to the atmosphere created in George Bellows’ boxing works, recently shown at the Royal Academy.

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Photo-realistic, boring, overly magnified these are not – they are true art to my mind – portraiture that tells a real story beyond two eyes, a nose and a mouth. I truly hope that Carl Randall represents the future of British portraiture, and that more works like his will fill the BP Portrait Award in the future.

Shinjuku (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall/

Shinjuku (oil on canvas © Carl Randall. Reproduced with the kind permission of Carl Randall)

The BP Portrait Award is showing at London’s National Portrait Gallery and entry is free. It runs until the 15 September 2013 before touring to the Aberdeen Art gallery from 2 November 2013 to 1 February 2014, followed by the Wolverhampton Art Gallery from 3 March to 14 June 2014.

Carl Randall’s website is well worth a visit – also check out the “Japan Portraits” documentary which provides a fascinating insight into the artist in action. You can also find Carl on facebook and twitter. I would finally recommend the superb book Carl Randall: Japan Portraits which is available from the NPG bookshop.

All images are reproduced from with the kind permission of Carl Randall

BP Portrait Prize – Hyper-photorealism is all very well, but I want to see the Artist’s soul on the canvas

As something of a postscript to my post on Friday about the Queen’s Portrait exhibition is a short note about another exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery, the BP Portrait Prize (It’s clever marketing that requires an exhibition’s integral name to be precursored by the name of an international petrol conglomerate, although I’m not too sure how happy I am having to represent said marketing on my own blog just by nature of naming the exhibition). Anyway, I digress. The exhibition, which is now in its thirty-thid year, features some 55 works selected from an open submission of 2,187 international entrants. The sole requirement of entry is that the work is a portrait, painted in the last year.

The height of photorealism – Lindsay Lohan © Ben Ashton (2012)

This year, like most years before it, the Judges of the Prize seem to have been unashamedly seduced by the skills of artists painting photorealistically, rather than with soul. It’s now as predicable an aspect of this show as the British summer is full of rain that when you wander into the exhibition, you double-take, wondering whether you have strolled into a photography exhibition rather than a painting one. The artist paints so fantastically well, and plies his craft with such faultless skill, that one cannot see a single brush stroke and one would swear blind, even upon being 10 centimetres distance from the canvas, that this is a photo before you. This is all very well – there is no denying the skill, and absolute kudos needs to be given to these artists for executing the works with such sophistication – but the problem for me is that, if I wanted to see an exhibition of photos, I would be elsewhere. It is also, to my mind, the inherent problem of the annual offerings of the BP Portrait Prize, and what, for me, makes it all a bit boring.

These paintings do not look like paintings, and as such they do not strike me as bursting with the emotional impact that a very paint-plastered canvas exudes. In the manic multitude of Van Gogh’s plentiful brush strokes, you can identify with the bursts of energy expressed by the artist when he went about executing the work, while in the fragmented, abstracted portraits of Picasso, you can identify with an artist bursting with innovation, with a rebellious streak who wants to give more, to change art as we know it, to pioneer new forms of expression.

Swallow, © Alexandra Gardner 2012

By contrast when you look at the works hung in the BP Portrait prize, first you need to challenge your preconception that the work is actually a photograph, and then you spend your time staring at the work wondering how it is painted. But all of this emphasis somewhat takes away from the story of the sitter. The emotion is somehow lost in the perfection. When you can see no sign of an artist’s presence on the canvas, it becomes craftsmanship, and not art. It loses it’s soul. I compare these works to an exquisitely well crafted table – I would glance at the work and admire the virtuosity of the craftsman, but I would not attempt, nor be able to engage with the work in the same way as I can when an artist’s soul is poured onto a canvas.

The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley) © Colin Davidson 2012

There were some exceptions in this year’s show, and it is therefore unsurprising that these were my standout favourites. In Colin Davidson’s The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley), there is a superbly executed focus on his sitter’s melancholy eyes, which are practically photographic, but then as the work spans outwards, it becomes more and more fragmented, as swathes of paint are hastily applied to the canvas, but with no less effect. This work demonstrates both the soul of the sitter, and the passion of the artist, and that is why, for me, it works incredibly well as a portrait worthy of artistic merit. I also liked Alexandra Gardner’s Swallow which had something of the Gauguin about it. Yes it’s just a portrait, but the insertion of the striking yellow wall paper and the presence of a swallow around the sitter’s neck makes you interact with the work, wondering about the significance of the swallow, and no doubt captivated by the use of bold colour, and realism contrasting with the two dimensional black outline which circumnavigates the figure.

Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo
© Carl Randall

However my favourite work of the show was undoubtedly this one, Carl Randall’s Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo. This “group portrait” is startlingly original for a number of reasons: the viewpoint from above, its composition: customers on the right, servers on the left, the slice of city life seen through the window, and the exclusive use of black, white and shades of grey. I love the apathetic, indifferent stares of the customers, minding their own business, indulging in quick dinner in a hostile urban environment, thinking no doubt about work and the pressures around them. On the left we are met with the equally impassive stares of the workers, tired after cooking all day and bored of the relentless monotony of their work. But in the middle of this we have this almost embrace, the only human contact in the whole work, when the worker gives a bowl of food to a customer, or the other way round – because they both hold the bowl with two hands, it is akin to a loving embrace, a fusion of worker and customer, and composition-wise it provides the work with a horizontal variance to otherwise brash vertical lines. Brilliant.

Is that a photo?: Silent Eyes © Antonios Titakis (2012)

If the BP Portrait Prize included more works like this every year, it would be a startlingly interesting show. But as ever with exhibitions judged and chosen by a group of outdated art professionals and even a representative from BP (who clearly knows so much about art) we will continue to be shunned by a group of high-gloss works which, like any photo, reflect the viewer and push him away, rather than a show of works which, because an artist has bared his soul or painted a scene of such dynamic composition and interest, the viewer is captivated and invited in. For me, it’s this relationship between artist and viewer which is not just integral to the power and purpose of art, but central to the very definition of what “art” really is, whether it be triggered by a portrait, a landscape or an abstract clutter. Remove the soul of the artist, and the painting becomes just one more image to add to the ever changing visual landscape of the fast-moving world around us. A fleeting encounter, without a lasting impact.