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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.carlrandall.com with the kind permission of Carl Randall