What does portraiture look like in an age of social distancing? How are artists responding to its elitist history? With our attention spans decreasing, how much of a story should portrait painters give us? In this !GWAK panel, we speak to Ruhkia Johnston, Naomi Boiko-Stapleton, Megan Smith and Harriette Lloyd about the questions and concerns facing those working with portraiture today.
TOP TO BOTTOM: Ruhkia Johnston, Harriette Lloyd, Megan Smith, Naomi Boiko-Stapleton
MN: Could you tell us a little about yourself and your practice?
HL: I am an an artist, still learning my voice. I have done two years of a craft course which I loved but, after a couple of years out traveling, I have realised I really want to paint. Portraiture has always interested me but I also create small abstract sea scapes.
NBS: I am a figurative oil painter from a mixed heritage background: my father is from the USSR and my mother is English. I was born in Israel, where they were both living at the time, but I grew up in England. I am just about to enter my second year at Brighton University studying fine art painting. My practice explores combining a classical painting technique with a contemporary kitsch take on traditional mannerism. The subject matter of my work focuses on exploring religion and the actions of people possessed by an ideology. I try to enter this discussion by using humour and satire in my paintings, because I think it’s very important to be able to have uncensored and destigmatized dialectic in order to advance in society. I think the best way to currently enter these discussions is through humour. Often when the truth hurts, you either ignore it or make a joke: that’s why comedians are so great - they’re allowed to say what most people aren’t.
RJ: My name is Ruhkia. I am an 18-year-old realist artist based in London who often paints black females amidst plants, gold and African wax print fabric.
MS: My name is Megan Georgia Smith, I’m 21, and I am a painter.
My practice is centred around class, youth culture and the condition of being human. I often draw upon my own social and cultural surroundings, using personal experiences, family/friends and settings that have relevance to me as a basis for the imagery found in my works. I grew up in Aldershot, living here for 18 years, until I moved to Southampton to study Fine Art for 3 years. These two locations have influenced my work greatly - both are rather industrial places, and both are arguably dominated by a large working-class population. This environment constantly appears in my work; however (of course), settings, events and characters are always exaggerated to an extreme level, mostly for comic effect. I utilise stereotypes of working-class/young people in my paintings as an attempt to critique the issues of stereotyping that often occur in the representation of ‘the lower classes’. I play upon clichés of the working-class/youths because these are the people in society I feel I most identify with – being 21 and coming from working-class roots myself. By amplifying my dark sense of humour and satirising such stereotypes, I mock the idea that every working-class/ young person can be categorized this way (which of course – they can’t).
MN: Portraiture painting is one of art’s longest standing traditions. How does this textured, complex and lengthy history influence your work? In what ways do you engage with it, if at all? How do we keep portraiture fresh?
HL: If anything I feel I should know a lot more about the history of portraiture. My favourite place to visit is the National Portrait Gallery in London; I love the mix of traditional and contemporary portraits. There's much more sense of a person when you are viewing a painting in the flesh compared to a photograph.
MS: I try to engage with political satirists and social critics of the past frequently. Old masters, such as William Hogarth and Pieter Bruegel, are particularly huge influences for me. I love the chaos found in these old works; the way characters interact with one another, the crowdedness, the small objects that give insight into one’s life - I always embrace these vices in my own work. The visual humour found in these works is as effective 300+ years later. It is also still relatable to a certain extent (aka: drink fuelled carelessness happens now!). Hogarth’s Gin Lane shows the flailing arms of a baby, outstretched in melodramatic manner, plunging to its death, whilst its Mother smiles as though unaware – there’s a dark humour here that I want to reflect in my own paintings.
I think that a great artist uses influences from other artists of all periods, movements, and mediums. This is how we keep portraiture fresh - by adopting successful elements from a diverse range of artists across history, combining this with our own unique approaches. I try to undertake this approach in my own creative practice. A certain level of imitation in painting is also needed; it’s how we can learn to reach new and original styles as artists. It’s good habit to combine small aspects of pre-composed imagery alongside your own. In this (post?) post-modern world, we consume so much media - from imagery on our phones, on the television, and general images that surround us in everyday life - it’s impossible to not let that seep in when creating your own version of ‘image’. But I think this bombardment is a good thing - you can use your surroundings, physical and digital, to influence your own individual artistic style and language.
NBS: I think the rich contextual history of portraiture painting is nestled within every artist’s work, whether consciously or not. To me, personally, it’s a case of great admiration. I used to be fixated on trying to paint like an old master, but recently I’ve stopped viewing painting with that goal of perfection. The culture which we inhabit as artists informs our technique; it is the best way for us to authentically reflect on and explore our culture. I’m currently viewing my unformed technique as the best way for me to interact with current society.
I think portrait painting will always reinvent itself and continue to be relevant - people love a good story, and I think figurative painting and portraiture have a unique transcendent quality, which gives us a cultural backdrop we can use to inform the precincts in which we are to act.
MN: What role does the subject’s gaze play in your work? How does it relate to you and what you want to say?
RJ: The painted figures can be seen deep in thought or staring meaningfully into the distance. In my piece ‘Our Garden’, the lady is poised gracefully upon gold and the plants gently surround her as she looks into the eyes of the spectator. I wanted to achieve the effect that she has an individual story that manifests itself in innumerable ways within the mind of the viewer. The subject’s gaze allows me to convey the themes of reflection and introspection that run through my collection.
NBS: I used to subconsciously paint portraits where the subject’s gaze is in direct contact with the viewer. Recently, I’ve been diverting the subjects to turn the viewer into a voyeur - like the viewer has happened upon the scene by accident and are observing an out of context slice of life.
HL: I usually work from photographs, so for me the subjects' gaze is about where they were looking at the time of the photograph. I like working from a sitting subject; the painting does become a lot more traditional with a natural resting face and gaze. My self portraits seem to be more intense, with the eye-line watching the viewer. The subject is me, so I feel I have the right to have direct eye contact.
MS: Most of the time my figures are glaring out at the audience, with wide, almost demon-like eyes. I think this makes my figures seem intimidating - perhaps like you have just intruded into their environment as an outsider. Maybe this adds to the humour of the ridiculous stereotype of an aggressive working-class/ young person. Take my painting CHICKEN SHOP for example - it’s so absurd that upon entering the space, you would be greeted with masses of angry, staring eyes. In reality, no one would probably take any notice. This is what I’m trying to convey when utilising stereotypes. Although stereotypes are an inescapable part of life, they are too easily capable of summarizing complicated information about individuals. Stereotypes don’t account for fluctuation; in fact, they often are accompanied by an understanding of unwavering absoluteness. I say that one cannot distinctively label a whole group of society as capable of possessing the same traits (i.e.: that all hooded youths are aggressive) - this is one of my criticisms of the issues in stereotyping.
The only sort of likeness my current practice orientates itself on is that of emotional likeness - to capture the thoughts and feelings I had whilst I was painting. I think this is an act of rebellion against the unattainable standards I used to try to hold myself to.
MN: Megan - your work focuses on class and youth culture. Historically, portraiture has functioned as a symbol of wealth and prestige - what role does this history play in your exploration of your subject matter?
MS: I feel as though I am very aware of the fact that painting has been traditionally preserved for the upper/middle classes and thus subject matters in these works reflect the lives of this group as a consequence. I don’t really need to tell you that the best evidence of this is in the content of the historical works that get selected to be shown in the high-end, mainstream galleries in Britain – lots of portraits of royalty, grand buildings etc. But my favourite types of painting are ones I personally resonate with and these always happen to be depictions similar to, or of current, contemporary society: people having fun, socialising, indulging - what I like to do myself! I think that is why I was so drawn to Dale Lewis’ work when I stumbled across it at the Saatchi Gallery in 2018. It was so close to modern life. I saw rather grim representations of people that I could easily have known: the hooded figures, lads in caps, blokes drinking beer and the girls in fishnets – all these things I was surrounded by living the uni lifestyle in So’ton, but also back at home in Aldershot.
This history of eulogizing the royal and rich does feed into how I navigate depicting characters in my own work. I’m particularly interested in the emphasis that is always put on the subjects’ assets in these painted portraits, like their jewellery, their pets, their lavish food, like bowls of fruit and meats. I basically try to mimic this with a different group of society, offering some sort of representation and recognisability for everyday people. I want to glorify the masses, attempt to eulogise them, similar to how the rich and royal have always been glorified. Instead of spaniels in my works, it’s staffie dogs; instead of stone jewels, it’s gold chains; instead of bowls of fruits, it’s fried chicken.
MN: Does your work centre itself more around the autobiographical or the allegorical?
NBS: It’s a mixture of both. I’m a great believer in the role and importance of narrative in art. I love contemporary paintings that play off of classical allegories and myth; I think there’s a lot as a society that we forget we owe to the fundamental substructure of myth and religion. But I also think that every painting at heart is really a portrait of the artist, no matter the subject. I love this quote by Oscar Wilde: ‘every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.’
HL: It's probably more autobiographical when I think about my self portraits, but also sometimes it is just about the practice and process of painting itself; the meaning usually attaches itself afterwards.
MS: Perhaps allegorical? Although, I always begin with a personal setting, whether that be a place I’ve lived, a place I’ve worked or hung around at. I always paint myself into the scene, showing my connection to the space, what I’ve experienced there and who I’ve been with whilst this event has happened – all this is the autobiographical part. After that, it’s mainly made up of witnessed or imagined events/people that are then highly exaggerated. This is where the allegorical part of the paintings is formed - where I concoct characters and events to almost stand alone as symbols of my ideas about the struggles of contemporary life, socioeconomics, politics, culture, and class.
Choosing to incorporate African wax print fabrics into my art was not necessarily a conscious decision. However, the more I dig into the meanings and beauty of these patterns, the more I realise that they really do belong in my work. The unique designs and vibrant colours represent individuality and inner strength - attributes I see in my community. They allow me to convey the emotions that I am feeling so intensely.
MN: Harriette – as well as portraiture, you also paint a number of abstract pieces. How do they intersect and influence both each other and your approach?
HL: Yes I think the abstract sea scapes are a break for me from the intensity of painting people; from the concentration of getting proportions and tone right; the emotional input of the painting. The seascapes are a release, a counter-painting. I would love to be able to combine the styles one day, or at least try. It makes me think of Howard Hodgkin's portraits, where his abstract paintings portray people he knows: the colours and patterns giving an essence of them, rather than a direct translation of their exterior.
MN: What role does place play in your portraiture? Is it important to place your subjects within a specific, but not necessarily literal, location?
RJ: In my pieces, it would be very hard to place the individuals in a specific time period, let alone a location. In the non-literal sense, place is important, as I want my art to speak to anyone, so I paint my subjects in an almost surreal atmosphere. I am drawn to nature and gold settings, because, combined, they create an ethereal aura that compliments the quiet confidence of the painted figure.
NBS: I now place my portraits in an undescriptive Limbo. This was, at first, a subconscious choice, but after analysing it, I think this is an unconscious reflection of my feelings on the instability of society. Currently, all of our traditional social structures are collapsing, and we seem to be at a crossroads, deciding which way to go.
HL: I'm still working this one out. Sometimes I like a background to be completely neutral, so the sole focus is the subject; other times, it needs a bit more context, so the person isn't just floating - I don't think I always get it right.
MS: Place is really important in my work, as I need the setting to reflect a personal location. In depicting familiar environments, I can allow myself to really connect with a space whilst painting it – I can brainstorm all the items and characters that might inhabit it, due to my own lived experience of that space. If my work is partly autobiographical, it only makes sense that the spaces I represent are personal in some way. The place in itself also always makes a comment on my ideas of the struggles of contemporary life, socioeconomics, politics, culture, and/or class. I am quite interested in this notion of psychogeography - the way in which a geographical environment can have an effect on the emotions and behaviours of individuals inhabiting that space. I constantly toy with this theory when reasoning with working-class/youth stereotypes and clichés in my work.
MN: Ruhkia – through your use of gold leaf and African fabrics, your work is extraordinarily textured. How do pattern and textiles influence your work?
RJ: Growing up, I was always surrounded by African print textiles. My grandma sewed me dresses and materials hung on the walls of the living room: choosing to incorporate these fabrics into my art was not necessarily a conscious decision. However, the more I dig into the meanings and beauty of these patterns, the more I realise that they really do belong in my work.
I especially enjoy the fact that using African wax print fabric allows me to tie in subtle hints of my African-Caribbean heritage. The unique designs and vibrant colours represent individuality and inner strength- attributes I see in my community. Gold and African fabrics influence me to truly explore the different shades and patterns that can be built up to convey the emotions that I am feeling so intensely.
MN: In the age of social distancing, we have longed for close human contact more than ever before – how has this influenced the way you engage with or depict your subjects in your portraiture, if at all?
MS: My work is based massively on physical human interaction - both my own personal interactions with others but also witnessed interactions between strangers. The COVID-19 crisis has hugely affected my inspirations for subject matter to use in my work, as I haven’t been out and about to experience/witness much! As I’ve said, I gain influence from busy settings, people drinking/eating, pubbing, clubbing, socialising – all events that have been interrupted due to the virus. I feel like my paintings have become quite an eerie depiction of life as it was pre-covid. No one is gathering like they did before, so it does feel like I am depicting a past reality sometimes. My creative process has definitely changed; I think perhaps I am doing even more imagining than I would usually, and this has consequently created a lull for me. Slowly, we are returning to a new kind of normal…maybe this ‘new normal’ will influence future works.
RJ: I do not feel that it has changed my manner of painting and creative thinking; if anything, it has given me the opportunity to improve my technique.
I would suggest, however, that maybe this intense longing for human interaction changes the way my audience perceive my work. Right now, I want my art to be a respite from our current political and social climate. This period has not been great, but it has awarded many of us with time for introspection. We must check that our well-being is not deteriorating and one of the ways this is achieved is by expressing ourselves with art or simply looking at art which calms and resonates with us.
NBS: Although I greatly missed my friends, studio and my life in Brighton, I found that social distancing and lockdown released a lot of pressure I put on myself as an artist. It was the first time in years that I let myself paint whatever I wanted, truly just for myself, and allowed myself the freedom to explore and enjoy the process of painting and not solely focus on the end ‘product’. I did a lot of soul searching and found that my painting style changed drastically over lockdown from when I was last painting at university.
HL: I've probably worked on more works of myself, because I've been there to reference. I also joined in with the big Instagram initiative of painting a portrait for a frontline NHS worker. It was so nice to give back to all the people working so hard for us. The only thing I found hard was feeling slightly disconnected from the work, having never met the young nurse I was painting - since I was just working from a few photos, I couldn't tell if I was getting it right, capturing her right. I guess I realised that it is a lot more about engagement with people than I ever thought - as much as that sounds ridiculous when talking about portraiture!
‘You never really know if you start repeating an element of your vocabulary out of habit or because it contains something endlessly meaningful for you. If trees keep returning in my work, it must be because I feel I’m still making discoveries by being with and working with them’
Are there repeat appearances or regular conversations with subjects or objects that take place within your work?
HL: Not that I have realised yet. I always try and take elements of a previous painting that have worked well into a new one.
RJ: I really connected with Party’s quote. I mentioned this above, but I did not intend for African wax print fabric to be featured in my work. I was painting an earlier piece and felt something was missing. My mother has an abundance of African fabrics for her baby clothes business (AfroPuff Ltd.), so naturally I began to experiment with fabrics that I had grown up around.
It was only in retrospect that I realised that I was drawn to the beauty of the patterns and colours. African materials are a recurrent, meaningful attribute in my work.
MS: I find myself particularly repeating the same objects in my paintings, the ones that are scattered across the floor in my scenes. In all of my work, you will probably find a can/bottle of alcohol, a bag of weed, or a fag. These neglected objects provide evidence of human habitation, of past human interaction and of lived experience. It suggests that in the spaces I depict, there is constant life and movement; consequently, a trail of stuff gets left behind. Drug packets, tinnies and cig butts depicted in SO’TON SAFARI could be evocative of a student’s messy night out. But they are also redolent of addictions, ones that do affect (but are of course not limited to) the large population of homeless people in Southampton (as pictured in this piece). I am conscious, when I repeatedly paint these objects, of who they might’ve belonged to and what they might mean. Although these objects transcend class (obviously middle/upper class old folk smoke, drink and do drugs as well), in the context in which they are shown, I think to me, they do become small symbols of a form of escapism, of life’s small pleasures, of coping mechanisms to counteract the stresses of modern life - some of the stresses that are touched upon in my pieces.
The same clothing brands always crop up in my paintings too - sportswear like Nike, and Adidas, but also high-end knockoffs like bootleg Gucci, Moschino, Louis Vuitton. I think I repeat these brands on my figures’ clothing as way of trying to define British youth subcultures of 2020: the ‘sneakerheads’, the ‘roadmen’, the ‘hypebeasts’. I enjoy this generational characteristic of my paintings; I think in this, I am trying to capture an essence of my youth - of what people around me, at the time, were wearing.
NBS: I completely agree with Nicholas Party. I find biblical stories are a reoccurring narrative in my work. A strange reoccurring motif I find myself repeating is a fish on the subject’s head. I am fascinated by the work of depth psychology, Carl Jung, and religious symbolism so I think this might be why. Another recurrence I’ve found is painting accidental Phallic portraits! I did a portrait painting recently, and after completing it, I realised that the rococo mannerist woman with a double chin and an exaggerated swan like neck looked exactly like a penis! I have decided to call it ‘Willamina’.
I want to glorify the masses, attempt to eulogise them, similar to how the rich and royal have always been glorified. Instead of spaniels in my works, it’s staffie dogs; instead of stone jewels, it’s gold chains; instead of bowls of fruits, it’s fried chicken.
MN: Is ensuring a likeness important to your practice? Or what kind of likeness?
NBS: A few years ago, ensuring visual likeness was one of the main objectives of my practice, but now it’s moved to the other extreme of being a component I never think of or pursue in my painting. Most of the ‘portraits’ that I paint are completely made up or vaguely based on my younger sister. I think this is an act of rebellion against the unattainable standards I used to try to hold myself to. The only sort of likeness my current practice orientates itself on is that of emotional likeness - to capture the thoughts and feelings I had whilst I was painting.
HL: Yes - but I sometimes get too obsessed with it and often over work the painting. It is the thing I worry about the most; you can spend so much time on something, and then add a few extra marks that completely ruin the painting, just to get some extra likeness.
RJ: I really feel that honesty with oneself is an important part of being an artist, especially when painting people. Portraying your emotions upon a canvas isn’t everyone’s goal with art, but I believe that if you want your work to truly have an effect on others, there needs to be a level of truth that an audience can connect with.
Not only that but, when painting (in a realism style), it’s tempting to make everything look symmetrical and aesthetic but that isn’t always the reality… hence the name. Once an artist allows themselves to look at their subjects honestly, seeing its unique flaws, only then will your art show the truth - accepting that not everything has to be perfect in life.
MS: Yes, for sure – although I think my style can almost be compared to a caricature type of likeness. My figures are often an imitation of a person I know/have seen, and I pick out striking characteristics to exaggerate in order to create both a comic and grotesque effect. If you feature in my painting, the likelihood is that I am going to overemphasize features of your appearance, behaviour, and fashions. For example, I always cover youths in acne, big yellow and red zits infesting faces, playing upon the spotty teenager cliché. If you have one tattoo and a nose ring, I make it, so you are covered in ink and gold – almost to dramatize your character, to create instant, startling effect. This “caricature” likeness to individuals in my own life/in my local surroundings is important because by taking visual elements of classic stereotypes to the extreme, I expose the ludicrous nature of clichés. Caricatures are ironic and sarcastic; it is a very British form of humour to say the opposite of what you mean in order to make a point, and this is why I think this style suits the context of my work so much.
MN: Naomi – in a recent interview with us, you explained that the intergenerational trauma or diaspora and antisemitism influences much of your work – in what ways does it manifest itself, both in the final piece and in your process?
NBS: Every now and again, I find I have to create a piece for me, personally, to confront and try to de-compartmentalize the pain and horror which filled the 20th century and is still so prevalent today. I’ve spent the last few years reading accounts of these atrocities such as Solzhenitsyns’ ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ which is an agonizing 2000 page scream of outrage against the Soviet Union, and ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Victor Frankl which details his time during several concentration camps and how he survived. I’ve been reading these books as both the victim and the perpetrator, to help me try to understand how nations of ordinary people are moved to do these horrific genocides. I don’t think we are out of the frying pan yet, and I don’t think we can yet claim to say ‘never again’ in relation to the events of the Holocaust with the barbaric atrocities that are still currently taking place all over the world.
The fact that anti-Semitism is still so widespread and institutionalised in Europe shows we haven’t even learnt the surface lesson from the Holocaust. I read in a study the other day that 5% of British adults don’t believe the Holocaust happened. That’s 2.6 million people! Just in England! With the direction in which society is currently moving, this statistic will only keep increasing, which is terrifying. I think art has a way of connecting with people that the news and mainstream media doesn’t have anymore, because we have almost become numb to seeing pictures of the Holocaust, refugees risking their lives in rubber ‘Boats’ and war zones which make Goya’s The Horrors of War look like a bedtime story. It is like the horrific but true statement by Stalin that the death of one is a tragedy but the death of a million is just a statistic; through the lenses of the media and the news, these atrocities are turned into a statistic, whereas art connects individuals on an interpersonal level. I truly believe art can help create an open dialogue on these events.
Having joined in with the big Instagram initiative of painting a portrait for a frontline NHS worker, meaning I was working from just a few photos. I felt slightly disconnected from the work, having never met the young nurse I was painting - since I couldn't tell if I was getting it right, capturing her right. I guess lockdown has shown me that portraiture is a lot more about engagement with people than I ever thought.
MN: What do you see in the future of portraiture?
NBS: I feel very excited and hopeful for the future of Portrait painting, and on a wider scale, figurative painting. There are so many new talented artists emerging on the scene; I think there’ll be a new, exciting reinvention of figurative art in the art world, which we have already started to see.
HL: It's hard to tell when there's so much uncertainty; I hope we can go back to connecting with people and begin to get away from the fear of being in close contact when it is safe. I also hope that portraiture can become a bit more accessible to all and that it's not just something people have to pay a massive amount of money to own. I understand why artwork is priced so high, but maybe there is a way to make portraiture less elitist.
RJ: When people think to the future, one of the first things that jump into one’s mind is ‘technology’. Naturally, after reading this question, I thought about selfies - our own one second portraits - and how a person’s emotions (or lack thereof) can be crammed into one image. As vague as it sounds, I feel as though the future of portraiture holds artwork that can tell a story more instantly (to quench our shortening attention spans) but provide more eloquent details when studied in depth.
MS: More working-class artists behind it! When I say working-class, I’m not succumbing to this myth of the exclusive ‘white working-class’, I’m meaning black and ethnic minority artists, immigrants as well. If art is supposed to reflect real life experiences and real-world demographics, then we have to champion an inclusive art scene, one that offers representation to everyone and provides extensive platforms for less privileged artists to showcase work. We are heading in the right direction, I think, but obviously loads more can be done to democratize the arts scene. The future of portraiture painting will be found in the unique lived experiences of those that have perhaps been overlooked in art’s white-washed and overall discriminative past. I see amazing diversity in portraits depicted in the future, representations of the lower classes, women, LGBTQ+ and BAME individuals, and those with disabilities. This kind of representation in art will play an immense role in the essential education of forgotten or neglected histories.
HOSTED BY MILLIE NORMAN
INFORMATION ON PORTRAIT ART HISTORY http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/genres/portrait-art.htm
ELEPHANT ARTICLES ON CONTEMPORARY PORTRAIT ARTISTS https://elephant.art/?s=portraiture+painting
BOMB ARTICLES ON CONTEMPORARY PORTRAIT ARTISTS https://bombmagazine.org/topics/portraiture
THE SUBJECT IN ART: PORTRAITURE AND THE BIRTH OF THE MODERN (first 55 pages available to read for free) https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=W88RcZkE93QC&oi=fnd&pg=PP9&dq=related:IzvbYDbEA1YJ:scholar.google.com/&ots=-MvCuvJWVK&sig=PgAn4KnmViQNp72A1Xw_H33Dr8s&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false