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The Face of Contemporary Portraiture

Contemporary portrait artists are capturing the human face on canvas in increasingly unusual ways – making a commission all the more daring

In many a mind’s eye, portraiture is about a stiff, posed figure gazing out into the middle distance. Elevated during the 17th and 18th centuries by noble court painters like Anthony van Dyck, portraiture was later considered a tradesman’s occupation, commissioned by courtiers and businessmen as a status symbol. Yet it was not until the 19th century that more experimental attitudes truly found their way onto the canvas.

Reaching the work of contemporary portrait artists requires fast-forwarding past Joshua Reynolds, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, John Singer Sargent, Gustav Klimt and Pablo Picasso. Some of these celebrated painters inspire today’s talents – whose increasingly unusual methods are calling for assumptions about portraiture to be reconsidered.

“As a medium, portraiture is much more respected now than it has been since the time of Charles II or van Dyck,” says Ralph Taylor, Bonhams’ director of post-war and contemporary art. Not all artists work to commission, and with varying degrees of involvement from the sitter. “Something that’s interesting is the intent with which a portrait is painted,” says Taylor.

“It might be a loving rendition as part of a commission, a deferential painting of someone famous, or a slightly provocative and mischievous examination of someone’s personality.”

Falling under the first category, British artist Kelvin Okafor’s photorealistic pencil drawings are astonishingly true to life. Since the age of eight “what interested me was how in one single shade of lead, I was able to create texture and the illusion of colour,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated with the human mind and with people’s stories.” Okafor’s hyper-real portraits take about 120 hours each, so he works mostly from photographs.

“If I put pencil to paper, it’s important for me to get to know the person… it’s not just making a replica of a photograph or the person sitting in front of me,” says the artist, who is represented by Albemarle Gallery. “Because I work on a very detailed level, I look at the flaring of the nostrils or the slight glimmer across the mouth – all those little things tell a deeper story about that person.”

Accurate in its own way, Graham Fink’s methods are entirely 21st-century. Two years ago, the chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather China co-designed a piece of software that allows him to draw in a continuous line using just his eyes. A pair of infra-red lights reflect in Fink’s retina, track the movement and convert it into lines of varying thickness. He tends to use black, grey or dark blue.

“Over the years that I’ve painted, drawn and photographed [the human face], the one thing that always bothered me was that my arm and hand seemed to get in the way of capturing what I was seeing,” he describes. An exhibition of his work is on view until 2 March at Riflemaker.

Just as Leonardo da Vinci once sketched the human body, Korean artist Seung-Hwan Oh’s technique is inspired by the scientific. He wanted to realise entropy theory – the second law of thermodynamics – as a photographic concept. Later, he says, “what became more important was to evoke an existential pathos in the viewer”.

Using colour reversal film, he distorts images by putting homegrown bacteria on the emulsion side of the developed film. “It involves some experimentation in controlling the humidity and temperature to increase the chances of producing the desired effect,” he explains. “Once the film is put in the incubator with microbes, it is out of my control.”

Seung-Hwan Oh waits patiently, checking on the photographs every fortnight: “the most difficult and frustrating part is that the possibility of a satisfactory image is 0.2 per cent.” The process can take six months – or even years. For this reason he does not work to commission, but would like to “of course, if it’s interesting and something I can do with reasonable condition”.

Commissioning one’s own portrait involves placing trust – and power – in the artist’s interpretation. Paul Wright’s daring and explosive canvases are less about faithful accuracy than a sense of drama. “Part of it is being brave enough to allow an artist to take your face and interpret what they see,” he says. The British painter also works mostly from photographs.

“I think there used to be a tradition of the portrait painter drawing out the essence of the personality. I actually don’t believe that’s possible,” he says. This detatched approach permits him to “make them slightly more obscure and unusual”. Both Wright and Seung-Hwan Oh are represented by Gallery Elena Shchukina.

The intensely personal nature of portraiture renders it something of an anomaly at auction, however. “You’ve always got this strange glass ceiling on the potential value of portraits,” says Taylor. Case in point is Andy Warhol: “his self-portraits, and the ones of Dolly Parton or even Barbie are worth huge amounts. But those of his unknown patrons are worth a fraction”.

“If you’re commissioning a portrait, the audience is very subjective – it’s probably just you. The value is built on a collaboration between the sitter and the artist,” says Taylor. Yet it is a different story when it comes to anonymous figures, he continues.

“The human body and face are the most universal of all subjects, relevant across all linguistic and cultural boundaries.”

Indeed, Cornish talent David Kim Whittaker takes oil to canvas to create beautiful and intense cutaways of the human mind, blurring utopia and dystopia in a psychological haze. His portraits are at Opera Gallery, alongside photorealistic painter Mike Dargas, who also uses oils to blend empirical truth and the avant-garde.

“I hope my art builds a bridge between traditional and recent portrait painting,” he says. “I have always been inspired by the Old Masters. The perfection of Dalí’s Surrealism and Caravaggio’s Realism have fascinated me since childhood.”

Each of Dargas’ series reflects his own state of mind – from his dark early paintings to a honey series that focussed on femininity, beauty and fragility. “The [honey] imitates the various masks we use in our everyday life to hide and protect ourselves.” His current series, Transformation, questions humanity’s search for identity. “It explores the process of change – a fundamental and inevitable circumstance of life,” he describes.

Opera Gallery represents two other artists whose portraits focus on medium rather than subject matter. Colombian-born mixed media artist Federico Uribe creates faces from everyday objects, and those made from electric cables are particularly striking. From a distance they appear woven, but up close they resemble something like three-dimensional Pointillism. Meanwhile, London artist Nick Gentry uses recycled objects and ‘retro’ technology such as 35mm film negatives, VHS cassettes and floppy discs to form skilfully layered shapes.

An exhibition of paintings by Spanish painter Secundino Hernández will be held at Victoria Miro from 1 April to 6 May. His work is at times abstract or linear; elsewhere featuring overlaid shapes in wild colourful forms. The exhibition will include a number of ‘invented portraits’ that combine various techniques – from washing to chiaroscuro. Sometimes, one must look to the past to look to the future.