National Portrait Gallery Co. Ltd

The overwhelming number of photorealistic works at this year's BP Portrait Award exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, show a preference for the mediated image – the fixity and exactness of the camera lens. Fifty-five artists were selected out of 1,727 international entries. Two artists are singled out for their intense and opposite methods of representation: one of them painting a monumental self-portrait, the largest in the exhibition, the other looking stochastically at another person of a different ethnicity – his gaze presented as a tiny, double portrait study.

John Beard was trained at the Royal College of Art. It has been written that in his self-portraits Beard is more interested in the structure of perception and representation than in exploring the nature of portraiture with its emphasis on human recognition and likeness. His portraits are like weather-beaten rocks in the vastness of a seascape, a blurred vision in the dessert. HEAD-SP4 buried behind a skin of wax appears vulnerable, disintegrating, continuously escaping into unknown depths.

In this large, imposing painting, the face occupies the entire space of the canvas. The form of the head is positioned both frontally and symmetrically. His layered technique is complex, adding wax to the oil paint and spattering which modifies the texture of the painted surface. At close range the viewer is lost in a mist of tones graded from black through to white. The portrait throws the viewer at a distance to a point where both face and facial characteristics become recognizable.

On the other hand Emmanouil Bitsakis' work draws the viewer in, by its small scale, intimacy and context. His second year participation is titled Portrait of a Serbian student of theology with Serbian Patriarch in the background. As he explains the friendship with the sitter developed the artist's understanding both of the sitter's faith and the tradition of the Serbian Christian Orthodox Church. But in his work, with its layers of meaning, there is another reality lurking in the background – one of history and politics, of race, religion and war.

Βitsakis has originally studied interior architecture and later on painting in the Athens School of Fine Art. His art juxtaposes the sinister with the sublime in miniature portrait painting – a microscopic view of people and landscape, but with a surrealist twist. Some of his previous portraits employed combinations and symbolism such as insects, frogs and flowers, a raven perching on a head (raven being the sacred bird of Apollo symbolizing knowledge). With their complex task of directness and human exchange, his are pensive paintings interrogating the nature of reality

Although Bitsakis' clarity and obsessive detailing contrasts Beard's cloudiness and tactility, what appears to be common in the work of both painters is a deep sense of time, human condition and vulnerability. Beard's self-portrait appears as if permanently fixed in its photographic roots, but endlessly disappearing behind tactile wax layers. In Bitsakis' double portrait meaning travels from foreground to background continuously shifting from one to the other. It will be interesting to see what this painter of miniatures will make of the vastness of China and its people – his journey proposal which earned him this year's BP travel award.

Eva Pryce is an artist, art historian and associate lecturer at Wimbledon College of Art. She is the author of Invisible Transformations in the work of Nikos Navridis ISBN 978-0-9557838-0-7

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