Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery
East England

When a well-meaning civilian, asks ‘what do you do?’  I sometimes wish I was a plumber, a librarian, did portraits or anything else that requires minimal distillation compared to some of the things I do in the name of Art.

Of all art activities ‘Portraiture’ compared to much of today’s art, is widely seen in a public sense as a pretty legitimate activity. This in itself is curious as Robert Cornelius took the first photographic selfie in 1839.  A whopping 178 years since art got liberated from functional depiction. Indeed Photography was in many ways the ‘big bang’ of modern art. But people still  paint portraits and people still want to admire them.

To paint or otherwise, ‘meaningful’ portraits today, as opposed to a ‘good likeness’ is a much more complicated affair. Particularly in a world where artistic identity is predominantly constructed and played out as a secondary extension in the digital realm albeit occasionally augmented with the odd bit of a primary encounter. As a result anyone inside the critical art machine is often left wanting in this area of activity.

With this in mind, to explore portraiture and deconstruct both its historic functions and it’s potential in the 21st century as subject via a baker’s dozen of critically informed artists (shown in relation to Nottingham Castle’s permanent collection) seems a fine proposition for an exhibition. Good art for me, gives work for the eye and the brain to do. And this show does both very well.

I have long enjoyed Glen Brown’s flattened Auerbach’s and at first glance I thought I had clocked one of these. As I approached I quickly corrected my schoolboy error. It was lumpy not flat, the colour too intense to be either Auerbach’s or Glen Brown appropriation of Auerbach’s Kitchen sink aesthetic. Painted by Antony Micallef, it stands as a contemporary nod some 50 years on, to the god of glorious impasto. His work holds just enough referent aspects to anchor its subject, it also holds more than enough painterly excess to fill the heart with joy. The 50 year rule for stylistic borrowing often seems to work well. Long enough to refer, but not replicate. It  also comfortably escapes plagiarism, clearly asserting its own globular gravity laden voice. They are lovely things to behold.

Glen Browns are present next door, with a prime example of direct appropriation rather than of stylistic borrowing. Copying an old master, whilst giving the colour values a vivid reboot. One is drawn to the highly crafted illusion of physical mark, which is rendered on a flat surface. This re-presentation of the past as recoloured and re-scaled in the present, both alludes to the continuum of portraiture but also deconstructs the very nature of the gestural mark, (fraught with its Freudian subtexts as loved so much by the expressionists). It is painting about the place and story of painting. It is unashamedly clever, without coming over as smart arse. The exaggeration of colour brings in a gentle playful subversion and amplifies the lack of authenticity.

Nearby the ghostly, sinister paintings of Jake-Wood Evans reproduce, yet partially obliterate key features of paintings by the likes of Joshua Reynolds and George Romney. These were artists of the British Colonial era. Paintings of powerful men in an exploitative era. Painted by men, occupying a privileged position as painters in society. The subsequent period, invented in the 20th century, when ordinary folk went to art school for a while did not exist. To paint you generally had to be posh. They are dark, haunting and enigmatic. They reminded me curiously of the Tom Hardy TV series ‘Taboo’. This sense of sinister past, part erased is highly charged and potent in its associations. Highly crafted too. Arguably quite beautiful, and again underpinned with thinking.

Another favourite of mine is Julie Cockburn with her meticulously hand embroidered photographs. Whilst not a painting, the dominant strategy of borrow and adapt pervades in this work. She is probably one of the most copied artists by art students around at the moment. The joy of this work is its simplistic yet dynamic efficacy. This application of stitch as such an evidently artificial addition, is as dislocating as it is visually enticing. It reminds us of the flatness of the photo and the very constructed fabrication of all imagery. It tells us a photo is no more real than most imagery and constitutes an illusory truth.

The construction of the image, as opposed to having a given sense of authenticity is explored by Samin Ahmadzadeh via interwoven photographs. They mingle notions of a byegone monochrome era with the application of the grid mesh and all its digital connotations. It still strikes me as curious how monochrome still manages to signify the past when it comes to the lens, but somehow, it still lingers on with a kind of documentary potency.

Sacha Bowles mini gallery of micro reinterpretations involves wonderfully absurdist adaptations of historic works where human flesh is substituted with surreal large ruffs and curious hairy growths. They are ridiculous in a most wonderful way. This displacement and reconfiguration of elements presented in a stage set like space, has all the joys of dislocated time travel, but without a Tardis.

The show includes some other great work by Philip Gurrey, Maisie Broadhead, Paul Stephenson, Matthieu Leger, Annie Kevans, Jasleen Kaur, and James E Smith. As you progress around the show different artists strategies bounce off one another. There are no duff artists or also rans included and every artist pulls their weight in terms of cross strategy discourse.

This show is highly considered with lots to think about. It balances the visual with the cerebral delightfully. It is well worth a trip and presents intelligent curation by Tristram Aver at Nottingham Castle.