IN THE STUDIO / Looking reality in the face: Iain Gale on the portraitist Tai-Shan Schierenberg

In his tiny Hampstead studio, Tai- Shan Schierenberg stands at the easel, turning over the layers of paint which half obscure the image of a face. A self-portrait, it's not quite what one might have expected from the painter of the impressive likeness of the writer John Mortimer in the National Portrait Gallery's new wing. Certainly the artist's face is a powerful presence. The only thing is, it doesn't look like him. At the age of 31 and only eight years into his career, Schierenberg is having a re-think.

'Commissioned portraits have driven me to despair. Painter and sitter is an artificial set-up. When I'm doing a commission I'm unable to let the paint do what it wants. I have to keep dragging myself back and saying, 'Look, there's someone sitting there'. So now I'm just painting my friends and family. They feel at ease.'

In the almost Existentialist power of the heavily worked pictures around his studio, Schierenberg defines his art in the tradition of Bomberg and Auerbach, even Freud.

'I find it exciting how Auerbach paints the same people again and again. What he does with the paint is exciting too. I'm into what paint can suggest. I'm not like Freud though. I don't want the paint to actually become flesh.'

Critics have remarked on affinities with Sickert. 'He's very dry in application. I like my paint jucier.' So it is to 'juicier', earlier sources that Schierenberg turns. 'Velasquez is so cool. Like him I paint thick - wet in wet. Realism, like that of Velasquez or Rembrandt is timeless and that's a fantastic challenge. In fact their painting is both realist and abstract. If you look close up into the eye of a Rembrandt portrait you can see De Kooning and Pollock. The paint has tension.'

Schierenberg acquired his fixation with the physical substance of paint both from his education at the Slade, and his childhood in Germany where he grew up on the Black Forest farm of his father, also a painter. The rural lifestyle of those years is recalled in the dead bird which hangs in his studio, also providing the clue to Schierenberg's real intention. He is re-inventing the intimism of Corot's late interiors and Degas's nudes. The latter is recalled in the small female nude study of the artist's pregnant wife, balanced on the studio mantelpiece, an essay in tenderness which reveals that behind technical preoccupations there lies a real sensitivity. 'For my next show I'm trying to do a series of paintings of people in relationships. In particular of my daughter and her best friend. But I'm being very cautious. The process of painting is about being human, and being open to all those things that make you aware of that.'

(Photograph omitted)

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