Losers make a show of themselves

Artists whose entries for the BP Portrait Award were rejected are putting on their own exhibition. Lena Corner gets a preview

When Adam Laurence entered a painting in the annual BP Portrait Award earlier this year, he was one of 2,372 hopefuls. The portrait he submitted, a joint effort with fellow artist Peter Jesset, was of their friend George who runs a hardware shop in Bethnal Green, east London, done in acrylic on canvas.

If he's honest about it, Laurence didn't hold out much hope. He'd entered before in 2006 but got rejected. The award is now recognised as one of most prestigious in the world, with just 55 works getting picked for a show in the National Portrait Gallery, so competition is fierce. When he duly got the rejection letter from BP he wasn't that surprised.

"I remember the sense of shame I felt in 2006, collecting the work from the depot and it was obvious that this was a common experience," says Laurence. "The streets were cluttered with self-conscious artists, tucking canvases under their arms and scuttling away as quick as possible."

This time however, he decided to do things a little differently. When he went to the collection point at Arnold Circus in London where BP employees were handing back all the works that it deemed had not cut the mustard, he went armed with leaflets inviting the artists to display them in an alternative exhibition. The show would be called Dazed and Refused and would open under an east London railway arch on the same day as its glitzier National Portrait Gallery counterpart. The idea obviously hit a nerve – in less than two weeks the Dazed and Refused website had got nearly 200,000 hits.

"This isn't about sticking two fingers up at BP," Laurence is keen to point out. "The interesting thing about this body of work is the variety – it is a much better barometer than the BP exhibition itself. What a waste not to exhibit them."

It's an idea, says Laurence, that has its roots in a long artistic tradition which started in 1830s France when artists who had been rejected by the official Paris Salon began mounting their own small-scale shows. This reached a peak in 1863 when some 3,000 works were rejected, including works by greats such as Manet and Whistler. Out of this the Salon Des Refusés was born. "It would be a bit like Damien Hirst putting in an entry today and getting turned down," says Laurence. "Though the odds of success in entering the BP Portrait exhibition are actually far slimmer than the Salon exhibitions of the 1860s and '70s," he notes.

Just like the NPG show, Dazed and Refused now has 55 artists due to exhibit. Works include a piece entitled Shades of Regret by self-taught artist John Adams. "I have developed my own style of working which would probably horrify most artists," he says.

There is also Heloise Toop who has done a portrait of Big Brother winner Brian Belo "I wanted to capture a side of him which wasn't the one everybody knew from television," she says. "He had me in stitches while he posed for me, however, he also has a very thoughtful, quieter side which I was keen to get across."

There is another piece by Boston artist Anya Smolnikova which optimistically comes with an £86,000 price tag (most of the paintings in Dazed and Refused are for sale). And rather more downbeat is a piece entitled Smothered Hope by Andris Wood who has entered and been rejected every year since 2001. "After five years of refusal I made the Portrait Awards a mission," he says. "After eight years I just became increasingly frustrated and depressed. Now I have just come to expect it."

As Laurence says, the range, as well as the quality, is mixed (none of those exhibiting has ever been accepted for the BP Portrait Award exhibition). Alongside the self-taught artists there are graduates straight out of art school and some – Laurence and Jesset – for example, who have had long working careers in the art world.

So far BP hasn't acknowledged the work of these refused-niks, but Laurence believes it's only a matter of time. "I really believe BP are missing a trick," he says, "it's a big waste for all these people who have taken all this time to do all this work. They aren't in it for the prize money, they do it because they want to be in a show."

Dazed and Refused, 16 Jun - 10 Jul, 299 Cambridge Heath Road, London E2, dazedandrefused.com; BP Portrait Award 2011, 16 Jun - 18 Sep, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, npg.org.uk. Both are free