Ever since Stuart Pearson Wright won the BP Portrait Award almost a decade and a half ago, at the age of 26, he has been burdened by the fact that he is known to be a portrait painter. That has been his trade, his craft, his living. He is a very accomplished one, too. At his best he paints with the sensitivity and the fineness of touch of the best of the Flemings. He has looked long and hard at the likes of Cranach. But every painter needs to ask himself: what next? If I am not a portrait painter, what other species of painter might I conceivably become? In what guise am I to present myself next?
This show at Riflemaker shows Pearson Wright painting himself as he strides into a nostalgia-soaked costume drama of his own devising. The subject is the macho myth of the West – the Wild West perhaps – as depicted on screen in the 1940s and 1950s, and memorialised in countless country-and-western classics. (For those who want to hear Pearson Wright's covers of the music too, there is a limited-edition LP on sale here of him crooning along to a dozen of them, accompanying himself on banjo, ukulele and percussion.) Pearson Wright paints himself as a gun-totin' cowboy, as a manly protector of those poor, gorgeous, fragile ladies. A woman flees in her underwear from a rearing, roaring grizzly. The painter draws the lady into the protective cover of his manly chest, where she melts in hot-blooded gratitude. Pearson Wright plays the cowboy; his current girlfriend plays the lovely wildwood flower of a gal. Peaks tower. Torrents rage. The red earth looks mighty thirsty.
The paintings are small for the most part, rectangular, oval or circular, folksy in feel, and they're presented in wormy, thrift-store frames – one of these frames has been fabricated from a length of fence post. They feel like mom's domestic treasures, the sort of stuff that hangs above the mantel.
They are also more complicated in subject matter than they seem at first glance. The stetsoned guy with his gal often seem to be in the midst of strange landscapes. In fact, they feel more like stage sets than landscapes. What is this Alpine chalet doing here – or this sweet little duck pond? Is this Montana or the Alps? Many of these paintings are the fruits of co-authorship. Pearson Wright has bought paintings from thrift shops, and added new characters precisely in order to throw the onlooker into confusion. So the paintings we see are a strange mixture of high art and as-tacky-as-you-come low art.
Three minutes' walk away, at 1 Berwick Street, Pearson Wright is starring in Maze, a two-screen film installation with Keira Knightley. Here his identity has shifted yet again, from cowboy to Elizabethan courtier, stalking an ever-elusive muse through a maze for eight protracted minutes of viewing time. As with the paintings, there is passion, bravura of a very staged kind. In what century will this shape-shifter find himself next time?
I Remember You: to 26 June; Maze: to 9 June (020 7439 0000)