Exhibitions: If you want to get ahead, get a different sort of brain

The Painter's Eye National Portrait Gallery, London Glenn Brown Jerwood Space, London

Take a wrong turn in the National Portrait Gallery at the moment and you risk finding yourself face to face with the severed head of Humphrey Ocean, the frontal lobes of his brain laid bare behind a perspex dome in his skull. No, Damien Hirst has not taken up portraiture. Ocean's head is a plastic copy and its purpose is scientific rather than artistic. Thanks to an pounds 80,000 grant from the Wellcome Foundation, a small exhibition called "The Painter's Eye" - Ocean's being the organ in question - uses "state-of-the-art biomedical equipment" to examine the neurological involvement in "the central mystery of the creative process", to wit, portrait painting.

Roughly speaking, what the neurologists have discovered is that Ocean, locked inside a scanner with a sketch pad and pencil, uses different parts of his brain to draw different things: faces from photographs, abstract geometric figures and, for some unspecified reason, letters from the Korean alphabet. His brain also worked differently from that of some poor sap known to posterity only as "the non-artist", who is given to doing mere "slavish copying" when presented with his sketch pad. The exhibition shows this by contrasting MRI images of Ocean's brain at work, various bits of it lit in orange according to the task it is performing, with those of the non-artist aforementioned. And then, of course, there is the plastic head, the frontal lobes of which throb an angry red, bearing as they do the neurological brunt of Ocean's creative genius.

Surprised? Well, no. If there are extraordinary scientific revelations contained in any of this, they are either beyond the comprehension of the average Portrait Gallery punter (this one included) or inadequately explained. Who could be surprised to find that different brains work differently when presented with different tasks? This revelation is particularly underwhelming in the last part of the show, which invites us to look with new eyes at four portraits chosen by Ocean: Rembrandt's picture of Margaretha de Geer, Gwen John's Portrait of a Nun, Warhol's Marilyn Diptych and Frank Auerbach's Head of Catherine Lampert. Rather than demystifying the creative process, the sloppy curatorship of "The Painter's Eye" only makes it more mysterious still. Here, apparently, is a discrete and homogeneous subset of homo sapiens called "artists" - or, even more specifically, "portrait painters" - whose brains glow a uniform orange when presented with a sketch pad in a magnetic scanner. In spite of this, they produce works as extraordinarily different as Warhol's obsessive-compulsive Marilyns and Auerbach's impastoed vision of Ms Lampert. As with Jonathan Miller's patronising exhibition on the neurological implications of reflection in art at the National Gallery last year, the NPG's show assumes that visitors will be drawn from another subset of humanity called "people who frequent art galleries", clearly a synonym in the Wellcome Foundation's mind for "people who failed their physics O-level". In any case, trying to excite the public with extruded plastic heads in a room that also contains Rembrandt's sublime portrait of Jacob Trip's widow is an uphill struggle. The National Portrait Gallery is enough of a Wunderkammer without flashing frontal lobes.

Still, you can't help wondering just which areas of Glenn Brown's brain must have lit up when he was painting pictures like Bertrand Russell at the BBC (1999) and Death of a Disco Dancer (1998), currently on show at the Jerwood Gallery. Shortlisted last year for the Jerwood Art Prize, Brown has spent the last eight years repainting Auerbach portraits in his own style. Since this style is the diametric opposite of Auerbach's - Brown paints with a photorealist exactness and a fine squirrel-hair brush; Auerbach in vast, gloopy strokes that slop somewhere between expressionism and abstraction - the whole thing seems more than faintly perverse.

And perversity is precisely where the considerable power of Brown's work lies. He does not simply paint Auerbach's subjects: he paints Auerbach's brush-strokes, copying them from photographs onto a canvas balanced on his lap, flattening the wild impasto of the originals into a wafer-thin, meticulously brittle surface so flawless that it, too, looks photographic. Every muddy trench of Auerbach's technique, every globule, each viscous string, is copied exactly. Like six-foot models of Salisbury Cathedral built in matchsticks, two things confound the viewer of Brown's work: the sheer scale of the undertaking and the bizarre unsuitability of the medium for the task to which it has been applied.

As with matchstick cathedrals, the viewer is left scratching his head as to why Brown should have gone to all the trouble. The Jerwood's exhibition notes suggest things to do with "critical discourses surrounding originality and authorship", and they are doubtless all true. (Brown did go to Goldsmiths, after all.) But if there is something conceptual going on here, there is also something more straightforwardly painterly. For all its meticulousness, it is certainly not the slavish copying portion of Brown's brain that must flash orange when he is at work. These are not copies of portraits but portraits of portraits. It seems obvious to say that you do not set out to do what Brown does unless you feel strongly about your subject: the question that remains unanswered, having looked at his work, is whether his strong feelings towards Auerbach are ones of homage or its opposite. It is easy to read the extraordinary perversity of Brown's painting as a love-letter to Auerbach's gloopiness, but it is equally easy to read it as a corrective to it. In flattening itself to the canvas, Brown's style plays its cards close to its chest. It is this sphinx-like quality that makes his work both oddly troubling and unpleasantly powerful.

'The Painter's Eye': National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055) to 13 June. 'Glenn Brown': Jerwood Gallery, SE1 (0171 654 0171) to 23 May.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers