The eyes of the beholder


Tim Hilton
Saturday 18 May 1996 23:02

Modern artists often neglect

portraiture. But when the

avant-garde depict people,

the results can be surprising

Exhibitions of portraits are not very common, apart from those mounted by professional societies, so it's good to see "Portrait of the Artist" at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery. This is a survey of portraiture within the contemporary avant-garde. The exhibition can't be representative, since all the artists are concerned with the gallery in one way or another. But d'Offay spreads his net wide (there are 40 works on display, from Britain, Europe and America) and the show is something more than an anthology of the artists in his stable.

A catalogue essay might have been interesting. Nobody these days writes about the subject, while artists tend to dramatise the problems of the genre. They don't like depictions of people's features to be straightforward. Two further things are obvious from this exhibition. Within painting, the art of portraiture is not more radical or advanced than it was half a century ago. It has simply been given a contemporary look by technical effects from photography. As for sculpture - alas! there's a gap. For most of the 20th century, three-dimensional portrait art has either been academic or neglected by non-academic artists. Sculptors have lost due opportunity to make portraiture a true part of modern art.

The most arresting sculpture at d'Offay is by the Greek-Italian Jannis Kounellis, a veteran of the arte povera movement of around 1970. But it's doubtfully a portrait. The implication is that we're looking at a 1996 version of a crucifixion. The sculpture is made from three pieces of wood suspended from the ceiling by a steel ring. Thick paper crudely marked with black paint is clamped to the upper part of the wood. The piece nearly works, but is a little too pompous. Kounellis has hinted at crucifixions before. He ought to stay away from the subject, for arte povera, in its origins or present-day forms, needs a lighter touch.

But not the touch of the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco, who is in London this year for a project with the Artangel Trust. He has responded to the d'Offay invitation with Self-Pot. On two house bricks stands a terracotta flower pot. It's filled with earth, from which a wooden stick protrudes. This is a poor work, without any sculptural ambition. I prefer badness to be done with humour, here provided by Jeff Koons's two pieces, a self- portrait and a double portrait with his loving porn-star wife (now ex- wife). Made from perfect marble as if by Renaissance craftsmen (Koons himself does not produce his work), these pieces are a celebration of kitsch. The joke is by now familiar, though, and will shortly be over.

Koons makes the point that self-portraiture can depend on little more than egotism and clever publicity. So it is with Gilbert & George, who last week received an honorary fellowship of the London Institute for "outstanding achievement" and an "honourable association" with the Institute. The latter means that they were students at St Martin's 30 years ago. Their present achievement is seen in a 15-panel photograph piece called Piss Hole. The naked artists have their back to the camera and seem to be urinating. There's also a 1972 video of G&G in the exhibition, made when portable and cheapish video equipment first became available. It looks amateur today, especially when contrasted with the technological expertise of Bill Viola.

The painting at d'Offay is much better and includes one canvas of really substantial merit. This is Anselm Kiefer's Die Orden der Nacht, painted earlier this year. It's enormous, and only just fits onto the gallery wall. The size is matched by the physicality of the paint, which is acrylic with lots of emulsion, plus shellac. Kiefer has churned and plastered this mixture to make an impasto that seems reckless yet turns out to be under some kind of tumultuous artistic control. You feel that it ought to be ugly, but it isn't. The picture is a feat of bravura, and that bravura may be necessary because the painting's theme is a little sentimental. The painter lies in a forest of enormous sunflowers, the world of his creative imaginings. This is very Germanic and not quite grown-up. A smaller painting with a similar theme is far less effective, and in fact looks like something out of the John Moores.

Roy Lichtenstein's Coup de Chapeau (Self-Portrait), again painted this year, is a sprightly piece of work and, within Lichtenstein's terms, original. For he has been copying or parodying modern paintings for so long that it is surprising that he has been simply influenced by serious modern art. Picasso of the late 1930s is somewhere behind this picture. Generally, the painters in this show don't like to admit influence from previous artists. Richard Hamilton shows two portraits of friends, Dieter Roth and Derek Jarman, both derived from photographs. The Jarman picture is spoilt by a background in which Hamilton, unsuccessfully, jeers at abstract fine art. Gerhard Richter's oddly touching portrait of his wife is also based on a photograph. The touches of mishandled pigment are there to assert that painting cannot do what photography does, which is course is true.

A more lavishly emotional picture is Howard Hodgkin's In Memory of Max Gordon, perhaps as large a picture as he has ever produced. And here we find the paradox of his portraiture. Is it really a picture of the late architect? Hodgkin does a lot of portraits but we can never tell who they depict, so opaque is the artist's personal vision. At the same time, of course, we always know they are by Hodgkin, because he's unmistakable. In this way portraits of other people always turn into self-portraits. As far as I know, this curious feature of Hodgkin's painting has no parallel in other art. It is certainly a part of his originality. I wonder if the underlying message is that all artists, however much they concentrate on other people's features, are really mostly concerned with themselves.

Women don't feature much in this exhibition, apart from two drawings by Kiki Smith and a torso bust by Louise Bourgeois. There's a splendidly amusing self-portrait by Richard Patterson. Quite without talent are Lawrence Weiner's words, which he pretends are drawings. A Cibachrome transparency by Jeff Wall will be useful to anyone who missed his recent Whitechapel show. Other works are by Ellsworth Kelly, Georg Baselitz, Francesco Clemente and Reinhard Mucha. Mario Merz has scribbled his own face and Richard Long has taken photographs of his own shadow.

! Anthony d'Offay, W1 (0171 499 4100) to 22 Jun.

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