Published 20 November 2013 Jonathon McWilliam
Rather than a psychological study of the subjects, Inwood’s work is a study of portraiture – specifically, the subjective relationship between the sitter and the artist. Portraiture is the image of the relationship between the subject’s performance to the artist, the artist’s impression of the figure and the viewer’s perception of this relationship. The collection opens out a voyeuristic relationship in portraiture, interpreted by the viewer, perceived by the artist and existing in the sitter.
The exhibition Life Is 2013 at Bird Gallery is Christopher Inwood’s first solo exhibition. The exhibition consists of 14 artworks. There are six triptychs and eight single portraits. As a whole the most striking and visually immediate theme of the collection is the emphasis on technical process, identity and the function of process as a means of expression.
Each portrait is, in some ways, a recorded failure of the medium to capture some truth of the subject. Each figurative portrait falls conceptually short of the subject, and in the artists eyes, fails to be anything more than an evocation. This is most clearly expressed in Masquerade and Identity. In many ways the suggestion is presented that the only true portrait is the palette; the only truth to the image is the process of composition.
There is an express denial of the contextualisation of the sitter in ‘real’ space. The subject is not captured in a domestic environment, or the vista of a landscape. Instead they appear as though they are an image caught in a flash of light, illuminated by a projector screen. This also facilitates the idea of the projection of perception, not only of the artist upon the subject, but the viewer upon the art. As the viewer, we are made to feel as though we are the light source. This makes the viewer conscious of their own role in the effectiveness of the artwork.
In recreating and displaying Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban, a painting that is such a compositional reference to his work, Inwood collapses the distance between his artwork and that of the old master, through his triptych After Jan Van Eyck. It is interesting to compare the van Eyck triptych to Roughead. It would be too simplistic to say that in Roughead, Inwood merely borrows from the style of Picasso and Francis Bacon. Rather, Inwood shows what Bacon understood from Picasso. Just as Inwood appropriates the van Eyck and revises his historical trajectory. This concept in turn, is linked to the discussion of the viewer, sitter, artist, artwork and image relationship in Process, Study for a Portrait and forms the principle underpinning and structuring the collection as a whole. These portraits are self-conscious and deeply introspective. They are the first tentative steps for a promising young artist.
Could you discuss the technical process:
Inwood: My process usually starts with a person of interest. I’ll do a short sitting [sketching and photographs] but always end up painting from photos. People don’t have the time to come and sit for portraits any more and hardly the time for even a short sitting. Once I have chosen my canvas and image, the canvas will be covered in black oils and left to dry. When the canvas is dry I’ll sketch the image onto the canvas and start pushing oil paints. My palette rarely leaves yellow ochre, burnt semina, raw semina, raw umber, ivory black, titanium white and scarlet. These colours appeal to me because of where I come from and what I like in other artists [the yellowed vanishes of the old masters]. The composition comes from the sitter. I choose an image that is most telling about them, something that I perceive about this person will usually come through in their expression. The backgrounds role, I would say is to focus the attention of the viewer onto the sitter. Occasionally, I will break the void of the background to help the viewer to see their role as a voyeur.
Some of your individual works form part of a series, a triptych or diptych. Could you discuss the relationship between the individual works, a small collection (triptych/diptych) and the exhibition as a whole?
Inwood: I guess the connection is, since it is portraiture they are most often about the sitter and my perception of them. But when they become triptychs they are about the different perceptions of one person. No one person can be defined by one description of them and their personality. Further more, the changes in techniques between the triptychs help the viewer to place the art in some form of comparison. The eye will naturally choose a favorite. Hopefully the viewer will then ask themselves, why this? Collectively the exhibition relies on the triptych. I’m primarily entertaining the notion that everything we can grasp as humans comes down to three options: that being, yes, no, and maybe (past, present and future or, I believe, I don’t believe and I’m not sure) what better way to depict what life is.
This question in-part relates to the previous question. Do you feel that there is a sequential relationship, system or organisation to the paintings in the exhibition? If so, do you feel that the sequentiality is underpinned by a narrative?
Inwood: I believe so, I have used Jan Van Eyck’s work to anchor the show in our history and other works to show our possible progression while others communicate a more contemporary perception. These relationships help the viewer to understand portraiture and the world they live in. There is a narrative running throughout the exhibition that hinges on enabling the viewer to see what art can realise.
Could you discuss the exhibition title? Does it relate to the works, yourself as an artist or to an exhibition narrative?
Inwood: The title I would say relates to the work, myself and the overall narrative of the show. For myself, Life Is, the literary expression of my understanding of the world. Regarding the work, Life Is 2013 is a thread for the viewer to pick up and enabling some form of interaction with the works. It reveals my own and hopefully the viewers perceptions and social realities within life and art. As a narrative for the exhibition Life Is 2013 has heavy roots in our past. I see this history as an amalgamation of our present, something that can be manipulated for our future but can not be changed until tomorrow – hence the inclusion of “2013”.
Portraiture is a little passé in the contemporary art world, how do you see your artwork’s place within contemporary art, or the broader trajectory of art history? How does this inform your practice?
Inwood: Portraiture definitely has become passé in the art world of today. But that is today. Contemporary art has its brilliance in a conceptual realm but we deserve more. Within my own practice, portraiture is very important. The most interesting things that we know in this world are people, everything is shared with people and most of our emotions come from the causality of humans. People are the roots of a myriad of understanding.
Stylistically much of your work emphasizes process, what role does the medium and the process of composing and realising the pieces play in the final image? Is there a teleological aspect to your exhibition?
Process is a tool in my artwork, it helps me to articulate the image. Specifically I use it to describe where a space exists. The partner canvas’ best depict this as they are abstract forms that are the palettes for portraits. They have no role in the final portrait image but are linked through process.
Header image courtesy Christopher Inwood, After Jan Van Eyck, from the collection, Life Is 2013, 3×45.72×60.96cm, 2013.
‘There is no conscious inclusion of teleology in any form of gestural or symbolic painting within my work. However, the sense of an ultimate finality is something I intrinsically know. I cannot avoid it. Therefore it appears in the darkness of voids in the work. More so coming out in my own life in what I do and why I paint. Generally, as an artist I see an ultimate finality as being reflected in the essence of my artwork, involving concepts of the individual as well as legacy’.
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