Emerging Portrait Artists Show Up Big Name Contemporaries

Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 31 months ago
Emerging Portrait Artists Show Up Big Name Contemporaries Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture 3
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A woman and her baby are beautifully lit as she reads a possession order, which has been framed next to the photograph in the gallery. (c) Tom Hunter and Purdy Hicks Gallery, London
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Anatomical drawings meet photograph as the skin is 'peeled' back to show the underlying muscles. (c) Jeremy Gardiner
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Grayson Perry demonstrates once again he can turn his hand to any style of art; this time he's emulating American folk art with a self-portrait. © Grayson Perry
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Gavin Turk presents his own death mask, but yet another work by him about his legacy and his obsession with himself makes this feel tired. (c) Gavin Turk, Anthony Oliver
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The miniature portraits are next door so it's only fitting for an artist to create some contemporary editions. Photograph by Bettina Von Zwehl
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Julian Opie doesn't stray from his signature outline style, and so this work feels underdeveloped. (c) Julian Opie and Alan Cristea Gallery

Londonist Rating: ★★★☆☆

Each generation of portraitists learns from the previous. But what happens when modern artists pay homage to the past greats to the extent that they directly attempt to emulate their styles?

This is the theme of the two room display — Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture — tucked away on the third floor of the V&A, containing a mixture of works looking at technique, composition, technology and politics.

The show contains some major names from the art world but it's these entries that disappoint; Cindy Sherman's contribution is drab, Julian Opie shows once again his inability to depart from signature style, and Gavin Turk's obsession with himself became tiresome many years ago. The one exception amongst the big hitters is Grayson Perry, who shows his versatility yet again by creating a self-portrait in the style of American folk art.

Thankfully the lesser known artists contribute some stellar works. Tom Hunter's photograph of a woman reading a possession order by a window captures the light illuminating her face and that of her baby's. It's a contemplative scene that has been beautifully composed, and a clear homage to Vermeer.

We also liked Pedro Meyer's attempt to unify the Americas by placing Che Guevara's face on a five dollar bill, and Jeremy Gardiner's tribute to earlier anatomical drawings by showing a face which appears to have half its skin peeled back revealing the musculature below.

The room full of miniature portraits is next door so it's only fitting that Bettina von Zwehl has created miniatures of her own. But rather than celebrating a renowned figure, she has chosen to glorify one of the V&A's visitor services assistants across 34 mini portraits as a tribute to the unsung backbone of museums.

This small exhibition may be inconsistent in quality, but the lesser known artists save the day, making this a fitting and thoughtful homage to the history of portraiture.

Facing History: Contemporary Portraiture is on in Room 88a at V&A until 24 April 2016. Entrance to this display and the V&A permanent collection is free. Also still on at V&A are the last few days of the Alexander McQueen blockbuster, the historical photographs of Linnaeus Tripe, a look at shoes and an exhibition asking what is luxury.

Next door at the Natural History Museum there are corals, butterflies and wildlife photography. While the Science Museum has exhibitions looking at revelations in photography, Churchill's scientists and a new information age gallery.

For more portraiture visit the National Portrait Gallery for this year's BP portrait award and a Hepburn exhibition.

Last Updated 30 July 2015