Why The BP Portrait Award Needs To Be Shaken Up

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 38 months ago

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Why The BP Portrait Award Needs To Be Shaken Up
The overall winner by Clara Drummond left us rather underwhelmed. Copyright the artist.

The BP portrait award at the National Portrait Gallery is an annual exhibition that pulls together portrait artists from around the world.

It's a popular show and the works on display are largely all accomplished works by talented painters.

But a visitor to this exhibition may be fooled into thinking contemporary portraiture has barely moved on from the Van Dycks in the gallery upstairs. The same painters appear year after year, and it seems this discipline has stagnated.

For example, the overall runner up is a portrait by Bo Wang of his dying grandmother on her hospital bed. It's charged with personal emotion and skilfully executed. Or look at the beautiful painting by Joshua LaRock of his wife in a pre-Raphaelite style.

A painting of Bo Wang's dying grandmother is technically brilliant and packs an emotional punch, but we were after something more. Copyright the artist

These works are excellent but they lack a sense of the new; there is nothing in either work that makes us approach a painting in a different way or to make us challenge what portraiture can be.

The one work in this exhibition that did challenge us is by Charlie Mason. He has captured a blurry reflection of his face as seen in the screen of his iPhone. It perfectly captures today's Zeitgeist. He shows how our identity is tied to our phones and how — often — the first image of ourselves is our reflection in the half-light as we scrabble for our phones, checking what's happened in our world while we've been asleep.

We hoped there would be more works like this at the exhibition, but it was a solitary reminder of where the BP portrait award should be heading.

The usual array of elderly people, schoolchildren and minor celebrities have a place, but there need to be more stimulating works here too.

Elena Garcia de la Fuente's self-referential paintings focus on how people engage with art rather than the art itself. Copyright the artist

It's not even that portraitists can't be innovative — plenty of contemporary artists are taking a new approach; just look at the work of Carne Griffiths or Elena Garcia de la Fuente. They may not be revolutionising painting, but they are taking portraiture in new directions, exploring new styles or themes.

Next year the prize needs much more breadth and depth, and judges should bravely step away from the stagnant conveyor belt it's become.

This will require shaking up of the frankly archaic rules of having to paint from life and the restrictions on what materials can be used.

But we've been saying this for the last few years and we're worried that the organisers are too stuck in their ways and unwilling to change.

Portraiture can be moving, stimulating and intellectually challenging. If this prize can re-discover these strengths then it will become an exhibition to look forward to every year.

The BP portrait award 2016 is on at National Portrait Gallery until 4 September. Entrance is free.

Last Updated 28 June 2016