Do You Feature In One Of These Paintings Of Tube Commuters?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 13 months ago

Last Updated 04 April 2023

Do You Feature In One Of These Paintings Of Tube Commuters?

Appreciate good art? Check out the best exhibitions to see in London this spring.

Painting of four commuters sat on tube train

As commuters on the tube, we're inescapably on display. And who knows, maybe we'll even end up playing the unwitting muse to an artist. An artist like, say, Emily Gillbanks.

Gillbanks — a graduate of the Royal College of Art — depicts lost-in-thought London tube commuters in her debut show, Temporary Sitters which is on at Mayfair's JD Malat Gallery this spring. The show invites visitors to sit opposite the paintings, as if they themselves are commuters. However, there is a catch: Gillbanks never saw her subjects in real life — all her images are painted from Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram.

painting of a woman commuter

"It started during the coronavirus pandemic, I had an absence of subjects," Gillbanks tells Londonist, "I was unable to observe or document people how I would usually. I found myself either dwelling inwardly, referring to myself, or the people that I could see through Zoom tiles.

"This then extended to what I call the uncurated gallery in my pocket. An endless realm of images I can scroll or back-scroll through. I needed to find a new way to observe people or people watch. The metaverse allowed me to people-watch, only virtually."

painting of a man looking at his phone on the tube

There is an intended sense of voyeurism going on in Temporary Sitters, the irony being that most of the subjects are so engrossed in their own social media themselves — heads buried in their phone screens, or otherwise staring dreamily into the middle-distance — that even if they had been sketched by Gillbanks while on the tube, they mightn't have clocked her.

Two commuters wearing masks

Says Gillbanks, "Most of my subjects do not pay attention to me or the viewers whatsoever. Overall, I want people to question what it means to observe life today in contemporary society."

Gillbanks goes on to talk about the modern-day voyeurism of contemporary society: smartphone cameras installed with GPS trackers; apps that allow you to upload pictures that have been taken in public spaces without an individual's knowledge or consent; and social media which enables you to scroll selectively through personal information, pictures, and posts, which the poster has agreed to, by way of the terms of the site. In this regard, Temporary Sitters is complex — as the artist is making use of such terms herself.

Paintings of commuters installed as if on an actual platform

That said, Gillbanks — who moved to London from Essex post-pandemic, to study for a Masters degree — explains that when on the tube, she finds herself 'inventing characters' for the people sitting across from her. That sense has crept into Temporary Sitters: "Most of the people have been altered in my paintings in some way or other. This was the purpose. The strangers and imagined elements allowed me to not worry so much about what the people look like as I was creating them."

There is still, however, a chance that you'll be reading this article right now and looking back at a face that eerily resembles your own.

Painting of a man in a blue shirt sitting on the tube

The paintings — on display at the gallery from 16 March to 8 April — are crafted through a combination of drawing, painting and digital cloning techniques; some of the moquette patterns, for instance, are copied by computer in order to create a 'printed' uniformity.

Painting of four commuters lined up on a platform

They are in themselves, accomplished and intriguing artworks (and if you're in the position to buy, know they are for sale too). But you might find yourself even more drawn to them than you might be to most other paintings, purely because they invite you to linger your gaze on 'fellow' commuters for longer than it'd be comfortable — or appropriate — in any real life scenario.

Painting of two commuters sat together

Which leads us to wonder if Gillbanks ever strikes up conversations with commuters herself?

"I am quite introverted, so not usually. However, if there was someone that I really wanted to paint I would ask them."

Painting of two commuters on a train - one in shorts

Temporary Sitters, 16 March-8 April 2023, free to visit.

All images © Emily Gillbanks