I have painted people since I was a student, but often the works are distinguished either by the subjects’ absence (with only a trace such as an empty park bench or tracks made in snow) or they are back views. Nowadays, some of the people have turned around and are looking out of the painting, but not directly at the viewer. A recent series of ‘portraits’ of Ian Hamilton Finlay was painted in fragments as a presence in his garden. There was a relationship between the act of Ian walking towards or away from me, and that was the way I painted him – approaching, passing by and leaving. I paint other sitters when they are talking to someone else, an oral historian, who is recording their life story. This allows me to observe how their face and body change as they talk about their life, what shapes they tend to relax into as their tension reduces: their gestures and their postures when speaking. In both cases I describe portraits as being part of my practice and I never describe myself as a portrait painter, because in the context of the art world and the art school the words ‘portrait’ and ‘painter’ have uncomfortable connotations. For most of my working life figurative painting has been out of favour and practitioners of it were considered to be backward looking. This has meant that it was only the people who really wanted to paint who did and it became a rather eccentric activity. Painting portraits was even more so – something to be done in the privacy of one’s own studio and not talked about. I set up this research project in order to start a conversation.
In 2015 I applied for modest funding from the UAL to start a ‘Community of Practice’ and the steering group quickly fell in to place: myself, Mark Fairnington, Reader at CCW, Stephen Farthing, UAL Rootstein Hopkins Professor of Drawing, Charlotte Hodes, Professor in Fine Art at LCF, and Anita Taylor, Professor and Dean of Bath School of Art and Design. Charlotte and I now lead the project. What initially seemed like group therapy became a dynamic dialogue, which brought together artists, theorists, curators and writers, examining what happens when different disciplines and perspectives are brought to bear on the concept of portraiture. We have organised four symposia: at London College of Fashion (2015) and at Corsham Court, part of Bath Academy of Art (2015), and this year at Hauser & Wirth Somerset and at the National Portrait Gallery. The themes that have emerged from these events relate to identity, the embodied self, vulnerability, exposure, possession, gaze, power and the archival inhabitation of the body. These strands have been brought together through a series of essays commissioned for our web-based learning resource, designed by She Was Only and launched at the symposium at the National Portrait Gallery in July 2016. Here, artists and researchers explore the representation of exposure in their practice in the context of the works in the exhibition: Exposed: The Naked Portrait and of the NPG’s permanent collection.