I have made paintings of people, of their faces but I have never called them portraits. After making paintings that interrogated the idea of the natural history specimen: the dead animal, the stuffed animal; people then began to appear. The paintings’ way of looking, however, remained the same. The scrutiny of a surface charged with the pleasure of examining in detail, as if this necessarily determines verity. In the insect paintings, the complex surface of the collected specimen becomes the subject. The specimen as individual then is relieved of the task of representing the species. These were more like portraits than entomological illustrations, such as the Tudor portraits by William Larkin, where he revelled in the details of embroidery and the lace at the expense of character of the subject.
My paintings use photography as a way of recording information, a way of eroding the hierarchy between parts of the subject, and thus rendering every part as if they were of equal significance. In the Samson series I used photographs of male body builders from the magazines: Flex and Muscle and Fitness as source images. I excised the faces of the bodybuilders, not those faces where they are able to pose for the camera, but the ones where the physical exertion is too much and the face becomes a grimace. Cropped to remove any context for the facial contortions they exist as specimens of pain or ecstasy. These paintings reminded me of the ‘Character Heads’ created by the sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt between 1770 and 1783: a taxonomy of expression and feeling, on the male face.
In my paintings of eyes, a single eye on a round wooden panel is depicted in isolation, reminiscence of Victorian keepsakes. In these ‘Lovers’ Eyes’ the portrait embodies the act of possession: a person captured, collected, indeed possessed by another. The fragment becomes an artefact representing the whole, much as the specimen might represent the species, and the history of its various taxonomies.
The Collected Human describes some of the human images that I found in the Wellcome Collection, in the storage depot. Miniature portraits of characters in the collection, anatomical heads, wax heads, death masks; the images are poised between life and death. The Forgettory (2014) is a painting of the head of an anatomical figure. The bandages that appear to bind it have been applied by conservators, to protect the object from accidental damage. My mother is in an advanced state of dementia, and the title for this painting comes from an increasingly rare and touching moment of lucidity, when she told me that, while she has no short-term memory, she has a very good forgettory.