Take Britain: BP Spotlight Hockey's Double Portraits

Katie Wiseman shares her opinion on the three format painting exhibition.

15th February 2016

Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy 1970-1

My Parents 1977

George Lawson and Wayne Sleep 1972-5

This is a highly concentrated exhibition, a small room sheltering three large format paintings. The colour palette is very dated—synthetic teals and greens, powder blue and violet of the early colour-television variety, skin unsettlingly apricot-toned and reminiscent of coloured toilet paper. It’s extremely evocative, and places the paintings both neatly and accurately within the window of the seventies whilst conjuring the crackling atmosphere of all-new mod-cons, prosperity, and emergent affordable luxury.

   The figures are used as formal elements of the composition — I would go as far as to dispute that they are portraits, and suggest that the figures of themselves are not. The interiors, the objects, the clothes, project a lifestyle but there is precious little opportunity for psychological engagement with the sitters, except perhaps his Parents. There is something charming in his mother’s patience and neatness and the contrast it makes with his father, head bent over a magazine to occupy his hands and his heels hovering just above the rug with pent up restless energy, every muscle working hard.

   In terms of “painting a picture” of these couples, who could possibly comment on his success without being acquainted with the sitters. One suspects his approach is not dissimilar to that of the Tudor court painters and later artists such as Hogarth — domestic objects meticulously selected for significance and arranged throughout the setting to convey the status, interests, character and achievements of the persons depicted. Mr and Mrs Clark are shown to be people of means and of taste by a discreetly minimal interior with carpet thick enough to engulf the toes of the male figure, the designer Ozzie Clark. Art objects book-end the composition: a painting in a narrow gold frame, and an unusual decorative lamp balancing the picture on the opposite side.

   The use of domestic architectural features to break up the surface of the painting and create abstract interest is reminiscent of the James McNeil Whistler painting colloquially known as Whistler’s Mother. George Lawson and Wayne Sleep has an interesting flatness and scratched detailing and patterning which might not have survived the finishing process if it had not remained incomplete.

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