Benjamin Brown

Pick of 2016: BP Portrait Award hosted by the National Portrait Gallery

Having now marked 27 years of being sponsored by British Petroleum, the Award’s affiliation with a gargantuan, commerce driven Oil Company is hotly contested by those who raise wholly valid ethical concerns over such ties. Whilst the award’s integrity has been called into question by some, it is undoubtedly the case that since this partnership began, the financial clout of BP has helped increase gallery visitor numbers all across the UK. I would personally rather pretend that the abbreviation of BP stands instead for ‘Best Portrait’ Award, with the focus of attention being solely on the works of art themselves, which were this year sublimely inventive and on occasions even playfully subversive.

As a self-confessed cinephile, one of the exhibition’s highlights is Hadyn as Henry, by Stephen Earl Rogers. Capturing its subject from an intensely cinematic low-angle vantage point, the portrait deliberately alludes to the film Goodfellas (1990), and in particular to Ray Liotta’s portrayal of Henry Hill. Similarly dressed to his idol, this impressionable black youth is seen staring intently straight ahead, with moist lips slightly parted and his face bathed in the warm glow of the television screen. Another painting to feature a somewhat unusual, unconventional positioning for both viewer and subject is Bo Wang’s Silence, winner of the competition’s second prize. Wonderfully tender and intimate, it is of the artist’s own terminally ill grandmother lying on her hospital bed. Produced just a month or so before she died her face is angled towards us, her gaze betraying both quiet dignity and solemnity.

However, the winning entry this year is in some ways altogether more conventional in nature, at least in its composition and address to the viewer. Edinburgh born artist Clara Drummond’s Girl In A Liberty Dress is a delicate, almost pallid painting reminiscent of early Lucien Freud and Girl With Kitten (1947) with its anaemic pastel shades and the woman’s enigmatic and somewhat pensive facial expression. Venturing briefly from the Portrait Award, the Modern Portrait exhibition is currently showcasing another Scottish artist, Ken Currie, and his luminous large-scale group portrait entitled The Three Oncologists (2002). Continuing with the Scottish theme, John Byrne’s free flowing, energetic chalk drawing of actress Tilda Swinton is also well worth seeking out.

Running until March 2017 I recommend anyone who can spare the time to pay a visit, with pay here being the inoperative word seeing as the exhibition is entirely free. I would however encourage people to ‘Shell’ (pun intended) out some coppers on a couple of gift shop postcards seeing as several are of portraits featuring in the exhibition. I myself bought a postcard of one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits; a typically facetious etching of him pompously dressed in full regalia and wielding a raised Sabre in one hand. For all contemporary portraiture’s dynamism and innovation, perhaps sometimes it doesn’t hurt to look to the past for inspiration too.

Peter Knox

Pick of 2016: Homemade Lemonade by Ette

My favourite album of 2016 is Homemade Lemonade by Ette.

Ette are Carla Easton and Joe Kane.
Homemade Lemonade is a fun, clever, psychedelic, infectious, pop masterpiece.
Featuring glam soul cheerleaders on the attack, an air hostess with a fear of flying, birthday cake and the best Christmas song since Phil Spector bestowed his gift upon us.
The synths growl, the choruses soar and the hooks are barbed so they won’t let go.
It’s full of massive moments and beautiful little touches.
It’s exciting and glorious.
It’s fresh and invigorating.
It’s absolutely fucking magic.
Buy it.