It’s all in a face

Clive Gracey – –

It may come as a surprise to some that Stal Gallery, Muscat’s premier venue for exhibiting experimental and conceptual art, is opening the season with an exhibition entitled Portrait, featuring a total of 40 representational images of faces by 11 artists.
It is a sad fact that the more extreme arbiters of contemporary art orthodoxy dismiss portraits as serious art. Portraiture, they argue, is bogged down by its 5,000-year-old tradition and has become a hopelessly tired and old-fashioned genre. Tradition has, after all, become something of a dirty word in contemporary art circles in recent years.
Furthermore, these art-world firebrands sometimes argue that portraiture is a dishonest genre as portrait painters often work to commission and therefore have an obligation to toady to their subjects by turning back the years, ignoring warts and wrinkles or by subtracting (or adding!) a few inches here and there. After all, look what happened when Graham Sutherland painted his brutally honest portrait of Sir Winston Churchill; when nobody was looking, the enraged subject had the offending masterpiece thrown onto a bonfire.
And anyway, they smugly scoff, if one wants a likeness of someone in this digital age, why not just whip out a smartphone and snap a photograph rather than go to all those tedious lengths of painting a portrait?
Yet in spite of these objections from effete art world demagogues, there is no getting away from the fact that portraiture remains a very popular genre with both painters and the gallery-going public alike. This is no doubt due in large measure to the immediate human and emotional accessibility of a portrait compared to, say, a filthy unmade bed or a dead shark suspended in a glass tank of formaldehyde.
What is more, in this digital age of the instant and transient selfie, there remains an urge among artists to create more measured, more thoughtful and hopefully more enduring representations of the human face.
Nuanced response to the face of another individual is elemental to the human condition, as evinced even by newborns. As a race, we did not stop responding to the faces of others just because Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a gallery and let loose the lie that anything (except, apparently, the ancestral art forms) can be Art. So why then should portraiture be irrelevant as a valid and relevant art form?
Happily, the portraiture is no longer restricted to commissioned studies of sour-faced old worthies intended to dangle on the wall of a stately home, a public school vestibule or a corporate boardroom. The invention of photography in the first half of the 19th century not only liberated painters from the onerous task of painting exact likenesses of their subjects, it also freed portrait painters from having to draw and paint from bored and fidgeting live subjects. Thanks to photography, any of us can paint a portrait of anybody who inspires us, living or deceased, as long as we have a photograph of their face.
The fact of the matter is that portrait painting is as valid and meaningful for artists as it ever was, as shown in the wide-ranging and exuberant approaches to the genre on display in Portrait at Stal Gallery. There is little evidence here of sycophantic flattery, though in most cases there is a clear concern for creating a resemblance of the subjects depicted.
Some of the subjects drawn or painted by the artists in this exhibition are well-known figures, others are friends or family members. What unifies the different media and approaches to the portrait evident in this show is that the artists have all clearly been emotionally inspired by their subjects in some way. It is this emotional response to the subject that shine through in these works, something that is often all too lacking in the cold works of today’s more avant-garde artists.
Portrait at Stal Gallery on Al-Inshirah Street (Medinat Al-Sultan Qaboos slip road) is open from 10am-6pm Sunday to Thursday and runs until 15th October. The exhibition features works by Hassan Meer, Alia Al Farsi, Saleem Sakhi, Sami Al Siyabi, Heather Ford, Debjani Bhardwaj, Zahra Soleymani, Sarah Al Balushi, Ruqaiya Abdallah, Rawan Al Mahrouqi, and Estabrak Al Ansari.