Portraiture 2020

Reviewing Arcadia Contemporary’s First Exhibition of the New Decade

by Jess Hendel

Since 2001, Arcadia Contemporary has carved out a niche as one of the leading galleries exhibiting representational artists. In 2016, they moved from Culver City to a 3,000-square-foot space in Pasadena’s Old Town district, making them one of the largest exhibition spaces for contemporary representational art on the west coast. According to its website, the gallery “proudly maintains its vision to present virtuoso, realist painting, drawing and sculpture by artists who are creating genuinely unique and timeless work.” 

This mission is proudly on display in their January exhibition, “Portraiture 2020.” Even within the contemporary realist movement, the portraits on view reflect a diversity of styles and “takes” on representational portraiture. “The idea was to find five painters from around the world who are all approaching the same subject matter—in this case, portraiture—but because of their unique and singular styles of painting, are creating works that are ultimately and vastly different,” explains curator Steve Diamant. “Arcadia wanted to show that representational portraiture, in the hands of singularly talented painters could, essentially take any shape or form. In addition, we wanted to show that the genre of portraiture is constantly changing and evolving when handled by skilled and informed artists.” 

Will St. John, Laura Sims in Landscape, 2019, oil on panel, 23 in. diameter

To move “chronologically,” so to speak, through style and inspiration, would make the works of Will St. John a natural starting point. The subjects in his portraits—particularly those in Spring and The Cloud—are rendered in classically fluid brush strokes, with a luminosity about them that immediately harkens a viewer back to the Old Masters. I asked St. John about his personal inspirations and how he situates his style within the contemporary realist movement, given recent trends away from classicism and toward photorealism. He replied: “the classical style of painting epitomized by artists like Rembrandt, Titian, Vermeer and Velazquez employs a hierarchy of visual importance. Unlike photorealism, which treats each mole, freckle, and hair with equal concern, the Old Masters purposefully ordered the elements in their pictures in terms of both symbolism and visual significance. This is what I hope to achieve.”

Mary Jane Ansell - "Naissance" - Oil on Aluminum - 24 x 20 inchesNext comes the elegant, refined portraits of Welsh artist Mary Jane Ansell, whose maximal realism takes its inspiration from the works of the Pre-Raphaelites. The backgrounds behind her immaculate subjects are filled with either famous works of art or blooming, bounteous floral arrangements.

According to Ansell’s website, she uses an indirect and highly meticulous technique in her paintings, “building up many layers of increasing detail, firstly with a light charcoal sketch then building up a monochrome grisaille underpainting over which I gradually add colour with both transparent glazes and full bodied colour.” 

"Being largely self taught and growing up as a painter in the UK," adds Ansell over our correspondence, "I think I developed a certain idiosyncratic style which doesn’t fall into the tradition of classical realism or the discipline of photorealism, though I much appreciate those two styles and might draw on them, in the way that the Floralia series nods to my love of great society portrait painters like Sargent and De László. The still life behind my sitters reference another great love of mine, with elements taken from the golden age of Dutch still life."

Next we have the “haunting” works of Taiwanese painter Lo Chan Peng, on view here for the first time in the United States. The thickly applied oil paint with which he renders his melancholy, sometimes anguished subjects contrasts with the the sparse application of paint in the background, creating the illusion that the subjects are emerging from the mists—and adding to the somber tone.

One particularly poignant piece is A Syrian Boy, in which the eponymous boy is rendered with no mouth, symbolizing the refugee’s voicelessness. His large eyes, wide with fear, and the bandage wrapped around his forehead convey the pain and terror of his experience. His body seems to be in the process of evaporating into the grey behind him, but his face is in prominent relief in the foreground, refusing to be ignored. 

Lo Chan Peng - "A Syrian Boy" - Oil on Canvas - 28 x 36 inches

Departing from these more traditional works are the minimalist, dynamic portraits of Australian artist Loribelle Spirovski. And yet representational they still are, balancing detailed depictions of human features with bold, raw lines of paint that appear almost scribble-like at first blush. The goal seems to be to capture the energy of the sitter as well as their likeness. The artist has a self-professed fascination with space, and her works reflect the ideology that “space is never ‘negative’ even when empty.” Even among her works on display here, there is a great deal of variety: paintings such as Homme feature more explicit minimalism and empty space than Chimera and Donna Cattiva, which are each filled to the brim with an explosion of different styles—from realism to impression to minimalism—all at once.

Loribelle Spirovski - "Chimera" - Oil on Linen - 48 x 36 inches

Last but not least, we have the works of Brisith artist Ben Ashton, affectionately referred to by Diamant as “the rebel” of the five. Many of Ashton’s portraits are classical in style—up until they are jarringly interrupted by warps or distortions in the faces, particularly around the eyes. “I have always enjoyed being the underdog, and I find it terribly amusing using these Old Master techniques in such a silly way,” says Ashton. The separation of the eyes from the lower part of the faces, along with the stretched foreheads, conjures a very visceral feeling of unease yet fascination in the viewer. 

Ben Ashton - "3rd Marquess of North Harringuay" Oil on Canvas - 35 x 28 inches

And intentionally so: Ashton’s works are less an evolution of European realism than a subversion of it, incisively critiquing the British imperialist ideology that Western art too often bolstered and reinforced. “The initial reason I started employing these distortions,” explains Ashton, “was a reaction to the respect and deference the British have towards our own history and tradition. As a culture I feel that we constantly look to the the days of empire to validate our world views, often distorting facts to give a rosier picture of our past achievements. I suppose by using these distortions I intend to make the past unsafe and maybe poke fun at it. I find that by subverting this imagery I can give it a new purpose, and it becomes a critique of where we find ourselves now.” Adds Diamant: “The skill and mastery of classic portraiture is present, but then appears what seems to be ‘computer glitches’ or other ‘technical difficulties’ that play with and distort what was the original, intended message of the portrait.” 

Overall, Arcadia Contemporary has provided a wonderfully diverse array of portraiture, from artists that take root in the mastery of the past and yet reach into the future for new meaning and stylistic innovation. It is a promising microcosm of contemporary representational art across the world. 

Click here for more information on the exhibit.