Look at me! Portraiture under the loupe


MYSTERY that haunts. Genna and Felix, the winning work by Kate Arthur. Photograph courtesy Sanlam and Rust-En-Vrede Gallery

THEY MOSTLY GAZE back at you, with intent, each from his or her – or their – own vantage point, through the texture of lines drawn or painted in charcoal, pen or oils. Most embody a sense of mystique and a layering of narrative which makes you ponder and which haunts you as you walk the length of the gallery. These are the top 40 works on the Sanlam Portrait Award 2017, judged this iteration by Nkule Mabaso, Peter Monkman and Carl Jeppe, and won by Kate Arthur.

A biennial competition, started in 2013, it’s a celebration of the formality of the genre of portraiture and the finalists represent some brand new names on the art spectrum and some fresh and delightful, intense and focused approaches to the craft of rendering a likeness. By and large, it’s an extremely traditional project, harking back to the values of pre-Realism Europe where the portrait was king and it was assessed along the lines of very clearly determined rules of representation.

And by and large, what you find here are hard-boiled and clear approaches to the genre, with colour, tone and texture that resonates with naturalistic values, and images you can read very easily. It’s a project which overlooks the values that modernism sprinkled liberally onto representational art in all its tropes, corrupting them and pushing them into a state of torsion.

It’s also a project that flies in the face of self-consciously post-modern or post-post-modern self-reflexivity. Further to that, there’s an alarming absence of printmaking techniques or water colour. Were etchings and linocuts banned in the rules? Was there a point prohibiting water-based approaches? While some of the works are drawings, the vast majority are dinkum traditional oil paintings on canvas. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, there seems to be a very thin margin of approaches selected.

There are many stand out pieces, including Marié Stander’s Gifts from Joseph and Maureen, a drawing of a couple in charcoal and ink; Jennifer Ord’s An Instance of Substance, an image which skirts with light and dark with dexterity and cohesion; and Janine Anderson’s First Day at School, in which you can feel the crisp whiteness of the child’s brand new school uniform with your heart.

Ultimately, after perusing the whole collection, you understand why Kate Arthur’s Genna and Felix was deemed the best of them all. The two characters in underwear on a turquoise background, stand their ground provocatively in a way that makes you look. Their presence is unequivocal and their story, clearly involving forays into gender ambiguity and incapacity, is mysterious, but not too much that you lose focus and not too little that you lose interest. In short, it’s a précis, a haiku of narrative mystique. The painting in ‘real life’ is a lot smaller than what you might think, when you see a photograph of it, but the intensity of Arthur’s focus on the two characters sucks you into their souls.

There are also execrable examples of pieces that seem to contradict the overweening aesthetics and focus on skill of the body of work in entirety, and which seem to mischievously challenge the solemn premises of judging an art competition. A mixed couple with crudely crafted limbs in a cartoonish pose by Jacques André du Toit vies so markedly with the aesthetics of the rest of the works, it creates a mystery of its own. And while some portraits feel more like pictures than renditions which reach from the soul of the sitter to the soul of the viewer, in all, the collection is strong and bold, and very worth seeing.

  • Top 40: Sanlam Portrait Award 2017 is at the UJ Art Gallery in Auckland Park, until March 7. 011 559 2090.

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