In the lead up to Reflection: Contemporary Portrait Exhibition at Surface Gallery, Nathan T. Dean has been interviewing the artists about their practice and the wider artistic environment today. All our artists have been asked the same questions on portraiture, selfie culture, art, and more, to get an insight into how an international array of artists - all coming together under one set form of portraiture - can explore, tackle, and discuss the form in such varied ways.
And we begin, with David Hopkins.
For people who are just discovering your pieces, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your artistic practice, and your work to date?
If I try and look at my artworks from outside, as someone seeing them for the first time, I suppose the viewer might notice some of the following things … The works are paintings, not drawn or modelled in 3D. And this guy seems fairly competent as a painter. Well, I’ve painted throughout my life. I graduated in Fine Art from Central St. Martins, London in 1996. Since then I’ve done many further courses or painted alongside other painters to strengthen my skills – tonal painting, portrait-painting, using glazes, sight-size portraiture. I see myself as a realist
figurative painter but I always keep Richard Diebenkorn in mind for that possibility of also making abstract paintings as well as realistic ones. And of course even my paintings from life are composed abstractly, with a lot of juggling of the shapes around the canvas. Of course I can and do draw, but painting is my strong suit.
I suppose a viewer would notice that my paintings are usually of individual people or objects. These days I’m concentrating on painting people or objects from life. I seem to catch my sitters in isolated meditative poses. I paint best from life. In a way all my paintings are portraits, whether of people or things around me; they’re usually still and meditative. I paint both men and women, but I’ve done a lot of paintings of guys, trying to see inside them and sense how they are trying to work out being a guy in a time and societies that pose a lot of questions to us men. I try and look at everything I paint with respect and compassion.
I’m interested in how 'what is put out there and made public' combines with the encoded and very private. The interior life of persons or objects. But I’d also like to return more to painting places, buildings or landscapes, in the future.
Other than these general points, almost everything I could say about my paintings could at once be contradicted. For example some paintings are enormous (a 2m x 1.5 m portrait of my mobile phone), some very small. Sometimes I paint very fast, other pieces take me months of endless refinements. I’m very into juicy colour but sometimes I work with a very muted limited palette. I’ve exhibited and sold quite a lot locally in London. I submit to national painting prizes – with variable success … I’ve had portraits long-listed, e.g. for the BP Award 2015. I’d like to get more recognition for my portraits, and for my bigger, composed paintings, like my ‘Victims and Suspects #2’ (2017, H1.5 x W1.6m, oil on canvas), a portrait of 6-7 studio objects but with indirect wider reference to the events of the year.
The world of professional British portrait painting can be a bit airless – a stuffy room. Good to open some windows and doors.
Which artists inspire your work, and do you feel they too are portrait artists? Do you even regard yourself as a portrait artist?
I’m not someone who needs to look for inspiration, everything around is food for painting.
Other artists, great artists or new artists … it’s easy to be blown around and influenced into doing a Hockney, a Paula Rego when we come back from an exhibition. Though I’m not sure about our present cult of artist-genius blockbusters - even Goya can paint badly on an off-day (and Manet definitely). If we are rooted in our own practice we won’t be blown off-course, just enriched or irritated or intrigued, whatever. All of that can then refine or modify or enlarge what we ourselves do as artists.
Of course I look at artists who’ve done portraits, not just professional portraitists like Sargent but also others whose portraits were just one area of their many kinds of paintings – like Titian, El Greco, Max Beckmann. I’ve studied with interest the great Spanish still life painters, Byzantine icons, and how exactly a Bonnard paint surface or a Bridget Riley is made – it’s all grist to our mill. Who you keep company with artistically comes out in your own artworks.
I remember one of my St Martin’s tutors asking me ‘Do you think you might be a portraitist?’ which hadn’t occurred to me before. So sometimes I describe myself as one but really it’s just one of the kinds of artwork I’ve been interested in making, over the years. But yes, a very strong interest.
I think if you asked this question to Velázquez,
he couldn’t have predicted Picasso or Dalí
In our current turbulent world, how do you feel portraiture fits into the current artistic and cultural climate?
The portrait is a bit of an odd fish as an artwork in that the subject feels it partly belongs to them. When I texted a model/friend that I’d sold one of his/our portraits, the message flashed back ‘Where’s my royalties bro’ (Answer: ‘Tight in my sealed wallet, bro’).
The idea of portrait commissions can be a tricky one. I tend to paint portraits of models I’ve got to know or friends. So the area of commissioned portraits, of ‘I’d like you to repaint the mouth, you’ve made me look bad-tempered’, of a price for a particular size of portrait, all that can seem an artistic cul-de-sac, a backwater cut off from mainstream art preoccupations about issues of culture, politics or philosophy or gender etc.
So it’s good to look outside at what portraits are being made in other countries or modes, outside the white British upper-middle-class family or institutional portrait niche. The world of professional British portrait painting can be a bit airless – a stuffy room. Good to open some windows and doors. I don’t think portrait-painting is irrelevant to current art any more than physically constructing an artwork is more retro than a digital work or an installation. It’s still a valid mode.
As a follow up? Facebook, selfie culture, the public and the private? As an artist, what are your views on these elements, and does this change your artistic practice?
I think I’ve mostly answered this already in the above. In the sense that Facebook and selfie culture put a lot of emphasis on me-me-me or looking at you-you-you, the portrait fits well into this looking at images or projections of individual people. So we portraitists are not so way off trend. ‘Portraits’ can look dated or hackneyed, but the figure-paintings that Jenny Saville and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye produce are right in there with all the other visual stuff we are engaged with now.
How does it feel being a part of an exhibition with such a range of international artists?
Always good to be with other artists and an international mix. Although people often seem to think of me as very English when they meet me, I feel more comfortable in a mixed scenario. Even though from a distance our work might look ‘very British’ it’s not good to close ourselves inside a narrow club, it can get a bit sterile. Better to open ourselves up to mixed influences and cross-fertilisation. If what comes out then still seems to others ‘very English’, that’s just how it has come out naturally, we haven’t closed ourselves up deliberately to keep it that way.
Hardest question, and one I've asked everyone I've interviewed. What do you think the future of art is? What comes next? And if you had infinite resources and time, what would you add to that future art?
I think if you asked this question to Velázquez, he couldn’t have predicted Picasso or Dalí, but he would have been well aware that his own stuff wasn’t at all like medieval painting. So maybe it’s none of our business, not our concern what future art will be like. That there will be art in the future, while the human race survives and hangs on in there, I think we can be sure. Always, some people feel the urge to make art, to create art or music or film or performance. And there’s always an audience, other people are curious to see it or hear it or watch it, because they know it’s about them even if indirectly – though different societies have different levels of access to it. But what exactly the forms of art will be in the future, there’s no predicting. I think artists are generally concerned with the immediate future rather than far ahead, so we keep
creating things that seem to us better or more relevant or more powerful than what’s around us at present or in the recent past.
Personally, I just keep painting.