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A new face of art

A new face of art

It may not gather the crowds in quite the same way as a da Vinci show, yet the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition remains a highlight of the artistic calendar and a magnificent celebration of talent, dedication and creativity.

The 55 works on display this year – shortlisted from thousands – represent an array of techniques and traditions, from astonishing photorealism to dazzling abstracts achieved with haphazard yet meticulously applied brushstrokes. Some are playful – the motorcyclists, formally grouped like a menacing school photograph – while others are dreamlike, such as Abe Odedina’s striking self-portrait with a manifestation of Frido Kahlo beside him.

Aureta Thomoliari at Fashion Week by Vincent Giarrano (c) Vincent Giarrano

Some are small, personal studies; others vast canvases groaning with paint. The sitters are young, old, famous, ordinary. They interrogate you: what, or who, are you looking at? A larger-than-life Noam Chomsky glares out from Raoul Martinez’s terrifyingly faithful portrait. All are engaging, all make you want to know more about the person.
And then, too, there is the extra detail that reveals so much: the schoolbag slung on the floor in Blaise Smith’s snapshot of a home economics class; the cards flying through the air in Agnes Toth’s triple-portrait The Magician; the undrunk tea in front of the gossiping hair salon client.

For perseverance, points go to David Caldwell, for 77 miniatures of the men, women and children that make up his wider network. How does he know each? What stories do they share? Are they familiar with their neighbour on the canvas? It’s almost like an artistic rendering of six degrees of separation.


Heterochrome by Greg Kapka (c) Greg Kapka

Then there is the annual travel prize, which celebrates portraiture not just of the individual but of a community, a place, an alien existence (the 2011 winner offered a window on the world of the indigenous people of Cuzco in Peru).

Work by the winner of last year’s prize, Carl Randall, who journeyed through Japan in the footsteps of a 19th century woodcut artist, is fascinating; especially the black and white studies that bring the urgency of Japanese urban existence to life in vivid colour. His paintings – sushi, shoes, glorious vistas being ignored by people on the phone – deftly record the tension between rural and urban, modern and traditional, and even east and west.

Sushi by Carl Randall

Now in its 34th year, the critics may dispute whether, as the Evening Standard complained, the portraitists are truly managing to say “something which adds to” the canon of portraiture. But to the lay viewer, there is no denying that these are complex, skilfully completed paintings that display in the most basic sense what a gifted individual can achieve.

Will you admire every portrait, or agree with the chosen winner? Probably not, but such is the magic of this exhibition. It concerns more than one artist, more than one genre: it is about celebrating those who through their craft and perception make the world a more interesting place.

The Portrait Award 2013 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 September (ph 020 7306 0055,